Grinnell’s Inaugural Map the System Team Earns Third-Place Global Victory

July 12, 2022

Are you ready to change the world?

That’s the question posed by Map the System, a competition that asks students and educators to think differently about social issues; to think holistically about a problem or concern and consider all the potential stakeholders, approaches, outcomes, and impacts that may come into play as they work toward change.

Grinnellians are familiar with this question and have answered with a resounding “yes” through their actions for more than 175 years.

It’s not surprising given the College’s long-standing commitment to social responsibility, cultural awareness, and mutual respect. With nearly two centuries of putting this commitment into action, Grinnell is a place where diverse perspectives collide, and differences are celebrated; where thoughtful citizens are formed who take ownership of the well-being of their communities.

Each year, universities, and postsecondary institutions from around the world partner with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, to bring the Map the System to their students for a local edition of the competition. This past year, for the first time, Grinnell ran Map the System as an extracurricular program open to all current students.

In April 2021 the Center for Careers, Life, and Service held its inaugural Map the System Local Team Challenge. The winning team was comprised of Umang Kamra ’22, MPS student intern; Claire Pollard ’22; Poorvasha Kar, associate at FTI Consulting, 2021 graduate of Ashoka University; and Shafiq Khan, founder of Empower People and 2019 Grinnell Prize winner. Together, utilizing their various areas of expertise and interests, the team mapped systems undergirding human trafficking in Assam, India. This winning team went on to compete in the 2022 Map the System Global Final at Oxford University and finished in third place out of a field of 46 teams, most of which were comprised of graduate students.

“There’s a lot more digging that needs to be done in order to get to the root of the problems addressed through Map the System,” says Vicki Nolton, a program associate with the Service and Social Innovation Team within the Center for Careers, Life, and Service. “You have to push deeper and farther into the problem to gain an understanding of what is happening and what all contributes to it.”

Student teams who registered for the Grinnell campus challenge were encouraged to select issues that deeply mattered to them and received research support from service and social innovation staff within the Center for Careers, Life, and Service. Throughout their competition preparation, students gained research and presentation skills, forged connections with others in the campus community who were interested in social change, built networks with social innovators and actors around the globe, and developed new ways of deeply understanding complex issues before diving into social change efforts.

The winning team’s research topic, human trafficking in Assam, provided a systematic analysis of the social, economic, political, environmental, and institutional factors that make populations vulnerable to human trafficking and facilitate the practice in Assam. Situated in Northeast India, the geographic region presents a distinct case study in human trafficking due to its proximity to international borders, rampant insurgency and ethnic conflict, environmental and man-made disasters, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since the victims of human trafficking are mostly women and children, the team also delved into the issues of gender inequality that underlie this practice.

“Participating in Map the System made us understand that before becoming changemakers, we first need to learn how to be inquisitive social scientists” Kamra says. “The program helped me learn systems-thinking skills which are crucial in breaking down and analyzing social and environmental issues. Investigating power structures that exist all around us pushed us to confront our own biases and positionality.”

“We deliberately developed a collaborative student and staff leadership model that works very well for the culture of Grinnell,” says Susan Sanning, associate dean and director of service and social and innovation at the College. “Understanding why an issue exists is very complex. So many of the solutions we hear about are just addressing the tip of the iceberg and not the systemic underpinnings that reinforce the systems themselves. For Vicki [Nolton] and I, the biggest thing we learned was what a heavy lift it is to help students, let alone anyone else, understand that.”

The goal of the program is to provide participants with new tools and perspectives that they can use in future long-term, systemic change-making endeavors, even if they don’t win, and to provide them with resources they can use the rest of their lives. It's a lesson that seems to have stuck with members of Grinnell’s winning team

“The program benefited my academic development by introducing me to aspects of systems thinking that I might otherwise have not been exposed to at Grinnell,” Rocio Hernandez ’24. “I envision utilizing these newfound systems thinking skills in my career as a public health nurse. I also plan on incorporating these skills into my remaining humanities and social studies courses at Grinnell.”

“Systems thinking is a foundational skill I have been cultivating in my MPH program,” says Marianna Cota ’22. “Being able to have practice it through this project has been quite valuable since I plan on developing public health interventions during my future public health career.”

The winning effort was a result not only of student work and staff leadership and guidance but was also made possible by alumni donors who recognized the importance of the program, wanted to ensure it happened, and generously gave thousands of dollars to cover the cost of the program.

“The program was completely donor-funded,” says Sanning. “This was very exciting, and it demonstrates the commitment of our alumni to the Grinnellian tradition of social responsibility and thoughtful, systemic change-making.”

“It was exciting to see the magic happen,” Nolton adds. “The students got to choose their own team and own topic and engaged in interdisciplinary work to reach their goals. We gave them freedom to do their presentation for a nonacademic audience, which is not easy when that’s not been your primary academic experience. The project is not completed for a grade so the participants weren’t afraid to fail and could take risks without worry. In the end it’s about the process and what you learn, not about winning.

“All of the students were amazing — not just those who won. I can’t wait to see what they do in the years to come.”

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