SPARK Community-Based Innovation Challenge Wins International Award

Students say SPARK helps them hone their interpersonal and professional skills.

June 13, 2018

Grinnell College is the winner of Ashoka U’s 2018 Innovation Award for Community Partnership for its SPARK Community-Based Innovation Challenge in an international competition.

The Innovation Award is Ashoka U’s top honor for higher education programs in social innovation education. It recognizes high-impact and highly replicable education innovations creating new ways colleges and universities can be a force for positive social impact. Ashoka U is an initiative of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs.

Grinnell’s SPARK Innovation Challenge is one of six programs selected to receive the 2018 Innovation Award from among 150 applicants and 18 finalists. Two of the winners are based outside the United States — one in Chile and the other in England.

“I am both incredibly humbled and honored to receive this award,” says Susan Sanning, who accepted the honor on behalf of Grinnell at the 2018 Ashoka Exchange at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

“Grinnell College is located in a rural community of approximately 9,000 people,” adds Sanning, associate dean and director of service and social innovation at the college. “The change-making we support is driven by a number of core values, the primary of which is our commitment to community-driven partnerships.”

The SPARK Challenge offers Grinnell students the opportunity to work together to address challenges faced by the larger Grinnell community. Community partners identify challenges unique to their work and agree to collaborate with groups of students to create short- and long-term solutions.

A committee from the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership reviews students’ applications and selects the students best suited to each team. The teams then consult with their community partners, conduct relevant research and utilize their and their community partners’ knowledge and connections to create solutions that are innovative, practical and beneficial to the community.

SPARK then holds a pitch contest, open to the entire community, where the teams are given about 5 minutes to explain their challenge and pitch their solutions to a team of judges who are community members. The judges offer constructive feedback and, taking into account audience excitement and participation, determine which solution will receive up to $15,000 of implementation funding from the Wilson Center.

With these funds and through the support of the college’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service and the Service Learning Work-Study Program, SPARK winners and their community partners implement their solutions over the course of the following year. SPARK projects have filled gaps in service, reinvented means for providing services, and begun to disrupt systems that undergird community inequities.

Students report their work through SPARK has deepened their connection and understanding of the complexity of challenges faced by rural communities. Moreover, they say they have gained interpersonal competence, honed transferable professional skills, and better understand how their own values may drive their aspirations.

The 2017 winning team of three students tackled the issue of food insecurity in rural areas surrounding Grinnell, where many residents in need of food work long hours or have limited access to transportation.

The students created a feasible and sustainable mobile food pantry and resource service through a partnership with Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), a nonprofit that serves children and families in central Iowa, and Ramsey-Weeks Inc., a local real estate company and insurance agency that loaned its truck for use as the mobile pantry.

Since last summer the holistic mobile service has been helping low-income households throughout Poweshiek County in need of food and other self-sufficiency resources offered by MICA.


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