Faculty, staff give back to the community through volunteer work
From the Sept. 25, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin
Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs, studies decision-making in situations of conflict and uncertainty. He is especially interested in how low-income families make financial decisions.
As a member of the board of trustees of Isles, a not-for-profit organization that helps foster family self-reliance in the Trenton area, Shafir has shared ideas from his academic work that have substantially improved Isles’ programs.
“He brings a wealth of psychological insights and cutting-edge research, and we’ve applied that research to what we’re trying to change on the ground,” said Martin Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Isles and a member of Princeton’s class of 1981. “He has an important capacity to bridge the intellectual and the practical.”
Shafir has helped Isles redesign its financial literacy program, which aids families in establishing savings accounts, cleaning up their credit and seeking mortgages.
“Shafir sits down with our staff and participates in the planning of the program,” Johnson said. “His insights expose the logic behind what is often seen as illogical decision-making,” such as why low-income families often feel distrustful of banks. Shafir, who has served on Isles’ board for the last three years, also helped develop rigorous systems for evaluating the programs, so Isles can track families’ financial status when they enter the program and when they leave. Shafir’s involvement with Isles “started as a mix of academic interest and the desire to be more involved” with the area’s poor neighborhoods, particularly in Trenton, Shafir said.
His contributions at Isles have been invaluable. “His work has improved our outcomes,” Johnson said.
Across Princeton’s campus, many members of the faculty and staff volunteer their time with not-for-profit organizations, some with local groups and others with national and international organizations. Much of that work consists of service on boards, where Princeton employees can offer expertise in everything from Russian culture to fund-raising strategies. In many cases the agencies benefit from the skills these staffers have honed on the job at Princeton.
“Responsible board service is as important a kind of volunteering as hands-on work in a soup kitchen,” pointed out Daniel Rodgers, the Henry Lea Professor of History, who is chair of the board of Mercer Street Friends, a social service agency in Trenton.
Barry Cole, the executive director of Mercer Street Friends, said that Rodgers’ leadership is crucial to the agency. “What he brings more than anything else is a thoughtful and rational approach to dealing with the issues of the agency,” Cole said. “He helps people come together about how to proceed, and that’s critical to an agency like ours.”
Michele Minter, who is director of development for individual and institutional giving, is a trustee of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, which administers grants in a variety of areas. Minter serves on a committee that selects grant recipients for a fund that supports women and girls. She also is a board member at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Princeton Committee.
Serving as a volunteer has helped Minter with her work in development, and her professional skills have aided her in her volunteer work, she said.
“Being a volunteer is very relevant to my work at Princeton, since development uses volunteers a great deal as part of the fund-raising process,” Minter said. “Having the experience of being a volunteer for other organizations has taught me a lot about how important it is to use volunteer time well, and how much commitment it takes to be a volunteer. I use my Princeton fund-raising and strategic-planning experience constantly at both the Community Foundation and the Legal Defense Fund.”
Activities like fund raising may not be as hands-on as teaching algebra to youngsters, but they are critical to the survival of not-for-profit organizations. Hendrik Hartog, the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty, is a member of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, where one of his roles is raising money. “Fund raising is the least fun but perhaps the most important part of the work,” he said.
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology, brings her skills as a teacher to the men who are incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, where she has taught three college-level courses since 2003.
“Volunteer work is hard,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “When done, it should conform to standards of solidarity, not benevolence.”
While many staff members have made their contributions in Mercer County, several have worked on volunteer projects with an international scope. Nina Gorky Shapiro, the Russian and Eurasian studies bibliographer in the University library, is on the board of directors of the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, which teaches orphans how to take care of themselves, provides them with educational opportunities and works to eradicate prejudice against them.
Shapiro was drawn to the organization through a Princeton connection. The group was started by Georgia Williams, a 1993 alumnus, whom Shapiro taught Russian when she was an instructor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Shapiro is working on fund raising for the group and hopes to visit their facilities on a trip to Russia next spring. Her knowledge of Russian history and of attitudes toward orphans gives her a special understanding of the work the organization does.
“I was looking for a Russian organization to volunteer with,” she said. “Because I know the language and the historical context of Russia, I think this is where I can do my best work and be the most helpful.”
Marjorie Young, who is the director of Community House, enjoys volunteer work where she gets her hands dirty — literally. She has traveled to Morocco to work at a home for abandoned children, where she removed rocks to prepare the ground for farming, painted classrooms and worked on arts and crafts with the children. She also went to Guatemala to help build and stock a clinic in Tzununa. Young selects volunteer projects where she can bring along her children.
“It is important to me that they be exposed to the idea of serving others at an early age,” she said.
Back in Princeton, Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, serves as an elder at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. She and other congregants help serve dinner to homeless families several times a year. “This opportunity to provide hands-on service helps me understand the special challenges young mothers and young families face,” she said. “It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the outcomes of our educational and social policies. For all the wealth around us, families in Mercer and Middlesex counties and in central New Jersey have so many unmet needs.”