Service is a time-honored Grinnell tradition--offering assistance to the less fortunate, to those who are least able to help themselves.
Every year Grinnell College honors two or three alumni by funding their service projects. The Joseph F. Wall '41 Sesquicentennial Service Awards were established in 1996 during the College's sesquicentennial celebration, the awards were created in order to provide financial support to graduates whose work embodies the College's tradition of social responsibility and public service.
The award's namesake graduated from Grinnell College in 1941, and joined the faculty in 1947 as a professor of history. Wall served the College in a number of capacities for nearly 50 years, and truly inspired an ideal of social responsibility in his students in all his roles at Grinnell -- first director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, dean of the College, and beloved friend and professor of history. Wall retired as professor emeritus of history in 1990, and the College commemorated his commitment to Grinnell and its legacy of service in the establishment of these awards.
Monetary awards, most ranging from $20,000 to $25, 000, are presented on a competitive basis to graduates who engage in projects, services, or organizations that are committed to improving the lives of others. This year the Wall Awards were presented to three graduates. Their projects span the globe, but each reflects the commitment to social justice and public advocacy that Grinnell College has endeavored to instill in its students over the course of its 161-year history.
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Benjamin Hodgdon's '96 project takes him to Oaxaca State, Mexico. There, he will work with a local Mexican non-governmental organization to coordinate the initiation of community forestry with a group of Zapotec indigenous villages in the Sierra Sur area of the state. Hodgdon's Wall Award will fund his role as project coordinator. Hodgdon is passionate about the project. "[I am] convinced that community forestry offers one of the best ways to meet a range of social, environmental, and economic objectives in rural areas."
An anthropology major at Grinnell, Hodgdon credits his commitment to social action to his experiences as a student. "It all started at Grinnell," he says. "Grinnell helped me start to conceptualize the complex and interconnected problems of the world and, more important, to believe that I could and should go out and do something about it."
Hodgdon has done just that. Since graduating, he has worked in Southeast Asia to establish community-based forestry projects that balance environmental conservation with the economic needs of forest-dependent indigenous groups. Most recently, he served as the World Wildlife Fund's chief technical adviser for the Xekong Sustainable Forestry Project in a remote province in southern Laos. When Hodgdon decided to leave Asia for a new part of the world, he searched for a small grassroots group with which to collaborate. He found the Autonomous Group for Environmental Research (GAIA in Spanish). Operating out of Oaxaca City, GAIA is a non-governmental organization dedicated to coordinating sustainable development strategies together with communities. Its operations focus on "maintaining identities, natural resources, and ecological processes."
Hodgdon was drawn to Oaxaca because of its strong tradition of successful community forestry, and to the work with GAIA because the communities themselves have identified the need for sustainable community forestry on their lands. "In many places, development initiatives are brought to communities by outsiders who have devised solutions ... with no community input. Such projects typically fail to deliver many benefits to communities," Hodgdon points out. "The situation here is different. Encouraged by neighboring communities' success with sustainable forestry, these Zapotec villages approached GAIA themselves for financial and technical help to build up their own enterprise."
Hodgdon sees community forestry as a way to mitigate the negative effects of large-scale commercial logging while providing a vehicle for community livelihood improvement. "Timber and other forest products represent one of the most important untapped renewable resources for development in rural areas," Hodgdon says. "The huge potential that a community forestry enterprise could bring is being forgone." Working with GAIA, Hodgdon hopes to initiate community forestry in these communities. By the end of the year, they plan to have a locally owned forest management plan in place. "Real success, however," says Hodgdon, " ... [means] that a functioning community forestry enterprise is still up and running and providing benefits to locals in 50 or 100 years."
The Power of Organizing
Alice Gates '97 is using her Wall Award to fund "Advancing Leadership for Worker's Rights," an ongoing project in Michigan. Project objectives include training and supporting a core team to lead the Washtenaw County Worker's Center (WCWC) during its second year of operation. The mission of the WCWC is to provide advocacy and "a safe space for low-wage workers to organize to find collective solutions to workplace problems." Gates, one of the founding members of the WCWC, will act as director for the project this summer.
Gates brings nearly a decade of social justice and community organization experience to this project. As a student at Grinnell College, Gates says she was "encouraged to link social thought and social action through service to the community." Since graduating with a degree in sociology and a gender and women's studies concentration, Gates has worked with disenfranchised communities in a number of capacities. Her first job after leaving Grinnell was as a human rights observer in a small community of repatriated Guatemalan refugees. The experience profoundly affected Gates. "Despite being socially, economically, and culturally marginalized ... community leaders negotiated for and won compensation from the Guatemalan government for the destruction of lives and property during the civil war," she says. "This experience taught me the power of organizing and collective action."
Gates is currently a student in the joint doctoral program in social work and sociology at the University of Michigan. In March 2006, a professor invited her to join in a conversation between community members and University of Michigan students and faculty about the need to support low-wage workers' organizing efforts in the area. As a result of these efforts, the WCWC was founded in June 2006.
A board of directors comprised of low-wage workers, representatives from faith and community-based organizations, and students and faculty from the University of Michigan runs the WCWC. In its first year of operation, the group made significant progress toward its goal of establishing a voice for low-wage workers in Washtenaw County. This year, the WCWC plans to further the mission through the "Advancing Leadership for Worker's Rights" project. Gates' Wall Award will allow the WCWC to train community leaders in basic organizing skills through internships and externships with established social justice organizations. The award will also support training for the board of directors to encourage the sustainability of the organization.
"Our efforts up to now have been focused on identifying workplace problems and providing support for workers," Gates says. "Developing a base of trained, confident leaders will help us create a power base prepared to advance workers' rights, improve wages and conditions, and guarantee a meaningful voice in the conditions of work."
A Kick-Start for Youth
With the help of the Wall Award, David G. Calvert '75 plans to launch Jóvenes Constructores de Centroamérica, an initiative that will provide job training, life skills, and community service opportunities for 5,000 unemployed youth in four countries in Central America. The project has a five-year projected budget of $15 million dollars, and Calvert is "delighted" that the first donation came from Grinnell.
"It will greatly strengthen my ability to make this project surge forward if I can bring U.S. funding to bear," he says. "Grinnell provided the kick-start."
Calvert double-majored in history and communication at Grinnell, and describes himself as "the classic liberal arts student." While refining his writing, public speaking, and research skills at Grinnell, Calvert says he was "driven to help build social justice and a better world."
Calvert sees that commitment to social responsibility as something inherent in the Grinnell College experience. "The Grinnell College mission states that '[t]he College aims to graduate women and men ... who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good,'" Calvert points out. "I think we all felt that in the 1970s, and I trust that many current students at Grinnell are making similar judgments."
After graduating from Grinnell, Calvert returned to New York City, where he helped organize and led the first YouthBuild projects. The program operates with the central philosophy that unemployed and out-of-school youth from inner cities have the interest and motivation to "rebuild their communities and improve their life prospects." Since 1978, YouthBuild USA has engaged 60,000 youth in more than 2,000 renovation projects across the nation and forged working alliances with similar organizations at an international level. Calvert founded and has managed the program in Mexico since 2003.
Jóvenes Constructores de Centroamérica (JCC) is a formal initiative of YouthBuild USA, and will provide work and training opportunities for low-income and unemployed youth in communities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The region has been afflicted with problems of violence and gang activity since the mid-1990s, leading to an "anti-youth backlash" from community members and local government, and significant youth emigration. Calvert sees JCC as a means to provide constructive alternatives for youth in the region. Working with allies in the government, business, and civil sectors, the program will establish 250 locally operated community reconstruction projects over the next five years to provide training and life skills for young people, producing 750 community improvement works.
"Central American youth desire, but lack, options to stay and invest in their home communities." Calvert states. "This is something the region needs and will rally around, and we'll help mobilize the resources, energy, and vision to make it happen."
Calvert invites Grinnellians of any age who are interested in getting involved to contact him at dgcalvert[at]gmail[dot]com.
Marie Lister '03 graduated from Grinnell in 2003 with a degree in English. She is currently living in Iowa City.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2007