All photos courtesy of Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography
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—the process of using local arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood or town—during the Sullivan Foundation’s recent Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip to Chattanooga, she quickly recognized its power to transform a struggling community. Now Merklinger—a senior majoring in Health Communications and Public Relations at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.—and a group of fellow Campbell students are working on a creative placemaking project of their own: Campbell Create, aimed at helping communities in their area discover and celebrate their own cultural advantages and heritage.
Merklinger’s project—and the excitement she brings 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 leader. “These trips give students a sense of the multiple ways in which they may package their passions into concrete careers past college.”
This year’s Field Trip took dozens of students to 10 social enterprises and nonprofits tackling a wide variety of issues around Chattanooga, from community development and environmental sustainability to refugee aid and 3D printing. It was a visit to Glass House Collective (GHC), an organization focused on revitalizing the city’s historic Glass Street area, that opened Merklinger’s eyes to the possibilities of creative placemaking.
“I had never heard of that term until I went on this field trip,” Merklinger said, “but it inspired a group of Campbell students and myself 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.”
Campbell Create is still in the planning stage, but Merklinger’s group wants to use creative placemaking to help small communities in their own area spur economic growth through local arts and culture. “My team and I 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, but that’s not the focus of Campbell Create. “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,” she adds.
In addition to Glass House Collective, Field Trip participants also visited and met the owners of social enterprises like Mad Priest Coffee Company,which works with displaced individuals and employs refugees while educating the community about social injustice and humanitarian crises; Branch Technology, a pioneer in 3D-printed homes that has brought innovation to the housing industry; the Chattanooga Mobile Market, a mobile grocery store that brings fresh, healthy food and produce to underserved neighborhoods; and the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, which protects Lookout Mountain’s scenic, historic and ecological resources while providing environmental education and leadership training to middle school and high school students.
As the Field Trip crew shuttled around by car between the various locations, new friendships were born and powerful bonds were forged. “As much as I love getting to visit each of the sites and social enterprises, one of the aspects I find most rewarding is the car rides between visits,” Marshall said. “This year we had 10 cars caravanning across the city throughout the day, and the conversations that take place in the car are always the most meaningful. That’s where new connections are formed, discoveries are processed, and possibilities are explored for how students may take what they’ve learned back with them to their home communities.”
Prior to the latest Field Trip, Merklinger attended the Fall 2018 Ignite Retreat in Black Mountain, N.C. She first learned about the Sullivan Foundation when Marshall spoke about social entrepreneurship to the Campbell University 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 trip because I’m currently enrolled in a class centered on discovering underserved communities, and I felt (the Spring 2019 Field Trip) 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 said she would recommend the Field Trip 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—we miss the beauty of the communities right in front of us. This trip will give future 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 were facing and thus, engage your creative and critical thinking skills. This trip will ignite in you the desire to think outside of the box in order to go beyond the superficial, 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.”