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The Grinnell Innovator for Social Justice Prize

It’s Grinnell Prize week on campus, and so it seems to be an opportune time to reflect on the Prize and my changing attitudes toward the Prize. Whether or not you like my essay, I’d strongly encourage those of you in Grinnell to attend some of the many Prize events this week.

The Grinnell Prize started in about 2010, when Raynard Kington became President of Grinnell College. As I understand it, the Trustees told Kington that he could have a budget for a pet project and, looking at Grinnell, he said something like A prize for a young innovator [1] in social justice could not only support the College’s mission for social justice, but also provide inspiration to our students.

I don’t recall the reaction to that announcement as being particularly positive. Grinnell was just escaping from the recession, and many of us felt that the money for the Prize could be better used for support of existing initiatives on campus. It also seemed a bit strange for a nonprofit to be giving a prize to support other non-profits. And there was also the question of why we’d give a Grinnell prize to people not from Grinnell.

The first Grinnell Prize ceremony did not improve my perspective on the prize. All I recall is that we showed videos made by other organizations who had previously given the winners prizes. (Yeah, that seems strange to me, too. We seemed to be saying We can’t come up with anyone new; we’ll just ride on the coattails of others who identified good people.) I also recall that we had a lot of difficulty with social media and the event, but that was before we hired the wonderful @GeniusAndFolly [2,3]. There was also some weird split between events, but I can’t remember what it was.

I think the Prize winners were clearly doing good and important work, and I don’t mind that we supported them. However, given that they had already gotten some significant funding, and that we clearly had no clue on how to promote the Prize, I’m not sure what we were gaining with the Prize.

In the years since, I’ve seen the Prize evolve into something that plays a number of important roles at Grinnell. Most importantly, we’ve significantly expanded the ways in which the Prize winners interact with campus. Now, they don’t just give talks and show up to a few classes, but also run workshops for students, meet with lots of different people, provide longer-term opportunities for Grinnell students, staff, and faculty to contribute to their projects, and more. Some even return to campus for short courses. We are clearly striving for both longer-term connections with the Prize winners and for more direct connections with our students. I think those characteristics make the Prize a very important thing for Grinnell to support.

Is it useful that we fund some important activities? Yes, but there are many organizations that fund important activities. Does the Prize help advertise Grinnell? I’m not sure. I haven’t heard any students say that the Prize was a factor in their decision to apply or to come to Grinnell. But maybe I’m just under-informed. Does the Prize provide awesome opportunities for our students to not only talk to, but also work with real innovators in approaches to social justice? Definitely. Does that make Grinnell’s education better and more distinctive? Definitely.

What turned the Prize from what seemed to be wasted advertising into an event that truly strengthens the College’s core mission? We’ve had a series of really strong prize directors who have helped the College think about ways to better leverage the Prize. I appreciate the work of all of them, but particularly of Susan Sanning [4], who currently coordinates the prize and the prize events. The Grinnell Prize now seems to coordinate with the Joseph F. Wall ’41 Alumni Service Award, and I think that’s partially Susan’s [5] doing.

So, what kinds of things are happening during Prize week? Let’s see. Tonight, we had a reception for Wall Award winners. (The Wall award is for alumni doing social justice work.) On Tuesday at noon, the Prize winners will receive their prizes and will give keynote talks. On Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., 2015 Grinnell Prize winner Maria Vertkin will run a workshop on designing and implementing sustainable social justice initiatives. On Wednesday from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., the Prize and Wall winners will be at Saints Rest for informal conversation. (I think we provide free coffee for folks with a Grinnell ID.) On Wednesday at noon, the Prize winners and some other folks will have a panel on Making a Career of Changing the World. On Thursday at 4:15, the Prize Winners and some other folks will run a workshop on fundraising for social justice projects. And that’s just some of what’s happening! You should attend these events! (At least if you’re someone who is on campus.)

I’ve also left out many other aspects of the Prize. I love the works that Tilly Woodward makes for the Prize winners. I’ve enjoyed reviewing for the Prize (even though Susan made me pass on that role to other people). And I love talking to people at the receptions.

President Kington, you’ll probably never read this essay [6]. When you established the Prize, I didn’t think it was a good idea. I was wrong. Congratulations on creating something so wonderful.

Director of Service and Social Invitation Leathem Sanning (and many others), thank you for building the Grinnell Prize into what it is today.

[1] I’m not sure when we lost Young from the title, but the Web site just calls it the The Grinnell Innovator for Social Justice Prize rather than The Grinnell Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize or the potentially more mellifluous The Grinnell Prize for Young Innovators in Social Justice.

[2] Or maybe she was here, and wasn’t yet as wonderful as she is now. But I don’t think so. I think we were just starting to figure out social media.

[3] And yes, she’s on my list of Grinnellians you should know or know about.

[4] And another Grinnellian yskoka.

[5] I’ve tried referring to her by various titles, but she always tells me to call her Susan. And, since I lost our lost bet, I’m no longer allowed to use at least one of the titles.

[6] At least I hope you don’t read my essays.

Version 1.0.2 of 2016-10-04.