The 2011 Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize winners received their awards on the Grinnell College campus on October 25, 2011.
The 2011 winners are:
- Boris Bulayev, co-founder and executive director, and Eric W. Glustrom, co-founder and president of Educate! (shared award);
- James Kofi Annan, founder and president of Challenging Heights; and
- Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, founding executive director emeritus of Encounter.
>> RAYNARD S. KINGTON:
Good Evening, as President of Grinnell College, I am pleased to welcome you to the first presentation of the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize.
The Grinnell Prize was created by a passionate group representing our trustees, staff, alumni, and student body. As we begin the program, I thank each of you who helped make tonight possible. From those who first embraced the idea of a prize, to those who evaluated hundreds of nominees' applications, to those that handled the myriad details of this presentation.
We stand here in the presence of some of the world’s most remarkable young minds in the innovative social change. We are pleased to recognize them and celebrate them, and it is fitting that we do so. Their passion for making the world a better place is clearly aligned with Grinnell’s history, mission, and core beliefs, all of which are rooted in serving the common good.
Helping our students prepare to change the world for the better is one of Grinnell’s most indelible strengths. Grinnell began 165 years ago when some New Englanders with a strong bent for social reform came to Iowa and founded Iowa College in Davenport. A short time later in 1859, the College moved to Grinnell, which at the time was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Grinnell College is now one of the great liberal arts colleges of this country, in no small part because of its underlying values.
Our College’s history is replete with examples of students and alumni working to affect positive social change. I will just give you three examples: One, Grinnell’s social consciousness blossomed during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency when graduates such as Harry Hopkins became influential New Deal administrators. In 1961, a delegation of Grinnell’s students traveled to Washington to demonstrate in front of the White House in support of President Kennedy’s proposed Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, an act that lead to the beginning of the modern student peace movement. And even today, Grinnell has consistently ranked among the top colleges in deploying our graduates as Peace Corps volunteers.
Grinnell is quite intentional about encouraging students to desire and seek positive social change. We integrate the pursuit of social justice into our classrooms, our curricula, and our lives. For example, Grinnell’s Expanding Knowledge Initiative has introduced curricular innovations in the student of the environment and human rights and human dignity. Our Social Justice Action Group works to fight hunger, promote volunteerism, and build understanding. The Joseph F. Wall Alumni Service Awards offer financial support to Grinnell alumni who engage in projects, programs, and organizations that are dedicated to improving the lives of others. Through our Liberal Arts In Prison Program, students, faculty, and staff engage imprisoned adults in liberal arts courses. The Grinnell Corps gives graduating seniors the opportunity to work in education, conservation, and anti-poverty pursuits in the United States, China, Lesotho, Thailand, and Namibia.
Because our history and current work is steeped in the pursuit of social justice, it is fitting that we recognize those who are creating a better world by innovating and affecting social change and that we encourage other young innovators to do the same — this year, next year, and the year after that.
Tonight we honor four young innovators representing three organizations. Each is under the age of 40 and was selected from a pool of more than 1,000 nominations representing 66 countries and an incredible range of issues: hunger relief, disaster relief and accountability, childhood education, economic development and environment, urban agriculture, literacy, youth arts, fair housing, violence prevention, immigration, GLBTQ, restorative justice, healthcare, children’s mental health, and global peace just to name a few.
This year’s winners were chosen for their leadership, their creativity, their commitment and their extraordinary accomplishment. They truly embody the College’s mission to serve the common good and they are inspiring examples, seeing a huge social need and then working creatively to meet that need. Each winning entry receives $100,000. Half goes to the individual or individuals and half to the organizations the winners designate in collaboration with the College. In total, Grinnell College is awarding $300,000 in prize monies this year.
I am so incredibly impressed by our prize winners’ vision, their creativity, and their leadership. I think you will be as well.
To introduce and confer the awards upon this year’s winners are Laura Ferguson, Class of 1990 who is on our Board of Trustees and served on this year’s Grinnell Prize selection committee and former Grinnell College President, George Drake, Class of 1956, who chaired the selection committee.
Laura and George.
>> LAURA FERGUSON:
Thank you President Kington. I too am humbled to stand here tonight introducing you to four outstanding young innovators for social justice. On behalf of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees and as a member of the Grinnell College Alumni, I would like to congratulate our winners and welcome all of our guests to campus.
In addition to the $100,000 prize, former Grinnell College President George Drake will present each prize winner with a laurel, the emblem of Grinnell College and the traditional symbol of honor that is bestowed on great scholars, poets, and heroes. Tonight Grinnell honors heroes in the fight for social justice.
In addition, we will present each one with an original oil painting by Tilly Woodward, Grinnell’s curator of academic community outreach at Faulconer Gallery. Tilly’s work has been exhibited in nearly 200 museums and galleries nationwide as well as in corporate and private collections. Her art has an uncanny ability to evoke emotion surrounding a specific issue. More about these particular works is available in your program.
Now I am pleased to introduce you to our award winners.
Thirty-seven year old James Kofi Annan has lived through events most of us can't imagine. When he was six years old, his financially desperate parents sold him to child traffickers. For seven years, he worked long hours in the fishing industry of Ghana’s Lake Volta, moving from one fishing village to another, never being paid, never learning to read or write until he escaped at age 13. He returned home and borrowed school books from kindergartners and taught himself to read. To pay for food and school, he farmed, fished, and plugged mangos and coconuts. The rainy season was tough, James’ usual sources of income vanished, and he would go house to house asking for menial tasks for pay. At times he'd go for days without food.
Even so, James ultimately earned his degree in psychology from the University of Ghana, a master’s in communication and media studies from the University of Education in Ghana and a job as a manager at Barclays Bank of Ghana. In 2003, James invested more than half of his income to found Challenging Heights and open an evening school which helps motivate children to get an education and prevent their being enslaved. In 2006, he added a vocational school. In 2007, James began working with Challenging Heights full-time and opened a school in his home town. Last year he opened a school to serve the unique needs of nearly 400 rescued child slaves and other vulnerable children.
Challenging Heights also teaches families and communities about their individual rights. It helps them find alternative sources of income, training, and other benefits that help keep families together. The organization is dismantling Ghana’s child slave industry by mobilizing communities, pressuring local and national government, and introducing and helping implement new laws and policies that safeguard children. Soon James will open a shelter for 60 rescued children where they will get the love and support they need to transition back to their families and their communities.
For his remarkable efforts to innovate and enact long term change for Ghana’s children, we are privileged to present tonight’s first Grinnell Prize to James Kofi Annan.
>> JAMES KOFI ANNAN:
Thank you very much and these are a few of the very humbling moments in my life when I have to stand on a platform like this and receive award that I believe I receive on behalf of the numerous children that I am privileged to serve. It is interesting sometimes how children allow you the opportunity to serve them, and by so doing, they open such doors for you, and you become hero to us there. In their villages we are looking for small (inaudible) for a day.
It has been a long time come, it has been several years of perseverance, and I believe that this another opportunity to tell the world that child slavery will end one day. Because with this award and with the resources that come with it and with the impact on civility in communities and in the world, I believe that this opens another door for child slavery to end again. We know that slavery was eradicated several years ago. In our time, we have seen modern day slavery, and I believe with this effort and with this solidarity, we once again will end slavery.
Thank you very much for this honor.
>> LAURA FERGUSON: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged since before the state of Israel was created in 1948. Effort after effort to diffuse tensions and violence have had little success.
Enter 36-year-old Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, whose lifelong desire to promote human dignity and justice for marginalized populations led to the creation of Encounter, an organization that’s succeeding where others have failed.
Here is how: While she was a Harvard University student and as a lifelong Zionist and peace builder, Melissa traveled to Israel to learn Hebrew. Despite all the barriers she has faced as a young Jewish woman, she sought to understand Palestinian perspectives on the conflict. She was profoundly affected by what she learned and became convinced that the driving force of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a basic information gap among decision makers. The vast majority of high level American-Jewish leaders have neither met a Palestinian face to face, nor visited Palestinian areas of the West Bank.
Melissa believed that if key American-Jewish leaders understood Palestinian perspectives they would redirect their funding and advocacy efforts which would have ripple effects on American and Israeli policy-making. After graduating summa cum laude, with a degree in political theory and women’s studies, she returned to Israel in 1998 to work as a Jewish-Muslim engagement coordinator at as an Israeli interfaith organization — shortly after, she helped raise funds for more than a dozen Palestinian and Israeli peace organizations.
Fast forward to 2005, Melissa — then a rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary — co-founded Encounter, an organization dedicated to giving American-Jewish leaders personal, face-to-face exposure to Palestinian life. Today, Encounter represents the most significant non-military Jewish presence in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. It also represents the most politically and religiously diverse group to ever participate in person-to-person efforts. To date, Encounter has brought more than 1,000 American-Jewish leaders to the region — always in a way that emphasizes dialog and civility among right- and left-wing Jews as much as between Jews and Palestinians.
In addition to co-leading Encounter, Melissa was ordained as a conservative Jewish rabbi in 2006 and has served as a rabbinic fellow in the conservative communities throughout North America. She is a noted speaker and educator having taught in prestigious venues on four continents. To quote Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street, “When the book about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is written, Encounter will have a chapter.”
For her relentless and effective efforts to promote peace, we are pleased to present the Grinnell Prize to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.
>> MELISSA WEINTRAUB:
I guess all of us are going to begin with our tremendous humility in accepting this prize. It is really quite overwhelming. Not since my wedding have I had “Here Comes the Bride” music and walked across a stage.
We at Encounter, were already tremendously honored to be nominated and utterly stunned and overjoyed to be selected amongst so many extraordinary leaders and organizations. I don’t envy the selection committee at all. I think this recognition to Encounter speaks to the dire importance — really the thirst — in the face of today’s radically polarized and rancorous political culture for a better way. For a different way of engaging profound conflict in ways that affirm the dignity and humanity of all parties involved. For a way of bringing together ideologically opposed, diametrically opposed adversaries. In ways that enable them to communicate and even to collaborate in addressing problems of passionate common concern.
You heard a bit about our work from Laura and hopefully from some other sources as well. So I will just paint a bit of a concrete picture of what we do.
Imagine this: Orthodox and Reform rabbis, lead supporters of arch nemesis Israel lobbies AIPAC and J Street, national religious settlers and anti-occupation activists — all sitting down together in front of the separation barrier with a Palestinian family directly impacted by it and grappling together with what it means, with mutual listening and respect. Imagine Jewish funders of the Republican, Democratic and Likud parties, sleeping in Palestinian homes and staying up all night pouring over maps and histories. Imagine Orthodox rabbinical students praying their evening prayers in the homes of former Palestinian militants. Imagine leaders who had formerly only met on mutually demonizing op-ed pages apologizing to each other for shutting each other down. And imaging how they can actually engage in joint problem solving rather than political jockeying.
I know not all of you are daily connected to internal Jewish communal dynamics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so let me bring this home. This would be as if family values activists entered the homes of gay families to try to understand their lives better. As if pro-life and pro-choice activists sat down together to envision innovative joint projects and engagement in activism.
Encounter alumni now represent the most influential leaders of American Jewish life and as Laura said the only civilian presence that thousands of Palestinians have known in their lifetimes. We have grown in just a few short years from an audacious rabbinical student dream into becoming a force that is reshaping American Jewish involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recognized by high-level U.S. elected officials as a key missing ingredient in peace efforts.
This prize honors the unflagging Encounter team and our brave alumni and the thousands of Palestinians who took a staggering risk on us and who have made real a vision of nonviolence. A vision of peace that is not just an absence of violence but that is actually a living code that refuses to degrade any human being, but rather lifts up and advocates for everyone: Jew and Palestinian, right-winger and left-winger, perceived aggressors and victims. In the context of one of the most entrenched divisive of conflicts of the modern era, this prize honors a paradigm that turns the logic of conflict on its head.
No one is dehumanized or swept away. Everyone is worthy of empathy and of having their needs and concerns taken into account — those we sympathize with and those we don’t.
This prize honors all peace-builders and activists who are affirming all that’s best and deepest in us in helping us shape our collective destiny in the direction of our greatest hopes, rather than our greatest fears.
I really want to thank every person in this room who I know worked tirelessly to make this night happen. I already feel like I know many of you and know what a special community Grinnell is. Tilly, I want to thank you for the gorgeous painting. I feel like you saw right into the core of our work and captured it. I am really very touched by it. I want to thank every person in this room for partnering with us, recognizing the importance and the uniqueness of our vision and helping to insure that one day Israelis and Palestinians and all of us will know what it means to live in dignity and in peace.
When Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase servant leadership in 1970, he defined a servant-leader as someone who is servant first, making sure that the other people's highest priority needs are being met. What an apt description for Eric Glustrom and Boris Bulayev, tonight's final recipients of the Grinnell Prize.
Eric and Boris are both Amherst College grads; Boris is 26 years old and Eric is 27. Both are helping prepare an entire generation of Ugandans to be leaders and entrepreneurs. They are doing this through their organization Educate!
As a high school student Eric visited the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda. He left with a burning desire to help refugees break free of poverty, social injustice and other bondages. He knew education was the vehicle with which to do it. Inspired by one young refugee’s potential, he started Educate! to raise funds and to help refugees go to school. In its first year, three Ugandans benefited from Educate’s scholarship program.
Eric continued to operate Educate! through his years at Amherst College where he met Boris. Beginning in their sophomore year, they worked together to serve the highest-priority needs of young Ugandans. Both Boris and Eric graduated in 2007, Eric with a degree in biochemistry and Boris in economics.
That next summer, they focused on creating a curriculum for Educate! that would extend the organization's reach beyond refugee camps and into schools. This program would teach young Ugandans leadership and entrepreneurial skills that would not only benefit the students personally but would have a kind of ripple effect that would impact countless others. Integrating this program into schools meant navigating the complex web of domestic Ugandan ministerial politics and personalities. It required connecting with dozens of decision makers in government, non-governmental organizations and the schools themselves. Eric and Boris tackled the challenge head on.
Today, Educate! employs 43 people who work with 1400 students across Uganda. Students have already launched 415 business and community initiatives. These enterprises include a jewelry-making cooperative for widows afflicted with HIV or AIDS, a microfinance organization that supports other student initiatives, a reforestation project, and the manufacture of high-efficient stoves to reduce the nation’s dependence on firewood and charcoal. In turn, these projects have had a direct positive impact on many thousands of individuals.
Eric’s and Boris’ relentless desire to unlock the potential of African youth in order to solve problems of poverty, disease, and environmental degradation has had a tremendous impact — so much so that recently the Ugandan Ministry of Education adopted the Educate! enterprise curriculum into secondary schools throughout the nation.
It's our privilege to introduce you to Educate!'s president Eric Glustrom of Boulder, Colorado, and Educate!'s executive director Boris Bulayev of New York.
>> ERIC GLUSTROM:
So they asked us to say some thank you remarks and I think it was appropriate to start out with the story of how we found out that we were going to receive this prize. I remember it was early one morning and we were supposed to have a phone interview with Melisa and we thought it was the next round of interviews and whatnot. Boris was on the phone with her already and was waiting for me to get on the line. We had prepared our answers to what we thought might be the interview questions and whatnot.
I get on the phone and the first thing I hear is Melisa saying something like, well you know I want to say congratulations on being selected as winners of the Grinnell Social Justice Prize and she started to go on, and I think the first thing I said—I kind of interrupted her—I said, “Melisa I am pretty sure you made a mistake.” Boris followed that with…
>> BORIS BULAYEV:
…something along the lines of "I think you’re joking?" That day actually happened to be my birthday, so I asked again "Are you joking?" But then it was true.
We are incredibly honored by this — still in disbelief that we've won this, but we are just trying to enjoy the ride. It has been a real honor to be able to spend time with the Grinnell community. I think our example shows what you can actually get done from a little college dorm room project, a dorm room non-profit as a term we coined today with some Grinnell students.
I think being part of this community and being able to experience what it stands for has been really remarkable and being able to talk to one student who had this amazing business idea to basically do advertisements through browsers to raise money for non-profits, talked to the Social Entrepreneurship Group which will be Educate! size very soon. It has really made me believe that eventually the winner of this prize would be a Grinnell alum. So, we appreciate you guys inviting us in. It is really an honor.
I also wanted to make sure to thank our team in Uganda. I think often times when we draw our organizational chart we draw it upside down as to what you might consider is the standard organizational chart. It is because our mentors are actually the ones who go into the schools and work with the students one-on-one to help them start the projects and the businesses that lift themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty and solve the social and environmental challenges facing their communities. It is those mentors who are really doing the real work of the organization. We are really here to support them.
To say this with complete honesty, our team is really the ones that inspire me to continue to do this type of work. I see how much they believe in what we are doing and how much they believe in the potential of the next generation.
Of course, I want to thank a lot of our students who also inspire me and continue to keep me going forward. I really think of them as hopefully the next James Kofi Annan of Uganda. Our students from the DRC, I hope will be the next Melissa Weintraubs of the DRC and trust me the DRC is a place that needs more Melissas. I also have been inspired by James and Melissa.
Finally, they say partnerships are like marriages. That was never more true when we walked in those doors and heard the wedding music playing. Some weird alternate reality, I was like, “Are we getting married now?” It has kind of been a long day too, so just go with it.
(Bulayev places his laurel around Glustrom neck.) This is the equivalent of the ring.
So I wanted to thank Boris as well as because we were just having the same conversation with some students about how important it is to find the right people to work with and how sometimes having someone who thinks so differently than you is actually the most important and effective thing for the organization. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate our partnership, and what it has done for me in terms of my own learning and my own growth, also what it has done for the organization and therefore, the people that we are working with.
So Boris thank you, and of course thank you to Grinnell. This has been absolutely wonderful.
I am actually hoping that our college, Amherst College, will copy some of what you are doing here. I don’t know if President Kington can work on Amherst to do some similar things over on that side but ...
>> KINGTON: It's proprietary. [laughter]
>> GLUSTROM: Proprietary. I will be carrying that information with me straight to Amherst College.
Thank you very much to the Grinnell community too.
>> GEORGE DRAKE: Tonight we have met James Kofi Annan, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Eric Glustrom, and Boris Bulayev.
Incredible examples of young innovators who truly work for the common good. To learn even more about these advocates for social justice, you are invited to join us for the remainder of the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize Symposium which continues through Thursday.
I just want to add that I think you can see by the responses that we have heard tonight how important it is for our campus to meet these young people and how important it is to have the symposium going on for the rest of this week. You should all know that you are invited to the various activities that I will describe.
The symposium is co-sponsored and organized by the Rosenfield Program of Public Affairs, International Relations and Human Rights and directed by my history colleague Sarah Purcell. Sarah would you please stand.
The remainder of the week’s activities starts tomorrow with coffee and conversation with all four prize winners at 2:30 in the Forum South Lounge. For those of you not familiar with Grinnell campus, the Forum is on the other side of this sort of square in central campus.
You also will have the opportunity to hear each prize winners speak as well as Morris Dees, who is the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and this year’s keynote presenter. All four presentations will occur right here in Herrick Chapel and for those of us who are old timer’s, that is fun to say, “Right here in Herrick Chapel.” You won’t want to miss them.
Tomorrow at 4:15 James Kofi Annan will deliver his presentation called "Passion, Commitment, and Innovation: The critical success factors in community project sustainability."
Later at 8, Eric and Boris will present "Why I Quit the Basketball Team to Join Educate!: Jumping in the deep end."
On Thursday, Morris Dees will give the Scholars' Convocation titled "With Justice for All" at 11 here in this chapel.
At 4:15, Rabbi Weintraub will give her presentation called "Authentic Peace Building: A Justice That is Not Just Us."
To conclude the symposium, we will gather at 5:30 p.m. in the Bucksbaum Rotunda, and again that building if you are unfamiliar with the campus is also in this sort of rectangle buildings in central campus. There will be a reception at 5:30 on Thursday afternoon. You are all invited and we look forward to seeing you there.
Before we adjourn, I would like to again commend Laura Ferguson and the eight other members of the 2011 Grinnell Prize Selection Committee. It was a privilege for me to chair this committed group. There are members of the committee here, and if they would please stand, one is right here in front, Emily Westergaard Hamilton, Marsha Ternus is there, would you please stand. Have I missed anybody else? Monica Chavez-Silva.
They are listed in the program. You can see it is sort of a combination of Grinnell insiders and outsiders to the College. They were keeping us honest in this process.
I also want to particularly commend Melisa Chan, you saw Melisa sort of doing the grunt work back here handing us the awards to give out. Melisa arrived last year late in January. We finished our work in the selection process in April. It was a daunting process and believe me none of us on the selection committee would have been willing to undertake this process without Melisa. She somehow organized 150 people connected with Grinnell — alumni, faculty, staff, and students — to do the first screening of the candidates. Then our committee had 50 finalists to look at, so we could actually spend the time we needed to, to make these wonderful selections that we have made today. So we particularly want to thank Melisa.
And Melisa would be the first to tell you that she could not have accomplished this without Caroline Saxton who is her assistant. Caroline would you please stand.
There were over 1,000 nominations as you have heard. We really appreciate the work of all the groups who trimmed that to the 50 that we looked at. We want to particularly thank the Rosenfield Program and Sarah for their contribution to tonight and all during the week. They are doing a lot of the organization. And then these wonderful paintings. They are absolutely wonderful. We invite you to come and look at them. You must have been wondering what was going on. We give and then we take and then we hang them up. [laughter]
They will be here for you to view and believe it or not, we will give them back at the end of the symposium. This is sort of you have to stick here and do this with us if you are going to get your painting. [laughter]
Tilly Woodward is here. Tilly did those paintings. Tilly would you please stand.
One last item, as chair of the selection committee, I want to express how enlightening, inspiring, and rewarding the process was from beginning to end. I genuinely look forward to doing it again in 2012 as we search for the second group of Grinnell Prize winners. If any students, alumni, faculty, or staff would like to participate in the process, I would encourage you to volunteer. You will find all of the information you need on the prize website which is www.grinnell.edu/socialjusticeprize.
Also to all the young innovators to social justice around the globe and their supporters — and most of the nominations come to us by those supporters — nominations for the 2012 prize are still open. The deadline for submitting nominations is next month, November 14, 2011. Thanks to our winners and their willingness to come to Grinnell and interact with our community. I know how much that is going to mean to us, it already has. We look forward to all of these symposium events beginning tomorrow and running through Thursday and then it is my pleasure to say goodnight.