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An Eye for Beauty

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.

Campbell Create members Michelle Vazquez and Jonathan Molai (photo by Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography)

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.”

Amber Merklinger and fellow students from Campbell University founded Campbell Create after the Sullivan Foundation’s field trip to Chattanooga last spring. (Photo by Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography)

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 Spring Field Trip included a tour of Chattanooga social enterprise Mad Priest Coffee. (Photo by Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography)

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.”

Artwork in Chattanooga’s Glass Street district inspired the creative placemaking efforts of the Campbell CREATE team. (Photo by Michelle Vazquez)

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.

Field Trip students take a break after visiting social entrepreneurs in Chattanooga. (Photo by Diamonique Anderson)

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.”

After experiencing the Spring Field Trip to Chattanooga, Jonathan Molai and his teammates fine-tuned their concept for Campbell CREATE at the Spring Ignite Retreat. (Photo by Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography)

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.”

Field Trip attendees learned how Mobile Market, a mobile grocery store in Chattanooga, caters to underserved communities. (Photo by Jonathan Molai)

Solving Unusual Social Problems

If you’re at all involved in the social entrepreneurship world, there are several major topics you will have heard about. World hunger, clean water, preventable disease treatment, environmental care, social equality, and the like are huge problems that social enterprises are working to tackle. And the work happening in those realms is amazing, but what about the smaller problems?

As a changemaker, you may look around and wonder what problems most people don’t see. Maybe you want to go in a different direction with your efforts. If so, read on to learn about some unusual social problems changemakers are working to tackle.

Fair Trade Electronics

As changemakers, we tend to think more about where our products came from than most people do. Were our clothes made in some sweat shop in Indonesia, or were they made by fair trade artisans? But one industry we tend to forget about when we’re thinking about fair trade is electronics.

Because electronics are so expensive, it can be easy to assume that all the manufacturers are paid fairly for their work. But in 2012, a study actually showed that electronics manufacturers have the worst working conditions, on average.

So what are social entrepreneurs doing about it? Mostly, they’re starting their own electronics manufacturing companies where they can ensure their workers are paid fairly and treated well. You could also start a website that sells fair-trade electronics at near-wholesale prices, then using the profit you do make to raise awareness about this issue.

Supermarket Waste

If you’re like us, every time you clean out the fridge, you find some old bell pepper lurking in a drawer that you meant to use and never did. You have to throw it away, which is a waste of food and money. But it turns out grocery store shoppers aren’t the only people with this problem.

Grocery stores wind up having to throw away a lot of food, too. Like us, they’re estimating what they’re going to need and when it’s going to make it off the shelves. With products like produce that don’t have a long shelf life, they can wind up throwing out a lot of food.

Social entrepreneurs are tackling both the problem of supermarket waste and that of hunger all in one fell swoop. Instead of having to throw the food away, the stores can donate it to “secondhand” grocery stores (meaning they can write it off on their taxes as a donation). The social enterprise can then sell the food at a lower cost so that underprivileged communities can afford more fresh produce, and they can use the profits to feed the hungry.

Bad Tourism

When you went on that vacation to the French countryside a few years back, we’re willing to bet you didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the social impact of your tourism. After all, it’s supposed to be a vacation, right? But tourism done this way can have a huge impact on communities without benefitting them much at all.

It’s worth doing some additional reading on the topic, but in essence it boils down to this: when we visit a community, it’s easy to accidentally offend the residents. We all love a good museum, but sometimes those museums can turn local artifacts into nothing more than commodities for the tourists. And while tourists do spend money that goes into the economy, oftentimes it doesn’t go through ethical channels that get that money back to the people there.

There are several social enterprises endeavoring to change the way we visit the rest of the world. These groups work closely with the locals in a given area (often having several different destinations that they cover) to make sure travelers know the right ways to behave and spend their money to help the community. This also means the tourists get a more genuine cultural experience from the place they’re visiting.

Micro-Giving

A lot of people think that when you donate to charity, you have to donate hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time in order for it to make a difference. It’s also easy to assume that charitable giving comes only (or at least mainly) from individuals. But micro-giving, especially from businesses can make an enormous impact.

There are a lot of ways that people can donate money to charities by doing things they’re already in the habit of – opening tabs in a browser, for example. You can also ask businesses to make micro-donations from their profits, things that will cost them pennies per sale. For example, ask a baker to donate the monetary equivalent of a handful of flour for every loaf of bread that they sell.

Textbook Availability

If you are or were a college student, you have definitely spent some time in your career cringing at textbook prices. Textbooks are notoriously expensive, and they are one of the products that you can’t get a cheaper alternative for. So what happens if you’re an underprivileged student trying to get your books without going broke?

That’s just the issue that a number of social enterprises are working to solve. As a college student, you may also have found that you wound up with books you didn’t want at the end of the semester. Several changemaking initiatives are working to round up those books and either sell them at discounted prices to underprivileged students or donate them to students in developing countries.

Solve the Unusual Social Problems

As changemakers, our job is to look around at the world, see the problems others don’t, and find ways to address them. While there is no doubt that those working on tackling climate change are doing amazing work, there’s also great change happening in more unknown areas. We hope you’ve gotten some ideas and inspiration from this list.

If you’re looking for ways to solve the unusual social problems, or any social problem, check out the rest of our site at the Sullivan Foundation. We work to provide training and resources for budding changemakers. Learn about how you can join one of our Ignite Retreats for a weekend of igniting change.

How to Be a Changemaker During Winter Break

Finals are almost over, and winter break is in sight! With the end of the fall semester approaching fast, you’re probably headed home for the holidays and a lot of well-earned rest. But after you’ve slept for a solid week and spent some quality veg time, what are you planning to do with the rest of your holiday break?

The winter break is a great time to focus on making a positive change in the world; whether it be by volunteering during your free time or taking steps towards establishing your social enterprise, the break offers some great opportunities for changemaking. Read on to find some ideas on how to be a changemaker during winter break.

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