UCLA in the Community

Entrepreneurial spirit fuels students’ work in social justice

Two receive Rishwain award for their innovative approach to helping impoverished people

Ryan Brennan, Brian Rishwain and Connor Johnson
Stan Paul/UCLA

Brian Rishwain, who funds the social justice entrepreneur awards named after him, is flanked by two winners, dental student Ryan Brennan (left) and urban planning graduate student Connor Johnson.

UCLA dental student Ryan Brennan made an important connection that made it possible for 200-plus patients to get dental care they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Brennan connected two Los Angeles-area nonprofit clinics, operated by Homeless Not Toothless and MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity), with UCLA dental students who started to volunteer in the monthly clinics. As a result, more than 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. Faculty members also volunteered to supervise the students working in the clinics. Most importantly, the clinic sessions will continue under the auspices of the UCLA ASDA Community Service Committee after Brennan graduates . 

“It’s an amazing feeling to be recognized for all of the hard work I’ve put into these clinics,” Brennan said.

Brennan and urban planning student Connor Johnson, who has a similar passion to help people living in poverty, are two UCLA students selected to receive the Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Award presented by the UCLA Luskin Center for Civil Society. Each year for the past five years, the award, which is funded by entrepreneur and UCLA alumnus Brian Rishwain, has been given to 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,” said Rishwain, who presented the awards today at ceremonies at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His hope is that it will encourage more outstanding examples of social change and innovation by UCLA students. 

Johnson, the other student awardee, is the founder of social enterprise Would-Works, which gives men and women living on skid row the chance to earn money for a specific goal.

Johnson had been working with impoverished people since his year of service with AmeriCorps in 2009. Many of the people he met on Los Angeles skid row would tell him, “I would work if I could.” So Johnson 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. After training in wood-working, they become Would-Works artisans to hand-finish and package wood products, like cutting boards, that can be sold. When they have worked enough hours (one hour is worth 10 credits, and a credit is worth $1), Would-Works gives them a check to be used toward that initial need and provides a certificate showing that the artisans have demonstrated basic work skills.

The two recipients of this year’s award will be receiving $5,000 each — double the amount given in previous years.

“The [Rishwain] award is a great acknowledgment of the work we have done so far and affirms my commitment to continue to grow Would-Works,” Johnson said. He plans to expand his current charter to serve more people as well as broaden the product line and increase 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 added.

Brennan said the award will help him to continue finding ways to improve dental treatment for those in need.  After completing his residency at the University of Florida in endodontics, he plans 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,” the dental student said.

Previous winners have included African studies alumna Krista Barnes, who produced a humanitarian film and media project to encourage and empower Congolese refugees to return home; law student May Thi Nguyen, who 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; and education graduate student Lawrence Grey Berkowitz, who reinvented a music class to help keep arts in low-income neighborhood schools.

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

A version of this story is posted on the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs website.

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