Senior uses CSO grant to promote nonviolence to inner-city children

| Senior News Editor

In the 1920s, aikido emerged as a Japanese martial art designed to allow practitioners to defend themselves by channeling the force of an attack in a different direction and leaving their opponents unharmed.

When Washington University senior Jacob Siegel first began studying aikido last October while abroad in Paris, he recognized in its pacifist philosophy a potential for social change.

“In aikido, there is never that goal of injuring someone else or hurting my body in order to achieve a certain goal,” Siegel said. “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to take aikido to teach kids about nonviolence?’”

What started as a mere idea became a six-week-long summer program called Inner City, Inner Peace at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club in St. Louis involving two professional aikido instructors, 25 children from the city and Siegel himself.

“It was a concept to use nonviolent art to talk about nonviolence,” Siegel said.

Siegel stressed the importance of teaching and promoting nonviolence to younger age groups, because “when you’re older and you’re in a violent situation, it’s almost too late.”

To help bring his plan into action, Siegel needed funding. He applied for the Stern Social Change Grant offered through the Community Service Office (CSO).

Siegel drafted a proposal and connected with local organizations and individuals he believed would be interested in collaborating on the project. His hard work paid off. After a competitive selection process, Siegel received the $6,000 from the grant, which he used to pay the expenses for starting up the project and for the summer’s room and board in St. Louis.

“One of the biggest purchases was gym mats. You’d be surprised how much nice gym mats cost,” he said.

Although Siegel paid the two other aikido instructors, the amount was so small that “it was much more like volunteer work.”

Siegel himself made no salary from the summer, and he paid some of the program expenses from his own pocket. Despite the disadvantage of not being paid, Siegel said he had an invaluable experience that gave him a new perspective.

“I gained experience in the non-profit field, searched for a grant and did some serious networking,” he said. “I also gained a perspective on how much more work is left to be done.”

This is precisely what the Social Change Grant program organizers hope students will take from the overall experience, said Stephanie Kurtzman, director of the CSO.

Kurtzman also emphasized that Siegel’s grant was hard-won money.

“It’s a competitive process and requires rigorous preparation. Applicants need to have already done the footwork, having identified their mentors and made contacts in the community,” Kurtzman said. “It’s really saying, ‘The only thing that stands between me and this project is the funding.’”

A selection committee of University faculty and staff members determine the winning proposals in a paper review process that first singles out the students the committee is interested in speaking with further. Given the number of available grants, only a handful of these prospectives go on to become finalists.

The finalists are then required to give a presentation during which they also answer questions from the selection committee. Kurtzman calls this time “engaging in a conversation” about the project’s viability, sustainability and how it will have an important community impact.

Each year, the CSO typically receives around 25 proposals.

“And those are people who stayed with the process,” Kurtzman said.

Siegel’s proposal and presentation was one that especially impressed the committee, according to Kurtzman.

“His preparation was stellar. He had a really thoughtful concept, and it was complete in the sense that he had incorporated many different layers into the project,” she said. “He was also extremely polished in presentation and had a solid community partnership.”

Although the majority of applicants are turned down, Kurtzman said the application process is still beneficial because it educates and prepares students for writing proposals and organizing social change projects in the future. The CSO provides applicants with workshops and individual mentors and also guides them toward other helpful resources on campus.

“This is a friendlier process than the way it works in the real world,” Kurtzman said. “You’re nurtured along the way.”

“It is inspiring to see these people with big dreams for changing the world and the capacity for making it happen.”

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