Q&A: Igniting change

A conversation with Spud Marshall

Spud Marshall wears many hats—literally too many to list all of them here (visit his website iamspud.com to get the full list). His chief occupation is CEO and Chief Catalyst of the co.space, a network of intentional communities for changemakers. He’s also an important consultant for the Sullivan Foundation. Serving as the foundation’s Director of Student Engagement, he’s designed and delivered over a dozen retreats.

1. What initially got you interested in service and social entrepreneurship? What was the path that led to your involvement with the Foundation generally and the Ignite retreats specifically?

I actually stumbled into the world of social entrepreneurship. One day I was watching a youtube video of someone explaining the concept and I suddenly had one of those light bulb moments where I realized “oh, that’s what I am!”

For me, the whole journey began back in 2010 when I moved back to Pennsylvania after living abroad in Sweden. I was frustrated with how few opportunities I was provided while an undergrad to get connected to my community and make a real impact—rather than just study equations from a book—and so I teamed up with some friends to launch a nonprofit. Our goal was simple: create an alternative space right beside our university for students to get involved on real-life projects that made a difference. We had no clue what we were doing, but day by day, we managed to find just enough money to keep the lights on and pay the bills. The more I explored, the more I fell in love with the world of social entrepreneurship.

My journey really quickened after I took a visit to DC and happened to walk in to Ashoka’s HQ. I had read about their work online but never met anyone from the group. So, when I saw their logo on a door while randomly walking around DC, I decided to jump at the opportunity to wander in and say hi. I couldn’t have made a better decision. They quickly introduced me to countless conferences, mentors, and peers in the social change community. They were in fact the ones that introduced me to the Sullivan Foundation, who, soon after, invited me to speak at one of their Ignite retreats. The rest is history and I’ve had the pleasure of running more than a dozen retreats over the past few years.

2. What issues in community engagement (or more global engagement) are especially close to your heart? In what ways, outside of your work with the Foundation, do you try to get involved?

Jessica Malerman (center) enjoys herself at the fall 2016 Ignite Retreat.

I am really passionate about connecting young people with small-town communities who are ripe with possibility for change. So much of the mainstream narrative revolves around millennials and young professionals wanting to move towards the cities. But I see a different trend hopefully emerging. As someone who has spent all my life living in relatively small towns, I have found so much potential and opportunity by committing myself to get fully involved with the community I call home. I often talk about small towns as “sandbox communities” because they allow young people the flexibility to experiment and try new things easily. There’s a layer of trust and quality of life that comes from a small town which are sometimes difficult to find in the bigger cities.

So, a majority of my work outside of working with the Sullivan Foundation is helping position my town—State College—as a place with open arms for young professionals. I work extensively with groups like our community foundation, the municipal government, local real estate developers, and the entrepreneurship community to tackle that issue head on.

3. Tell me a little bit about the co.space and the work you do there.

Colby DeVane (left) and Gabrielle Deculus speak with other retreat participants on the porch

The co.space originated when a pastor walked into my office one day and told me that I should consider buying the frat house that was for sale beside his home. He felt that if any group could do something with a property like that, it would be ours. At the time, I was leading New Leaf Initiative (www.newleafinitiative.org) and the idea he planted in our heads quickly grew.

Combining a lot of personal experience I had living in intentional communities and pursuing a social change career, we designed co.space to be a place where young people—from undergraduate students to self-directed learners to working young professionals—could live together under one roof and explore what it means to be a changemaker. We aim to make the house as diverse as possible so that the multitude of perspectives, skills, and passions can create a supportive family where tenants feel fully equipped to tackle issues they deeply care about. For the first 2 years, I lived in the home. But now, it is run entirely by two house managers and I simply help from afar.

We host 3 retreats a year and frequent programming throughout the year—from guest dinners to funding projects that tenants dream up over the course of the year. The house is unlike any other home most people have stepped inside and features everything from cave showers with stalactites and waterfalls, to indoor beehives so that folks can learn about the importance of local pollinators, to rock climbing walls and secret trap doors scattered throughout the home. It’s truly a home that brings out the creativity in you.

4. What’s the in-a-nutshell pitch for a student considering attending one of the retreats, but doesn’t know the specifics of what Ignite! is all about?

An Ignite group gathers

Ignite is all about helping you find a career and passion that is worth waking up every morning excited to tackle. We help you align the issues you care about—whether it be sustainability or police brutality—with the skills you possess to identify alternative career paths. We bring together social entrepreneurs and innovators from around the country who are paving those non-traditional paths so you can learn first-hand from them.

5. What are you specifically looking forward to about the upcoming retreat? Anything new happening this time around?

One of the things that I’m incredibly excited about this time around is the food. I know—it may seem simple—but the food provided at this venue comes entirely from the farm on-site or nearby producers and is incredibly fresh. There’s something about being in the company of incredible people, while simultaneously filling your body with super local food, that makes for an incredible experience!

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