With coffee cups in hand and notebooks out, 13 students met bright and early on Monday morning Jan. 12 – more than a week before classes started – to start the week-long Levitt Center Social Innovation Fellows program, led by Professor Anke Wessels, executive director of Cornell University’s Center for Transformative Action. With the help of Wessels, students were gathered to receive training and support for socially innovative projects and programs.
Projects ranged in size, location and stage in the development process, but all were intended to help create a more just, sustainable and socially-minded world. Several projects were on the international scale, while others were designed to help the local community. For example, Aleksandra Bogoevska ’17 has a project that will help the elderly in her home country of Macedonia. Chidera Onyeoziri ’18 also has an internationally-focused idea, and hopes to create a youth council in her hometown in Nigeria. Sharif Shrestha ’17 will be implementing his in Nepal, and is in the process of creating an herb farmer cooperative.
On the local level, Mary Langworthy ’17 plans to start a second-hand clothing store on the Hamilton College campus. John McGonigle ’17 wants to find out if Hamilton can implement bottle return (with a Hill Card swipe) recycling centers on campus, and Chris Loan ‘15 plans to start a skate park program for children in the Utica area.
Several students were even able to utilize projects created out of their coursework at Hamilton. Austin Lokre ’16 and Andrew Sprague ’16 were one such group. Their project was formulated out of Professor Julio Videras’ fall 2014 course, “The Economics of Social Responsibility.” Through this course, they outlined a plan for creating lending circles in the Utica area to help low-income residents become more competitive candidates in receiving loans from local credit unions.
Sam Carletta ’17 is also working with faculty in the implementation of his project. Both Carletta and Professor Paul Hagstrom are planning a food distribution program that freezes excess food from Hamilton dining halls, and brings that food to key centers in Utica where residents frequently run out of food stamp funds at the end of each month.
Students found that one of the most value aspects of the week was receiving feedback from each other. Elise Eagan ’15 commented, “It was great to get advice from Professor Wessels and other students. When we all brainstormed together, I was able to see potential holes in my plan, as well as places where our projects could connect and help each other out.”
Wessels began the week with a focus on creativity and innovation in an effort to help students synch passions with talents in order to create social change. From understanding compassion and gratitude in social change creation, to learning about product design, students grappled with difficult questions in both a philosophical as well as a practical context.
Wessels discussed different examples of social organizations, from a socially-focused deli, to a non-profit that converts coffee grounds into mushroom planting kits. With a focus on creativity, innovation and the design process, students incorporated these components into transformative action projects. According to Wessels, transformative action is an “alternative paradigm to social change work – building and inclusive movement across social and ideological divides.” Hamilton Social Innovation Fellows were also instructed in the theory of change process in the context of their project creation.
One of the best manners of visualizing the theory of change is through the Business Model Generator Canvas – a resource that Social Innovation Fellows used heavily. From the value proposition (or the mission statement) to the social and environmental costs and benefits of the program, students were forced to examine their ideas through a critical lens, and came out the better for it.
On the last day of the program, social innovators crafted their own pitches and delivered them to a small audience. Again, the feedback from peers and Wessels proved to be invaluable, and groups felt comfortable to seek advice and make mistakes in such a supportive environment.
Although the program lasted only for one week, the projects expanded upon will be implemented within the next several months and years, and hopefully, will contribute to long-term positive social change in each of their respective communities.
Editor's note: In 2014 Hamilton College was designated a Changemaker Campus by Ashoka U, the higher education program of Ashoka, an international organization that promotes social innovation to solve society’s most persistent social issues. The designation recognizes Hamilton for being a leader in social innovation education among an exclusive network of only 29 colleges and universities worldwide.