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“Pledge My Check” Campaign Asks Americans to Donate Their Stimulus Checks to People in Need

Many Americans desperately need the stimulus checks being issued by the government to pay utility bills, buy groceries or make their mortgage payments as the coronavirus pandemic continues. But for more privileged Americans it’s free money that they can spend however they choose—and a group of volunteers from North Carolina hopes they’ll spend it to help others in dire need.

The group, including Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat alumnus Jordan Bowman, has launched a website called Pledge My Check, which encourages people in financially stable positions to donate all or part of their stimulus checks to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Related: The quest for water: Ignite Retreat alumnus Elizabeth De Wetter organizes 6K fundraiser to build wells in Zambia

Kevin Miller, a Raleigh, N.C. social entrepreneur and one of the project’s creators, said that, right before the stimulus checks started going out, he “saw Best Buy advertising $1,200 TVs and thought to myself … if people can use their check to buy a TV, how can we try and convince them to turn that money towards doing some good?”

More than $50,000 was pledged from 100 people across 15 states in the first week. As of this writing, the site has raised nearly $90,000 from 145 donors, and the number continues to rise. The organizers’ goal is to reach $1 million in pledged donations.

Individuals are encouraged to donate directly to the people, causes or organizations they want to support. Pledge My Check does not accept or process the monetary donations; instead, it provides an online record of the pledges and sends follow-up emails to make sure the donations were made.

“The idea is to encourage folks to pledge in a way that is life-giving to them and others,” said Bowman, a business administration major at North Carolina State University. “There is complete freedom in how people pledge, but we are encouraging them to consider local causes and to be creative in how they can use this money to support their neighbors, nonprofits and small businesses.”

The site records and displays recent pledges from donors like Kirsten. “My husband and I decided to donate 50 percent of our total checks,” she said. “We’ve made monthly gifts to several organizations: Heifer International, UNICEF, The Arts and Science Center of Southeast Arkansas and Doctors Without Borders.”

Related: Wofford College social entrepreneurs plant a SEED. for global change 

Other highlighted organizations include Meals on Wheels, DonorsChoose.org and GiveDirectly. The site also allows organizations to create their own custom pledge pages for free.

The Pledge My Check initiative is the work of an all-volunteer team based in Raleigh-Durham. “This project is all about bringing out the best in our communities,” said co-creator Ryan O’Donnell. “When the stimulus checks were first announced, I felt this was a simple way for people to help their neighbors.”

Lead designer Bethany Faulkner agreed. “I’m fortunate to be in a stable financial situation,” she said. “I wanted to help, and this stimulus check is an opportunity to redirect that vital financial support to those who need it most in our community. We built this tool to enable that and make it a community effort, even as we’re separated in our own homes.”

photo of Jordan Bowman and a group of young people involved in Journeymen Triangle

Pledge My Check cofounder Jordan Bowman, far right, also founded Journeymen Triangle, a mentoring organization that teaches emotional intelligence to middle- and high-school boys.

In addition to co-founding Pledge My Check, Bowman serves as executive director of Journeymen Triangle, a mentoring organization that teaches emotional intelligence to middle- and high-school boys. He attended the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat in the fall of 2018—his second semester at North Carolina State. “At the retreat, I found inspiration and encouragement to continue building the Journeymen program,” he said. “I was able to practice and refine my pitch, and I met really awesome students and facilitators that I am still connected with today.”

photo of Jordan Bowman of Pledge My Check and Journeymen Triangle

Jordan Bowman

“The Ignite Retreat came at a pivotal time in my path and led me to double down my time and energy investments in Journeymen and other social entrepreneurial ventures,” Bowman added. “By the end of 2018, I had raised enough money as board president of Journeymen to resign from the board and come on as the first paid staff member of the organization. Last year [2019] I was able to hire a program director, and we grew our program 300 percent!”

Bowman expects to graduate from North Carolina State in either May 2020 or December 2020, depending on the pandemic. Meanwhile, he also works part-time as an associate for North Carolina State’s Business Sustainability Collaborative, which teaches students how to use business as a force for good. And he’s building a virtual community called Brother Hang. He says Brother Hang “allows men from across the world to belong in a community that cares about authentic connection and developing the mature masculine together. We share vulnerably our emotions, struggles and successes.”

“I am now heading into the close of my chapter at NC State and am looking forward to being a student of life full-time!” Bowman added. “I am excited about pursuing other projects and ventures. When the opportunity presented itself to build and grow Pledge My Check, I jumped in, and I can’t wait to see what other adventures are waiting for me as we enter into this new, beautiful, post-COVID-19 world.”

photo of Jordan Bowman at a Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat

Jordan Bowman is a past attendee of the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat.

Sullivan Foundation Cancels Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat and Faculty/Staff Summit

Due to concerns about the coronavirus, the Sullivan Foundation has canceled the Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat and the Faculty/Staff Summit scheduled for March 27-29.

“At the Sullivan Foundation, we prioritize the health and safety of our students and faculty members above all else,” said Sullivan Foundation President Steve McDavid. “Our staff and several board members have met several times to discuss our worst-case scenario plans. In light of recent events and the uncertainty of the coronavirus, my board is advising me to suspend all student and faculty programming for the spring semester.”

“It is with great sadness that we cancel these events, but all of us at the Sullivan Foundation feel it is best to protect our students and faculty first,” McDavid added. “We will be refunding all payments made to attend the Retreat and Summit.”

The Fall 2020 Ignite Retreat is scheduled for October 16-18 in Asheville, N.C. Click here to learn more.

Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat: Inspiring a New Generation of Changemakers

A hip-hop educator who teaches language arts through rap lyrics. A publishing prodigy who launched a successful girl-power magazine at 15. A master storyteller who has taught leadership development at companies like Nike and PepsiCo. The Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat has some heavy hitters in the lineup, and they’ve got a plan to inspire a new generation of college-student changemakers at the weekend-long event, taking place March 27-29 in Wake Forest, N.C.

The deadline to register for the Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat is Wednesday, March 11. Click here to learn more and to sign up.

Designed for college students with a passion for social change, the twice-yearly Ignite Retreats features exciting workshops, activities and opportunities to connect with a tribe of like-minded individuals who want to make a real difference in their communities, their country and their world. Over three days, a team of facilitators, coaches and conspirators lead the students on a journey to discover how they can change the world in a positive way—through social entrepreneurship, founding a nonprofit, launching a social-change project, or by simply cultivating their own leadership skills and creative talents.

photo of India Larry, a student attendee of the Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat

India Larry, a past student attendee of the Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat

Meet the Ignite Retreat facilitators: Jarren Small of Reading With a Rapper teaches ELA skills through hip-hop

The Ignite Retreat offers three workshop tracks:

Personal: For students who are still uncovering their calling and want to better understand their skills and passions, build self-confidence and explore the mindset of a social entrepreneur.

Problems: For those students who have a social issue or a set of problems they want to work on but don’t know how to get involved, this workshop track helps them develop concrete and practical skills.

Project:
This track is designed for students who want to dive deeply into a concrete solution, campus initiative, project or venture they’re trying to bring to life.

Building a Leadership Team

This year’s workshop leaders and presenters include Spud Marshall, founder of the co.space and innovation director of 3 Dots in State College, Penn.; Jasmine Babers, founder and CEO of Love Girls Magazine; Reagan Pugh, founding partner of Assemble; Jarren Small, cofounder of the Reading With a Rapper educational program based in Houston; Nicole Kelner, cofounder and COO of Coding Space and founder of Lemonaid; Josh Nadzam, cofounder and director of On the Move Art Studio in Lexington, Ky.; Adrienne Wright, executive director and CEO of U-Turn Sports in Richmond, Va.; Jason Reed, founder of Reach USA; Danielle Espiritu, learning success director of WeThrive; and Abu Fofanah, founder of Power Your Launch Marketing Accelerator.

photo of Spud Marshall at the Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat

Spud Marshall

Marshall puts together the roster of Ignite Retreat facilitators and coaches for each event. “We look for emerging leaders across the country pioneering novel solutions to a wide array of problems,” Marshall said. “Our hope is that the leadership team that the students get to meet during the retreat will give them an exciting array of possible career paths and approaches they may apply to their own journeys.”

Meet the Ignite Retreat Facilitators: Love Girls Magazine founder Jasmine Babers shines spotlight on “everyday girls”

“Some of our coaches have started million dollar companies, some are working on grassroots and small-scale nonprofits,” Marshall added. “Others tackle challenges through public policy, while still others work through school systems or private enterprise. I’m particularly excited about the team we’ve assembled for the Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat. This group represents some of the folks I most respect and admire in the social change space, and it will be a humbling opportunity to spend a weekend together with nearly 100 college students.”

The Ignite Retreat: A Life-Changing Experience for College Students
College students who have attended past Ignite Retreats often describe them as life-changing experiences. “The Ignite Retreat demonstrated unapologetic and honest empowerment of youth by unlocking the passions and curiosities of both extroverts and introverts alike,” said Jonathan Molai, a 2019 graduate of Campbell University and attendee of multiple Ignite Retreats and social entrepreneurship field trips sponsored by the Sullivan Foundation. “It was truly amazing to see how much each individual had grown by the end of the retreat.”

Related: Jonathan Molai: “My life was forever changed” by the Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreats

Jonathan Molai

Many of the student attendees arrive with ideas for personal changemaking projects that need some fleshing out. For example, Haleh Ghaffari, a student at Randolph Macon College, wants to use journaling to help promote mental health at her old high school. She has been keeping a personal journal for years that includes quotes for people suffering from depression, anxiety or self-harm. “When I was in high school, I had a really bad living situation, and I felt just so alone in the world,” she recalled. “The journal was a way to not feel so alone, to feel there was something good in the world [and to inspire] self-love. As I just kept going throughout the years, it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Ghaffari plans to work with her high school counselor to create a journaling project that starts with her own journal. “The counselor will give it to other people who have gone through the same thing, and then they will make their own journal and give it to the counselor,” she said. Over time, future students will have access to these journals of former students who went through depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues. “To me, it’s so important … to let other people know they’re not alone,” Ghaffari said. “I know what it’s like, and I don’t want other people to feel what I felt if they don’t have to.”

Blaise Gourley of North Carolina Wesleyan College already had a project underway before coming to the Fall 2019 retreat. He launched the IMPACT Wesleyan Business Society, a program for business school majors and minors, especially international students. “It focuses on practical skills that you might not learn in class as well as networking. We have guest speakers [from the business sector], peer-to-peer collaboration where you can present business ideas and get feedback, and practical projects that get you engaged in different activities that can be added to your portfolio.”

Related: Ole Miss changemaker Cecilia Trotter learns to say yes to risks and new life experiences

Gourley said he liked the mix of people and perspectives that he encountered at the last Ignite Retreat. “Having an environment where people can collaborate without judging or comparing each other—that’s one of the important keys,” he said. “You can take other people’s ideas as encouragement and inspiration rather than making [negative] comparisons and feeling bad because maybe you’re not as far along as some others. Everyone’s journey is different.”

What’s the best thing a newcomer will get out of the Ignite Retreat? “Looking at yourself and saying, ‘I can make a difference,’” Gourley said. “From the Ignite Retreats, I’ve learned that the Sullivan Foundation is an organization that’s making a difference in our youth, encouraging people to pursue their passions in a way that’s going to contribute to a greater society. That’s something I’m totally for.”

Meet the Ignite Retreat facilitators: Reagan Pugh builds connections through storytelling

 

 

 

Meet the Ignite Retreat Facilitators: Jarren Small Teaches ELA Skills Through Hip-Hop

From pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash in the 1970s to 21st century superstars like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop and rap are as much about storytelling and inventive use of language as they are about music. No one understands that better than Jarren Small, the driving force behind an innovative educational curriculum called Reading With a Rapper (RWAR) and the keynote speaker at the Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat.

The next Ignite Retreat takes place March 27-29 in Wake Forest, N.C. The weekend-long changemaking event features workshops, speakers and activities for college students with a strong interest in creating positive social impact and solving problems through social entrepreneurship. Click here to register or learn more about the Ignite Retreat.

Related: Meet the Ignite Retreat Facilitators: Reagan Pugh builds connections through storytelling

Using relatable, innovative tools and metrics, the eight-week RWAR program is an interactive learning experience that teaches English Language Arts (ELA) skills in a way that’s guaranteed to make today’s young people sit up and listen. RWAR helps students in grades 4-12 to hone their reading and writing skills through a series of activities and exercises built around rap songs with socially conscious lyrics, video content and technology. Students learn how to relate real-world concepts expressed in rap music to literature and writing.

Added bonus: The kids also get to meet and learn from up-and-coming hip-hop artists and even established hitmakers like Meek Mill.

photo of Jarren Small, founder of Reading With a Rapper

Jarren Small works closely with educators to tailor the Reading With a Rapper curriculum to fulfill TEKS standards set by the state of Texas.

The hip-hop movement evolved from humble beginnings at society’s margins, but today it’s one of the dominant musical styles—probably the most popular in the U.S. Because of its specialized artistry and social relevance, it can also be a teaching tool to help young people thrive at the secondary and collegiate level, Small believes.

“Hip-hop uses so many principles within the ELA space that it’s almost identical to properly expressing yourself creatively from your own perspective,” Small says. “The majority of the time, as consumers, we’re listening to audio books from authors when we listen to hip-hop projects. Writing an essay is no different.”

Small spearheaded Reading With a Rapper as an offshoot of a Houston nonprofit he co-founded with his friend, Douglas Johnson. Legends Do Live works with disadvantaged youth and communities, providing workshops, tutoring sessions and entertaining social experiences. Small left his own corporate job in 2018 to focus fulltime on Legends Do Live. It was a challenging period of his life, he says.

Related: Meet the Ignite Retreat Facilitators: Love Girls Magazine Jasmine Babers shines spotlight on “everyday girls”

“At that time, I started to go through my savings and ran my credit cards up and found myself at my lowest point going into the summer of being an entrepreneur,” he recalls. “I started working at a summer camp at my alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, where I would watch YouTube during my downtime.”

On YouTube, he came across an interview with Migos, a hip-hop group from Lawrenceville, Georgia, comprised of rappers who call themselves Takeoff, Offset and Quavo. “[The host] made them read a Dr. Seuss book in their rapping repertoire, and that’s where I had my light-bulb moment!” Small says. “I thought about how music can be such a positive tool to retain information, then started looking at how most artists use figurative language and tell unique stories all the time, similar to Dr. Seuss.”

“Finding a solution that could teach students how to read and write quicker and creating a better environment inside the classroom during school would be the ultimate win in my eyes,” he said.

Small and his Legends Do Live colleagues called that solution Reading With a Rapper. Noting that most rappers make creative use of metaphors, similes and personification in their songs, he realized he could employ music to teach these ELA concepts to young people.

this is a photo of a Reading With a Rapper class in action

Through eight-week programs and pop-ups, Reading With a Rapper uses rap lyrics to teach language and writing skills to school kids grades 4-12.

The RWAR program’s first week focuses on introducing the concept and working with teachers to identify ELA issues to be addressed. Small’s team then determines the kind of music and content that would best work for the class. The lessons focus on fulfilling the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards for what students should know and be able to do.

Using noise-canceling headphones and Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets, students listen to relevant hip-hop music, watch videos and learn to dissect the content of the lyrics and to express their own thoughts creatively. RWAR also uses different types of lighting in the classroom to create the appropriate mood. The curriculum encourages classroom discussions on social justice, a central theme to many hip-hop artists’ work.

“We’ll talk about gun control, low self-esteem, certain things that kids are always dealing with but may not have a comfortable vehicle to talk about it,” Small has said in a Beyond Borders article on rebtel.com.

At the end of the eight-week program, students compile and present an “album story”—their stories in essay form—in front of the class and are then surprised by a visit from the rapper whose lyrics they have been studying.

Related: Meet the Ignite Retreat Facilitators: How Josh Nadzam outran poverty and now uses art to change kids’ lives

“Creating a safe space [for students] to express themselves is super-important to us at our organization,” Small said. “With the recent violence that has happened in our school systems in America, bringing back an environment that welcomes the students and lets them express what’s going on outside of school in school is vital.”

The curriculum also introduces students to technology they might otherwise not have access to. “Students and their parents want [the youths] to be involved with STEM projects or coding, but if their reading is not at a place where it should be, that would be a pipe dream,” Small points out. “Music production or writing within the entertainment space are some of the many points we want to bring to the table as well.”

Small’s organization also produces RWAR Unplugged, a live, educational and interactive hip-hop concert for adults with corporate sponsors like Jack Daniel’s and Microsoft. “We believe we can influence and create a reinvented nostalgia of the past where artists’ words, feelings, emotions and comments can be heard in a welcoming and intimate setting, accompanied by the RWAR style that they may have heard of and will be sure to feed the soul of any intellectual music lover,” Small says. “Proceeds collected will allow us to provide our curriculum for underserved schools free of charge.”

this photo shows rapper Meek Mill at a Reading With a Rapper event

Hip-hop superstar Meek Mill appeared at a Reading With a Rapper event to talk about his organization, the REFORM Alliance.

RWAR has even held a series of celebrated pop-ups and events at middle and high schools in Houston. Each pop-up features a rapper and incorporates their music into the program. A pop-up in early 2019 featured popular hip-hop artist and social justice advocate Meek Mill, who talked about his organization, the REFORM Alliance, which focuses on reducing the number of people unjustly trapped in the criminal justice system.

Small isn’t a newcomer to the Ignite Retreat, a twice-yearly changemaking event aimed at college students from across the country. He has served as a workshop speaker at past retreats, even before he started running Legends Do Live fulltime. “Coming back to be the keynote speaker only shows how important these types of retreats are,” he said. “I’m a product of the Ignite Retreats, and I want to be able to show the students present that anything is possible when you take the right information in and put the work in.”

“I’m hoping the attendees will learn that thinking out of the box can really work once you surround yourself with the right group of people,” Small added. “Make your business or your purpose bigger than you. Improving people with your ideas or gifts are the true reason we have them.”

 

Cecilia Trotter: Saying “Yes” to Risks

Risk-taking doesn’t come easily to most of us, but University of Mississippi student Cecilia Trotter believes we can’t live full, rich lives without braving the unknown now and then. Her recent experience with the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat, held Oct. 18-20 in Black Mountain, N.C., drove that lesson home for Trotter in a significant way.

“You never really know where life will take you, and this retreat helped me want to say yes to more things in my life and take more risks,” said Trotter, a senior majoring in Public Policy Leadership and minoring in business, journalism and entrepreneurship at Ole Miss, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. “Risks are big for me, too—sometimes I really like to play it safe.”

Related: College students can get hands-on experience with social innovation in Selma, Alabama

Trotter, who hails from Greenville, Miss., was voted Miss Ole Miss by her fellow students this year, so she knows a thing or two about putting herself out there. She designed her campaign platform, called Rebel Heart, “to empower students and create a culture of positivity” while promoting mental health and wellness. Among her many activities on campus, Trotter serves on the Associated Student Body Cabinet and is a past co-director of the ASB’s First Year Experience program. She has also been an Ole Miss orientation leader and a team leader for the Ole Miss Big Event, the largest community service project in the university’s history.

Trotter has attended two Ignite Retreats and traveled to Prague this past summer for a Sullivan-sponsored study-abroad program that focused on leadership and social entrepreneurship. She will also serve as a Sullivan intern at the foundation’s Summer 2020 program, Leading for Social Innovation: Study Abroad in Scotland, which takes place June 4-July 4 in Edinburgh.

The Scotland program, developed in partnership with Arcadia University, features two courses—Leadership by Design and Social Change in Action. The first course emphasizes the practice and tools of leadership, while the second one introduces students to the emerging field of social entrepreneurship and innovation, empowering them to develop their own capacities for solving social problems while learning effective communications and storytelling skills. Students will take part in field trips across Scotland, meeting with social entrepreneurs and helping develop new initiatives to strengthen their ventures.

Related: Sullivan Ambassador Lori Babb aims to use social entrepreneurship and bioethics to change the world

Trotter, who loves to travel, said she “thoroughly enjoyed” her study-abroad adventure in Prague. “I was really excited to travel there as I had never seen any part of Eastern Europe,” she recalled. “I found Prague to be a sweet, little hidden gem. It had its own sense of charm that I have never experienced anywhere else, and I just found myself wanting to explore more every day.”

this photo shows Cecilia Trotter at Ole Miss prior to the Study Abroad in Scotland program

Cecilia Trotter is the current Miss Ole Miss and an intern for the Sullivan Foundation’s Study Abroad in Scotland program.

“The history of the Czech Republic and the old architecture and buildings made it feel as if you were living in the midst of so many different periods of time while still living your own experience,” Trotter added. “It felt really surreal as I began to see and consider all the different perspectives of both my fellow travelers and the natives around the city.”

Always ready for another overseas adventure, Trotter looks forward to working with the Sullivan study-abroad cohort in Edinburgh next summer. “The great thing about the courses offered through the Sullivan Foundation is that any student can benefit from them,” she noted. “We will all be called or challenged at some point in our lives to be a leader and have opportunities to serve or stand up as a leader. That is why I think it is important to take the [study-abroad] leadership course—so you may have the opportunity to dive deeper into learning about yourself and how you may lead others.”

Related: Sullivan Field Trip students discover the power of creative placemaking to help communities spur economic growth

The Scotland program’s course in social entrepreneurship is also important, she said, “because it focuses on innovative thinking. I found, in my own experience, that the ability to think creatively and innovatively fits any interest. Whether a student is interested in politics, medicine, art, or engineering, this course allows them to take the things they are passionate about and form ideas on how to move their interest forward. I really enjoyed the entrepreneurship course [in Prague] as it has given me insight on how to create and dream in systems, and I already feel like I have a strong system in place. Some students are already really great at that, but being able to challenge yourself while also seeking [innovative ideas] through a new lens abroad is something I find invaluable to education.”

Trotter is still mulling over her career options, but she will most likely earn her law degree next. Over the long term, in true Sullivan changemaker fashion, she hopes to live a life of service to others. “I really do see myself starting in a career with a law degree,” she said, “but also working in projects that will focus more through an entrepreneurial lens that targets the well-being of others and the education of young people.”

Experienced changemakers at the Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat included (from left): Crystal Dreisbach of Don’t Waste Durham and GreenToGo; Alexis Taylor of 3 Day Startup; Ajax Jackson of Magnolia Yoga Studio; Tessa Zimmerman of ASSET Education; and Abhinav Khanal of Bean Voyage.

In that regard, Trotter took some inspiration from facilitators and guest speakers at the Fall Ignite Retreat. Many of them are successful social entrepreneurs who use the principles of business to improve their communities. Crystal Dreisbach, for example, founded both a nonprofit, Don’t Waste Durham, and a social enterprise, GreenToGo, that focus on sustainability and reducing waste in Durham, N.C. Dreisbach related her changemaking experiences in an Ignite Retreat session attended by Trotter. “It was probably one of the best stories I have heard in my life,” Trotter said. “All of the women who spoke had the most amazing stories.”

Related: Crystal Dreisbach’s GreenToGo makes it easier for restaurants to kick the styrofoam habit

But Trotter was just as inspired by the student changemakers she encountered at the Sullivan event. “We have some really passionate, dedicated and extremely creative and intelligent young adults who, I believe, will do some really great things for our world in the future,” she said. “It is super-empowering to put all of these college students in one small place together for a weekend. People are exchanging ideas and working together to help one another, and it is so genuine … I think that students who are seeking to better themselves and make new and future connections would greatly enjoy this retreat. Even trying it won’t hurt or be a waste of time because I think you will leave with a piece of something that will better you.”

After all, trying is what changemaking is all about, as facilitators like Spud Marshall and Chad Littlefield made clear in their Ignite Retreat sessions. “Spud and Chad really have a way of making the risk seem like a small bump in the road,” Trotter said. “Quite honestly, it probably is, but when you are a young college student with no money and have a lot of ideas in your head with little direction, it seems huge. I think that my experience with the Sullivan Foundation has really helped me stop glorifying the risk and start glorifying the action of moving forward, knowing I could really, really fail in some aspect of life, big or small. I have also gotten to meet some really positive and intelligent people along the way whom I look up to. Sometimes, I feel like college students hear things like, ‘Do not join the real world—it’s a trap.’ But I’m excited to move forward, and meeting people through the Sullivan Foundation has solidified that for me.”

 

Elon University Students Learn How to “Make a Mark in the World” at Ignite Retreat

By Chloe Kennedy

Four students from Sullivan Foundation partner school Elon University learned how to “make a mark in the world” using social entrepreneurship at the foundation’s Fall 2020 Ignite Retreat.

Christopher Raville, Imani Vincent, Mikayla Ford and Angy Aguilar took part in the twice-yearly event, held Oct. 18-20 in Asheville, N.C. They attended workshops, activities and events focused on changemaking, honing leadership skills and the principles of social enterprise. The retreat workshops were hands-on and experimental and allowed each participant time to work on a project of their choice, gain clarity on potential career paths and dig deeper into a set of problems, all while focusing on connecting skills and interests in a way to create positive community change.

Related: Sullivan Foundation offers Study Abroad opportunity in Scotland for Summer 2020

“An activity that particularly stood out to me was about empathic listening,” said Aguilar, a computer science and entrepreneurship double major. “Students formed groups, and one person in the group shared a problem in their life that they had. We were encouraged to ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions rather than ‘why’ questions to really understand the problem. I found this activity very valuable as most of the time we listen to respond rather than listen to understand and empathize.”

The Elon group was among more than 100 students and young professionals in attendance who are passionate about social entrepreneurship. “Students came from all over with different problems, passions and curiosities, with the goal to make a mark in the world,” said Ford, a communication design major.

“After this weekend I know I have a community of people who understand my motivation,” added Vincent, who majors in public health. “What amazed me about the Ignite Retreat was being able to be in a space with so many people with different perspectives who all want in some way to make social change.”

Related: Ole Miss changemaker Cecilia Trotter says “yes” to risks and new life experiences

Alyssa Martina, director of the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Elena Kennedy, assistant professor of entrepreneurship, accompanied the students and met with faculty and staff from a variety of schools in the Sullivan Foundation network to learn best practices related to teaching social entrepreneurship and innovation.

“The Ignite Retreat provided a space for those of us who are deeply passionate about creating social change to interact and network with like-minded social entrepreneurs,” said Raville, a finance and entrepreneurship double major. “Workshopping my own initiative provided fresh insights on how to deliver an impactful prototype. Pitching my own initiative provided a space to practice delivering my message to a large, diverse group and left me with feedback as to how better communicate my vision.”

This story was edited slightly from the original article appearing on the Elon University website.

Ole Miss Changemaker Cecilia Trotter Says “Yes” to Risks and New Life Experiences

Risk-taking doesn’t come easily to most of us, but University of Mississippi student Cecilia Trotter believes we can’t live full, rich lives without braving the unknown now and then. Her recent experience with the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat, held Oct. 18-20 in Black Mountain, N.C., drove that lesson home for Trotter in a significant way.

“You never really know where life will take you, and this retreat helped me want to say yes to more things in my life and take more risks,” said Trotter, a senior majoring in Public Policy Leadership and minoring in business, journalism and entrepreneurship at Ole Miss, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. “Risks are big for me, too—sometimes I really like to play it safe.”

Related: College students can get hands-on experience with social innovation in Selma, Alabama

Trotter, who hails from Greenville, Miss., was voted Miss Ole Miss by her fellow students this year, so she knows a thing or two about putting herself out there. She designed her campaign platform, called Rebel Heart, “to empower students and create a culture of positivity” while promoting mental health and wellness. Among her many activities on campus, Trotter serves on the Associated Student Body Cabinet and is a past co-director of the ASB’s First Year Experience program. She has also been an Ole Miss orientation leader and a team leader for the Ole Miss Big Event, the largest community service project in the university’s history.

Trotter has attended two Ignite Retreats and traveled to Prague this past summer for a Sullivan-sponsored study-abroad program that focused on leadership and social entrepreneurship. She will also serve as a Sullivan intern at the foundation’s Summer 2020 program, Leading for Social Innovation: Study Abroad in Scotland, which takes place June 4-July 4 in Edinburgh.

The Scotland program, developed in partnership with Arcadia University, features two courses—Leadership by Design and Social Change in Action. The first course emphasizes the practice and tools of leadership, while the second one introduces students to the emerging field of social entrepreneurship and innovation, empowering them to develop their own capacities for solving social problems while learning effective communications and storytelling skills. Students will take part in field trips across Scotland, meeting with social entrepreneurs and helping develop new initiatives to strengthen their ventures.

Related: Sullivan Ambassador Lori Babb aims to use social entrepreneurship and bioethics to change the world

Trotter, who loves to travel, said she “thoroughly enjoyed” her study-abroad adventure in Prague. “I was really excited to travel there as I had never seen any part of Eastern Europe,” she recalled. “I found Prague to be a sweet, little hidden gem. It had its own sense of charm that I have never experienced anywhere else, and I just found myself wanting to explore more every day.”

this photo shows Cecilia Trotter at Ole Miss prior to the Study Abroad in Scotland program

Cecilia Trotter is the current Miss Ole Miss and an intern for the Sullivan Foundation’s Study Abroad in Scotland program.

“The history of the Czech Republic and the old architecture and buildings made it feel as if you were living in the midst of so many different periods of time while still living your own experience,” Trotter added. “It felt really surreal as I began to see and consider all the different perspectives of both my fellow travelers and the natives around the city.”

Always ready for another overseas adventure, Trotter looks forward to working with the Sullivan study-abroad cohort in Edinburgh next summer. “The great thing about the courses offered through the Sullivan Foundation is that any student can benefit from them,” she noted. “We will all be called or challenged at some point in our lives to be a leader and have opportunities to serve or stand up as a leader. That is why I think it is important to take the [study-abroad] leadership course—so you may have the opportunity to dive deeper into learning about yourself and how you may lead others.”

Related: Sullivan Field Trip students discover the power of creative placemaking to help communities spur economic growth

The Scotland program’s course in social entrepreneurship is also important, she said, “because it focuses on innovative thinking. I found, in my own experience, that the ability to think creatively and innovatively fits any interest. Whether a student is interested in politics, medicine, art, or engineering, this course allows them to take the things they are passionate about and form ideas on how to move their interest forward. I really enjoyed the entrepreneurship course [in Prague] as it has given me insight on how to create and dream in systems, and I already feel like I have a strong system in place. Some students are already really great at that, but being able to challenge yourself while also seeking [innovative ideas] through a new lens abroad is something I find invaluable to education.”

Trotter is still mulling over her career options, but she will most likely earn her law degree next. Over the long term, in true Sullivan changemaker fashion, she hopes to live a life of service to others. “I really do see myself starting in a career with a law degree,” she said, “but also working in projects that will focus more through an entrepreneurial lens that targets the well-being of others and the education of young people.”

Experienced changemakers at the Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat included (from left): Crystal Dreisbach of Don’t Waste Durham and GreenToGo; Alexis Taylor of 3 Day Startup; Ajax Jackson of Magnolia Yoga Studio; Tessa Zimmerman of ASSET Education; and Abhinav Khanal of Bean Voyage.

In that regard, Trotter took some inspiration from facilitators and guest speakers at the Fall Ignite Retreat. Many of them are successful social entrepreneurs who use the principles of business to improve their communities. Crystal Dreisbach, for example, founded both a nonprofit, Don’t Waste Durham, and a social enterprise, GreenToGo, that focus on sustainability and reducing waste in Durham, N.C. Dreisbach related her changemaking experiences in an Ignite Retreat session attended by Trotter. “It was probably one of the best stories I have heard in my life,” Trotter said. “All of the women who spoke had the most amazing stories.”

Related: Crystal Dreisbach’s GreenToGo makes it easier for restaurants to kick the styrofoam habit

But Trotter was just as inspired by the student changemakers she encountered at the Sullivan event. “We have some really passionate, dedicated and extremely creative and intelligent young adults who, I believe, will do some really great things for our world in the future,” she said. “It is super-empowering to put all of these college students in one small place together for a weekend. People are exchanging ideas and working together to help one another, and it is so genuine … I think that students who are seeking to better themselves and make new and future connections would greatly enjoy this retreat. Even trying it won’t hurt or be a waste of time because I think you will leave with a piece of something that will better you.”

After all, trying is what changemaking is all about, as facilitators like Spud Marshall and Chad Littlefield made clear in their Ignite Retreat sessions. “Spud and Chad really have a way of making the risk seem like a small bump in the road,” Trotter said. “Quite honestly, it probably is, but when you are a young college student with no money and have a lot of ideas in your head with little direction, it seems huge. I think that my experience with the Sullivan Foundation has really helped me stop glorifying the risk and start glorifying the action of moving forward, knowing I could really, really fail in some aspect of life, big or small. I have also gotten to meet some really positive and intelligent people along the way whom I look up to. Sometimes, I feel like college students hear things like, ‘Do not join the real world—it’s a trap.’ But I’m excited to move forward, and meeting people through the Sullivan Foundation has solidified that for me.”

 

Moving Mountains

From the Hatfields and McCoys to the once-thriving coal mines that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, rural Appalachia has a rich and storied history—and a troubled, uncertain future. Vast swaths of the region are mired in poverty and joblessness. Its inhabitants are more likely to die of heart disease and cancer than the average American. And while doctors are few and far between in many counties, Vicodin and Lortab are all too easy to come by.

While many gaze out at the strip-mined Appalachian landscape and see a “big white ghetto” (to borrow a term from the National Review), Dr. Sharon Perot, Professor David Hite and their team at the Appalachian Summit Center (ASC) see opportunities for economic empowerment and innovative people willing to work hard for a better life. Thanks to the power of social entrepreneurship, there’s still gold in them thar hills, they believe, and you don’t have to tear down the mountains to mine it.

Dr. Sharon Perot developed the Appalachian Summit Center for her Sullivan Foundation Faculty Fellows project.

Encouraging Startup Communities
Headquartered in Bluefield, Va., the ASC started out as Perot’s Sullivan Faculty Fellows project and became the first initiative of the Campbell University Hub, a network of Sullivan-affiliated schools in the Campbell region that provide programming to promote social entrepreneurship and economic growth. Perot, a professor and interim dean of the Caudill School of Business at Bluefield College, said she launched ASC because she saw “a need to improve the overall community well-being, including health and education. ASC focuses on encouraging startup communities, providing support to agribusinesses and small business growth.”

As they worked on the project, Perot and Hite realized that, although local civic leaders were working to address problems, they knew little about initiatives outside their own agencies or defined scope. “It became clear that collaboration was essential if we were going to help improve the community,” Perot said. “We envisioned a hub or center where businesses, local leaders, regional tourism agencies, workforce development organizations, SBA chapters, economic development directors, and church leaders were able to share their goals and work together to prevent redundancy. As we know, scarce resources necessitate partnerships and a willingness to work together.”

Perot found partners in the academic world through the Sullivan Foundation. At the Fall 2017 Ignite Retreat in Black Mountain, N.C., she and Hite, a Bluefield business professor, met with Dr. John Bartlett, an associate professor of biology at Campbell University (CU), and Sullivan liaison Dan Maynard, the business librarian at CU. “Sharon mentioned her interest in social entrepreneurship as a way to abate the economic and social stress her community in southern Appalachia is experiencing,” Maynard wrote in a document about the project. “She said that tourism and agriculture looked like fertile areas for social entrepreneurship.”

Dr. David Hite

The Bluefield and Campbell colleagues quickly formed a partnership, and Perot introduced the ASC at Sullivan’s Spring 2018 Faculty Summit in Raleigh, N.C. Its goal: “Identify opportunities that build collaborative, innovative solutions that create social and economic value in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia.” Designed to serve as a model for other rural Christian colleges, the ASC “uses education, research and hands-on projects to strengthen individuals and organizations so that they may build a more prosperous Appalachia.”

Opportunities in Entrepreneurship
And there’s plenty of work to be done. As a 2019 report from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) shows, Appalachia’s poverty rate, while showing some signs of improvement, remains higher than the U.S. average, with many counties moving in a negative direction or stuck in the “distressed” category. The region also outpaces the nation in mortality due to medical issues like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide while lagging behind in the number of healthcare professionals, according to a 2017 ARC report.

The decline of the coal industry has played a major role in the region’s economic woes. A 2018 ARC study found Appalachian coal production declined by nearly 45 percent between 2005 and 2015—more than double the rate of national decline. Coal industry employment in the region decreased by around 27 percent, with Central Appalachia taking the hardest hit.

But tunneling through the mountains for coal isn’t the only way to create jobs and prosperity. Thanks to an abundance of sugar maple trees, the Central and Southern Appalachian region has the potential to rival New England in maple sugar production.

“Our maple trees outnumber Vermont’s, and we have all witnessed the success that industry has brought to Vermont,” Perot noted. “We also have several small mountain farms capable of producing a healthy living. In addition, there has been a tremendous increase in adventure tourism, which is driving small business growth in the areas of housing and restaurants. And there are hundreds of ATV trails throughout the region—Hatfield-McCoy is just one of the trail systems within a few miles of the ASC.”

The Hatfield-McCoy Trails are a major destination in the adventure tourism sector.

The ASC’s research included an adventure tourism study that identified the need for more restaurants and lodging, resulting in the creation of new lodging (such as tiny houses) and dining establishments. ASC also works with local entrepreneurs interested in leveraging the region’s natural resources, provides coaching and mentoring for startups and assists in small business growth. “Our work includes helping businesses and local leaders define customer value, find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition, and develop profit formulas as well as social media marketing strategies,” Perot said.

Appalachia is also dotted with food deserts, defined by the ARC as low-income areas where many residents don’t have access to vehicles or live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket. The ASC team promotes startup agribusinesses that can produce high-quality food, such as McDowell County Farms, a farmers co-op in southern West Virginia. The co-op offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which consumers can buy an annual stake to source locally grown food, and provides produce to food banks and grocery stores in struggling communities.

Opioid addiction is another vexing problem in Appalachia—one recent CBS report ranked West Virginia as the deadliest state for drug overdoses. The ASC provides support for recovering addicts who are passionate about social change and entrepreneurial opportunities. ASC worked with one group, Mountain Movers, to develop Launch Recovery, a business pitch competition for individuals in the recovery community, with startup money and free business services awarded to the winners. “We believe the coaching and training we are offering provide a structure and process to help individuals stay focused and move forward toward a healthier lifestyle,” Perot said.

McDowell County Farms sells produce at a regional farmers market.

Building Trust
Meanwhile, getting young people involved in the community is essential to revitalizing Appalachia. In addition to collaborating with the American Youth Agripreneur Association, Perot and her team launched the ASC’s first summer internship program.

“Social change and innovation begins with community engagement,” Perot said. “Community engagement begins with trust—trust that people care, trust that people are genuine and honest, trust that people are willing to be open to differences and nonjudgmental. The internship is designed around human design theory and Living Learning Communities. Empathy helps design thinkers seek understanding about a particular group of people or community. Learning what is important to them and understanding who they are demonstrates caring, which leads to trust.”

In the program’s inaugural year, student interns worked within Living Learning Communities in the Bluefield area, developed their teamwork, leadership and followership skills, and took part in experiential learning activities. They visited local agribusinesses, art studios, small businesses and startups to learn about the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and how to use their own talents to bring about social change.

“They discover that community identity is often shaped by facts and statistics that lead to generalities,” Perot said. “Facts about income, age, education levels, family structure, health statistics, crime rates, etc. may not accurately characterize the culture or people. Natural resources, anchor institutions such as churches, agencies and schools, and community leaders are seemingly not included in the community story. They discover that communities are often richer than the story being told in the news or by the facts. They discover how they can make a difference.”

ASC’s first group of summer interns visits an art makerspace in Bluefield, Va.

ASC has also lent support to a student-run art makerspace in Bluefield that will bring older and younger residents together. “The goal is to renovate a downtown building into a student-run skills makerspace for the community with a significant focus on art,” Hite said. “The initiative seeks to create partnerships with the seniors in the regions who have various talents, such as art, woodworking and other hands-on skills.”

The co-working space will include young entrepreneurs, skilled laborers and ASC team members. “Interns will assist with business startups, one-on-one business mentoring for new entrepreneurs and operations of the facility,” Hite said. “Based on the feedback I received from the town manager and mayor, they loved the idea and strongly support the project, which also has the verbal backing of over 20 seniors in the community and many artists and business owners.”

Achieving real social change can feel like moving mountains, so to speak, and tough challenges lie ahead for the ASC team. But for Perot, it’s a personal and spiritual mission. “ASC is my way of serving others,” she said. “I believe God endows each of us with unique gifts and talents, and it’s up to us to develop them in order to serve the needs of others. This part of our country continues to be neglected by state and federal agencies. False promises are made about a resurgence of coal mining, and there’s a lack of research in the area of poverty in the U.S.”

But the people of Appalachia will do whatever it takes to bring about real change. “Living in this community, I’ve witnessed service to others, selfless leadership, generosity, compassion, and ingenuity, despite growing health issues, increasing addiction rates and limited resources,” Perot said. “I’m motivated by the community leaders committed to making improvements and by the belief that I have some of the talents and abilities needed to make a difference in the lives of others in need.”