5th Annual Rishwain Award Recognizes Innovation in Social Justice Work

One of the things UCLA Alumnus Brian Rishwain ’87 finds rewarding is getting to honor and validate students doing important work.

That’s why he has given for the past five years to fund the Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Award presented by the UCLA Luskin Center for Civil Society. The award recognizes two UCLA students who demonstrate an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to social justice work.

“Knowing how special this recognition is in inspiring these students to forge ahead is most fulfilling,” Rishwain says. His hope is that it will encourage more outstanding examples of social change and innovation by UCLA students.

Rishwain, a successful entrepreneur and former attorney, has always been passionate about social justice. In addition to creating the award, he’s also been active in helping underserved communities.

Rishwain says recognizing students and learning about the creative things they are doing to serve communities around the world has also inspired him and given him joy.

Take the previous winners, for example. African Studies alumna Krista Barnes produced a humanitarian film and media project to encourage and empower Congolese refugees to return home; Law student May Thi Nguyen helped build a coalition of advocates to aid commercial fisherman in her hometown of New Orleans in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Education graduate student Lawrence Grey Berkowitz came up with a reinvented music class to help keep arts in low-income neighborhood schools; and Betzabel Estudillo, as a social welfare student, helped provide mental health services and support for undocumented students and youth who suffer from anxiety, depression and substance abuse stemming from their legal status.

“Incredible,” says Rishwain. “It has made me want to continue to grow the award to have a larger and larger impact on the recipients and their causes.”

The two recipients of this year’s award will be receiving $5,000 each – double the amount in previous years. And that award is well-deserved by this year’s impressive winners: dentistry student Ryan T. Brennan and Urban Planning student Connor Johnson.

Dentistry student Ryan T. Brennan

Ryan Brennan was selected for his work connecting nonprofit clinics, Homeless Not Toothless and MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity), withUCLA dental students to provide monthly clinic sessions free of charge. Over 520 dental procedures for 232 needy patients were donated over the past year.

Brennan’s exemplary entrepreneurial work resulted in the clinic sessions being added to the UCLA School of Dentistry curriculum, and faculty members volunteering to cover the students working in the clinics. Most importantly, the clinic sessions will continue after Brennan graduates as part of the UCLA ASDA Community Service Committee.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be recognized for all of the hard work I’ve put into these clinics,” Brennan says. He found out about the award from a dentistry school email, and was drawn in by the social justice element.

Brennan says the award will help him to continue finding ways to improve dental treatment for those in need. His plan, after completing his residency at the University of Florida in endodontics, is to run a nonprofit that provides dental care to those who can’t afford it.

“This award really helps to show the rewards of working in social justice and finding new ways to improve health care for those who need it,” he says.

Urban Planning student Connor Johnson has a similar desire to help men and women who are living in poverty or are homeless. His win recognizes his work as founder of social enterprise Would-Works, which gives men and women living on Skid Row the chance to earn money for a specific goal.

Urban Planning student Connor T. JohnsonJohnson had been working with people living in poverty since his year of service with AmeriCorps in 2009. He noted that many of the people he met on Skid Row would say, “I would work if I could.” He decided to give them that chance.

Through Would-Works, individuals with immediate needs, like a pair of glasses, can come in and set goals to earn money for it.  The individual is trained in wood-working, then becomes a Would-Works artisan hand-finishing and packaging wood products, like cutting boards, that can be sold. When the individual has worked enough hours (one hour is worth ten credits, and a credit is worth one dollar), Would-Works gives him or her a check to be used toward that initial need, and provides a certificate showing that the individual has demonstrated basic work skills.

Johnson applied for the Rishwain award when a friend saw a flyer with the words “social justice” and “entrepreneurship” and suggested that Would-Works would be a good fit.

“The award is a great acknowledgment of the work we have done so far and affirms my commitment to continue to grow Would-Works,” Johnson says of  the honor. He plans to expand his current charter to serve more people. This includes expanding the product line and increasing retail presence.

“My vision for Would-Works in the future is to have charters in multiple U.S. cities and continue to empower men and women to move out of homelessness or maintain housing,” Johnson adds.

The 5th Annual Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Awards is Tuesday, May 13 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, 3rd Floor Terrace.

The keynote speaker is Tanya Tull, president & CEO of Partnering for Change. The event is open to all UCLA students, faculty, staff and guests. Lunch will be provided.


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