As a photographer, Amber Merklinger has an eye for beauty. And like any artist, she often sees it in places others would miss.
So when she learned about creative placemaking—using local arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood or town—during the Sullivan Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip to Chattanooga in March 2019, she quickly recognized its power to transform a struggling community. Now Merklinger—who earned her degree this spring in Health Communications and Public Relations at Campbell University (CU)—and a group of fellow CU students and recent graduates are working on a creative placemaking project of their own: Campbell CREATE, aimed at helping communities in the CU area discover and celebrate their own cultural advantages and heritage.
CREATE stands for Community Relationships, Encouragement, Art, Tradition and Empowerment. In addition to Merklinger, team members include Jonathan Molai, Cassie Burgett, Jaden Grimes, Adrian Dailey, Carolina Rosado, Michelle Vazquez, Danielle Holquist, and Dylan Andrews. Campbell CREATE’s mission: “To engage and involve the community members surrounding Campbell University in order to strengthen social capital and community involvement while also enhancing the culture found there. We hope to do this by involving the community in beautifying the campus and the surrounding towns to bring in more business and to bring more people out of their homes and into the community.”
The initiative—and the excitement the students bring to it—illustrate how Sullivan Foundation events empower college students to channel their youthful energy, ambitions and ideas into positive action. “Students always walk away with an expanded view of what’s possible for their future career paths,” said Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement and Field Trip and Ignite Retreat leader. “These trips give students a sense of the multiple ways in which they may package their passions into concrete careers past college.”
Changemaking in Chattanooga
This spring’s Field Trip took dozens of students to 10 social enterprises and nonprofits tackling a wide variety of issues around Chattanooga. Among many stops, Field Trip participants visited Mad Priest Coffee Company, which works with displaced individuals and employs refugees while educating the community about social injustice and humanitarian crises; the Chattanooga Mobile Market, a mobile grocery store that brings fresh, healthy food and produce to underserved neighborhoods; the Glass House Collective, an organization focused on revitalizing Chattanooga’s historic Glass Street area; and Co.Starters, which helps communities build vibrant entrepreneurial and cultural ecosystems.
The CU students’ experiences at Glass House Collective and Co.Starters in particular opened their eyes to the possibilities of creative placemaking, according to Merklinger and Molai.
“I had never heard of that term until I went on this field trip,” Merklinger said, “but it inspired us to start the process of emulating this concept on our own campus and in our surrounding communities. They took an issue they saw in the community and found a solution that impacted everyone in the city, bringing life to a culture not easily seen. That’s the kind of thinking I wish to apply to my future endeavors as a social entrepreneur.”
Molai, who graduated from CU this spring with a Biology Pre-Med degree, was equally inspired. “I am always seeking experiences which add value to my life and further my goals of effecting meaningful social change,” he said. “On this trip, I was able to commingle with students from other majors and schools, all with an interest in community development and social entrepreneurship … It truly was inspiring to see other successful social entrepreneurs making positive changes for the community.”
Uniting Communities Through Culture
After the Field Trip, the CU students hatched the idea for Campbell CREATE, based on the Co.Starters Canvas model, on their ride home from Chattanooga, Molai said. Back at CU, the young changemakers quickly went to work. “As inspired by the visions of Glass House Collective, we have been marshaling our unique strengths as leaders on our campus to stimulate community engagement and economic growth,” Molai said. “In the time between the Field Trip and the Spring Ignite Retreat, we had self-organized, successfully pitched at two innovation challenge-type pitch contests hosted by the Lundy Fetterman School of Business, and begun to build a critical mass of campus and community support after launching our first prototype.”
The team also made its first presentation to the mayor and board of aldermen of Coats, N.C., on May 9, who approved their request to work with the Coats Beautification Committee in a creative placemaking initiative.
Campbell CREATE will use creative placemaking to help small communities spur economic growth through local arts and culture. They plan to recruit artists and craftspersons to create murals and statues as well as decorative benches, swings, tables and chairs in public areas, showcasing local talent and building a sense of hometown pride. “We all agree we want to capture the expressionism, dreams and culture that so deeply enrich the communities surrounding Campbell University,” Merklinger says.
Each community has its own problems to solve, but that’s not the focus of Campbell Create, Merklinger points out. “Like the Glass House Collective, we don’t feel it is our place to fix these issues, but instead to amplify the cultures found there in order to bring the community together.”
Flipping the Script
Prior to the Spring 2019 Field Trip, Merklinger had attended the Fall 2018 Ignite Retreat in Black Mountain, N.C. She learned about the Sullivan Foundation when Marshall spoke about social entrepreneurship to CU’s School of Nursing. That first encounter, she said, “had such a huge impact on me that I wanted to become more involved with the organization. I was also attracted to the Field Trip because I was enrolled in a class centered on discovering underserved communities, and I felt it would correlate well with my class. I was informed that the businesses we would be visiting were run by social entrepreneurs who had made a positive difference in their community, despite the difficulties they faced. I wanted to get a closer look at how their entrepreneurs did this and how I could learn from their example.”
Merklinger, Molai and other Campbell CREATE team members went on to attend the Spring 2019 Ignite Retreat, where they worked with facilitators to further develop their concept. “Being able to directly build on this initiative in the project track at the Ignite Retreat proved incredibly useful for myself and our team in our sharpened consideration of priorities and learning points,” Molai noted.
Merklinger said she would recommend the Field Trip, Ignite Retreat and other Sullivan events to any college student looking to help others without trying to solve their problems for them.
“When you walk into a city or town and see issues such as poverty, low incomes, lack of healthcare, violence, and a variety of other problems, what is your natural instinct?” she said. “Do you want to run away and forget you’ve ever been there? Or do you want to fix their issues and completely flip the script? If you would choose the latter, this field trip is for you. But instead of ‘fixing their issues,’ how would you like to take a creative approach in learning how to walk alongside the community members and create positive change?”
“Sometimes we go through life and become so engrossed in our passions or ideas—or blinded by the negativity we see—that we miss the beauty of the communities right in front of us,” Merklinger added. “The Sullivan Field Trip gives students new and fresh perspectives on how you can implement change in different areas that you’ve come across in life. Some of the approaches these businesses take would be solutions you may never have thought would solve the issues the communities are facing and, thus, engage your creative and critical thinking skills. This trip will ignite in you the desire to think outside the box in order to go beyond the superficial and to dig deep into the heart of the community in order to help those around you. So, do I think this trip is worth going on? I do 100 percent.”