SPARK Social Innovation Challenge

January 29, 2020

How would you define the word spark?

Maybe you’d say it’s the ember that starts a roaring fire. Maybe you’d say it’s the germ of an idea that can begin a process of change, or a flash of energy that disrupts the status quo, or a latent particle that is capable of growth and development. At Grinnell College — thanks to an ongoing program of the College’s Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership, working in partnership with the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) — it’s all of those, and more.

At Grinnell, the Spark Social Innovation Challenge — SPARK for short — is a yearly community-based social innovation competition, and one way in which the College enacts its historical concern with social justice.

Each year, SPARK involves students — as individuals or teams — with partners from the town of Grinnell in conceiving projects that address the community’s critical needs. This gives students a nuts-and-bolts sense of what goes into community development, as well as experience crafting the sort of proposals that will win funding and advance the cause of social justice. Projects selected as challenge-winners by judges receive up to $15,000 as seed money to begin making their vision into a reality. Team members also win cash prizes — $200 for each first-place team member, $100 for each second-place team member, and $50 for each third-place team member. Team members also have the option of helping to implement these programs through service learning work-study positions in the subsequent year under the direction of the CLS.

In academic year 2018–19, SPARK focused on technology access — a perennial challenge across the U.S. in rural communities like Grinnell. Tapping into key community resources such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or opportunities for online education often requires a dependable Internet connection — something that, too often, is out of reach for low-income community residents. To address this need, the Wilson Center partnered with the Iowa Governor’s Task Force for Rural Internet, Grinnell’s Chamber of Commerce Business and Residential Internet Collaboration, the Drake Community Library’s Internet Bandwidth project, and the Mid-Iowa Community Action’s (MICA) Access to Technological Tools initiative.

To help SPARK competitors who lacked experience preparing proposals for these sorts of projects, the Wilson Center offered a one-credit skill-building short course, taught by Wilson Center Director and Associate Professor of Anthropology Monty Roper, whose own work focuses on community development. The course helped students and visitors to prepare their best possible application for funding, addressing such subjects as project research, design, management, and sustainability; ethical best practices; public speaking; and more.

The winners of the 2018–19 SPARK Challenge were Taylor Gaskins ’20, Shabana Gupta ’22, and Andrew Jopeck ’22 with the project proposal, “Reading with Retirees Club.”

Wait, you may ask. What does that have to do with high-speed internet? Nothing. By mid-year, the SPARK theme for the year had largely came undone. The Governor’s task force was sidelined following the elections, and many of the local projects became untimely as the city announced a likely new partnership to bring high-speed internet to Grinnell.

Faced with an irrelevant initial project, the winning team did what all successful entrepreneurs must do at some point. They pivoted and pursued a different issue that they all felt strongly about – child literacy – using personal connections to connect quickly with key players. Working with Steve Langerud, executive director of Grinnell’s Mayflower Community, a 68-year old senior living and health care organization, and Brian Conway, principal at Davis Elementary School, the students developed program in which Mayflower Community residents would regularly read to Davis Elementary students.  The project was selected for funding at an estimated cost of $5,000 by a panel of judges and will be used during the 2019–20 school year for transportation, training, and a work-study position.

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