March 28, 2017; The Oregonian
If you think back to your high school years, do you recall any formative experiences with nonprofits? I remember saving a lot of aluminum cans for causes near and far, but the growing clutter became a source of ongoing frustration for some key family members. It is much less common, however, for high school students to have experience managing a successful nonprofit organization, particularly one focused on one of the most closely watched issues of today: immigration.
Mission: Citizen is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit established by a group of six high school students who decided to use their knowledge of U.S. government and the citizenship process to form a citizenship education program. After eight years, it is getting some impressive results.
Formed by members of the Lincoln High School Constitution Team, Mission: Citizen has found its place. The organization’s education program is structured around a free eight-week citizenship class taught in libraries throughout Portland. The organization’s website notes that together “the instructors are able to speak Spanish, French, German, Korean, Russian, and Mandarin” and they use these skills “to ensure students fully understand concepts while keeping in mind that competence in English is essential to passing the exam.” Commenting on his teaching experience, Danny Cohen, a senior at Lincoln High School and executive director of Mission: Citizen, noted in an email how impressive it is that many of these individuals “come straight from long work days using crowded public transportation during rush hour.”
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As nonprofit leaders everywhere know, balancing an organization’s mission and its plans for the future is challenging work, but for Mission: Citizen, a grant award last fall from State Farm Insurance in the amount of $49,970 is a strong indication that they are on the right track. In an email, Cohen explained that he got the idea to apply for the grant because the organization had recently been awarded a grant of $6,500 from NobleCause and he and his colleagues wanted to build on that successful concept and also to learn more about the process of submitting grant applications. He added that he and the organization’s media director, David Charatan, “never thought for a moment” they would receive a call saying their $49,970 proposal would be funded in full. Cohen and his colleagues now plan to use the funds to expand their advertising on radio and in local newspapers, to purchase computers for students, and to add to their scholarship reserve to help their students offset the $725 naturalization fee.
A key component to Mission: Citizen’s success has been that four of its six original founders have stayed involved as active board members and now bring new professional work experience to the organization. The organization also has a clear organizational structure that includes three cabinet positions (a business director, media director and education director) and an executive director. Cohen explained that each of the four positions is filled through an election process and each elected “official” serves for one calendar year, after which they either leave for college or can run again for another administrative position.
As Cohen himself looks to move beyond high school next year, he now has some valuable experience about the nonprofit sector to take with him wherever he goes. As an example, he cites “the balance between institutional grants and grassroots funding.” He elaborated in an email: “The former is a time-consuming gamble, and if it pays off, there are still restrictions and the latter generally provides fewer dollars, but those that come in are free to be used for any initiative.” Also, he has now seen proof of the adage “there is no substitute for publicity.”
Finally, he has also has gained some first-hand insight on some of the frustrations that immigrants experience, such as a woman who he met in a class who had recently lost her husband and had to pay two fees for naturalization because the agency lost her initial application. “I truly could not believe that she was out here every week, attending our classes and working toward citizenship, despite the flurry of saddening events that had recently occurred in her life,” he said.—Anne Eigeman