Students help nonprofits spread the word about their efforts

UWM students were part of an unusual service-learning project that paired them with nonprofit agencies to help improve those organizations’ communications.

Among the lessons students learned, according to their instructor, was that creating persuasive arguments and effective communication is even more challenging in the “real world” than in college courses.

“We wanted to connect the theories they were learning in class to the real world,” said Leslie Harris, associate professor of communication, who worked with Laurie Marks, executive director of UWM’s Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership and Research, to identify organizations that would appreciate the help.

“All of these organizations are doing great things,” Harris said. “They just needed help with outreach, particularly with social media.” The class – Argument Theory and Practice – is in the Department of Communication and a part of the Rhetorical Leadership Certificate.

The organizations represented a cross-section of Milwaukee-area community services.

Doctoral student Hilary Rasmussen was interested in environmental issues, but didn’t appreciate the scientific issues behind contaminated beaches until she and fellow doctoral student Josh Miller helped the Milwaukee Health Department create messages to increase public awareness.

Allen Sells, a graduate student, worked with families and youth programs at the Sojourner Family Peace Center to create a white paper about the impact of domestic violence on families and public schools.

Marnie McDonough and Ben Baker, both also doctoral students, helped the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth create a social media plan.

Ronnie Johnson and Derrick Langston, doctoral students in communication, wrote blog posts on issues of race in Wisconsin for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The class was held during the fall semester, but many of the students volunteered to finish their projects or continue working with their organizations.

“Theories of communication can teach us how to connect and persuade,” said Harris, “but the students found that social media intensive communication created some challenges.” Some students used more photos or emotional appeals to convey their messages, she explained, and other students were challenged to connect with and persuade audiences using 140 characters in a tweet.

Coming into an organization for 20 hours over a semester and trying to learn its culture and operations also presented difficulties, said McDonough of her work with Baker at the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth.

“The tasks remained the same as what was set out for us in our meetings with the co-executive directors. However, the execution was a bit different because we faced some challenges due to our lack of institutional knowledge,” McDonough said

For example, she and Baker discovered that because the agency works with young people, there were legal issues with getting permissions to use names and photos in their social media campaign.

Rasmussen and Miller found that focusing communication about ways to protect beaches was critical because so many complex issues were involved.

Students learned a great deal about communication as well as about the Milwaukee community and its organizations, Harris said.

McDonough was drawn to working with the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth because she has a 3-year-old daughter and a background in marketing. Learning about the center’s work was “eye opening and heart wrenching.”

“The organization has excellent programs and initiatives and plans that can be put into place to do some incredible things for the community, but like a lot of nonprofits, the center is in need of support – specifically volunteers and of course, donors.”

Sells brought experience from working with youth agencies in Florida to bear on the white paper.

“I felt I had something to add to this project in my familiarity with traumatic experiences and how they impact child and teen development. I was pleased that the people at Sojourner Truth appeared willing to let me run with the subject of my paper.”

Some students are continuing with projects because they fit well with their own goals. Jacob Kay, who is working on a graduate certificate in applied gerontology offered through the Center for Aging and Translational Research, continues to work with TimeSlips — a creative storytelling program that fosters artful expression in those living with memory loss.

While most of the nonprofits don’t have the time and money to do all the communications they need, students said they were able to make a difference.

“There’s more to be done, but it’s really important work,” Rasmussen said of her time with the health department. “We are really encouraged that what we produced could make a citywide and regional impact.”

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