Students Win with the Grinnell Prize

As Grinnell Prize research assistants, students not only help determine winners, but bolster their own knowledge and passion for social responsibility.

October 27, 2021

First awarded in 2011, the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize was established to recognize and uplift the change-makers in our world; those who stand strong in the face of adversity, creatively confront society’s biggest challenges, and better the world in ways the College recognizes as truly exemplifying Grinnellian values.

This year’s prize recipient, Victoria Jones, is being honored for her social innovation work as founder and executive director of TONE, which centers itself in Black joy, activism, and community building in Memphis, Tennessee.

In addition to providing Jones a $50,000 prize in recognition of her work, the College will host a series of events and programs over the course of the week that allow students to engage directly with Jones. Through workshops, discussions, and other interactive events, students are encouraged to meet with Prize winners to learn and grow and further develop their commitment to social responsibility — a hallmark of the Grinnell experience.

Yet even before a winner is announced each year, the Grinnell Prize affords some students a special opportunity to engage with Prize nominees and further their knowledge on the issues they are dedicated to addressing. Through Grinnell Prize internships, these students work with Prize nominees — approximately 75 to 100 every year — and their organizations to explore their history and contributions, and further discover the impact they have had on the world.

While this work serves the practical purpose of vetting nominees to ensure alignment with nomination criteria and creating reports for the Prize committee to consider when choosing a winner, the internships also complement and enhance students’ educational experiences and their own passions for social responsibility.

Juliet Torres ’19 was a 2019 Grinnell Prize student assistant, responsible for researching two Grinnell Prize candidates: Antionette D. Carroll, the founder, president, and CEO of the Creative Reaction Lab, a nonprofit organization educating and deploying youth leadership to challenge racial inequities impacting Black and Latinx populations; and Shafiq R Khan, creator of Empower People, an organization focused on working with victims and potential victims of bride trafficking in India.

“I was responsible for authoring executive summaries on two finalists,” says Torres “I maintained confidential records relating to nominees and the selection process, interviewed finalists via Skype to obtain information about their organization, and prepared and presented research findings to the Prize Selection Committee to determine the 2019-2020 winner. At the time I was deciding what I wanted to do after graduation with my biology degree. The experience demonstrated to me that the skills I learned could aid me in becoming a culturally-conscious and analytical woman of color.”

Currently a genetic counseling graduate student at the University of Washington, Torres says the research assistant position “showed me that I could become a genetic counselor that does not accept the way things currently are if they aren't serving patient populations I want to advocate for in my career.”

Torres says she really appreciated that Associate Dean and Director of Service and Social Innovation Susan Sanning and Grinnell Prize Program Associate Vicki Nolton “organized a formal training on public speaking for our final presentation. I learned so many important skills that I still use in my current role as a graduate student and in my previous job as a pathology research assistant at Ohio State University.”

Luz Helena Alfaro ’22, a current Grinnell Prize research assistant, was responsible for vetting some of this year’s Grinnell Prize candidates. Her work included checking credentials, awards, recognitions, and ensuring that information provided matched official information.

“The training process for my role also entailed learning about root cause analysis, social innovation, and different methods of social systems change,” says Alfaro. “The most important lesson I took away from the experience is that not all social justice work functions in the same way and should not be measured using the same metrics. The way we think about, speak about, plan, and start social justice initiatives must be inclusive of non-dominant notions regarding what social justice consists of.

“This experience fit in seamlessly with my educational experience as an FG/LI Latina studying sociology and biochemistry since social justice is one of my priorities that I intend to navigate in the world beyond graduation,” she adds. “I have found myself applying root cause analyses and social justice lenses to my identification and understanding of issues that take place in my community. My more nuanced understanding thus leads me to take more careful and informed action to addressing social issues in and out of the classroom. The skills I learned about finding and properly using reputable research tools additionally serve me well as I complete my classroom assignments and research projects.”

Torres also found the experience to be one that helped her expand her notion of social justice. “I noticed that as I was critically analyzing Shafiq R Khan's work, I was using a very Western lens,” she says. “The way social justice issues are approached in the United States is not always feasible or appropriate in other countries, like India in this case. So, I had to talk with Shafiq and gain a better understanding of why he chose to implement certain models and approaches to ensure I was properly capturing the amazing work he is pursuing. The last thing I wanted to do was misinterpret his work because I am not from India or wrongfully using an American point of view on an issue I personally never have to experience. This aspect of the research process immensely humbled me. Shafiq also was the winner of the 2019-2020 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize, so it was very gratifying that my work was able to properly display his incredible mission.”

While the process of vetting nominees and ultimately choosing a winner of the Grinnell Prize relies heavily on the involvement of students like Torres and Alfaro, both agree that this is a symbiotic relationship — one that not only benefits the recipients and the Prize itself, but also bolsters their own experiences and outlooks.

“Being a Grinnell Prize research assistant has been one of the most rewarding, interdisciplinary, and educational experiences of my time at Grinnell College,” says Alfaro. “I am honored to have worked with a highly-skilled research group and to have contributed to the selection process for Grinnell Prize nominees who are doing inspiring social justice work in their communities. Selecting a Grinnell Prize winner each year necessitates diligence, care, and responsibility from all parties involved and I am grateful to have played a role in the process!”

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