(Photo courtesy of Aureliusxv at en.wikipedia)

Late in the fall of 2011, as liberal arts schools across the country struggled to balance their budgets, Grinnell College President Raynard Kington met with his senior staff to discuss how to strengthen their college’s identity. With tuition costs rising steadily and many families concerned about footing the bill for private schools, the administration felt pressured to test new strategies to attract rising freshman to their school of 1,600 students, isolated among the cornfields of rural Iowa.

Initially, school officials proposed launching a targeted advertising campaign to reach prospective candidates, but when the the exorbitant cost of this kind of national campaign became apparent, Kington and his advisers decided that the money could be better spent on a project that could have a sustained effect on campus life as it helped develop one of the school’s core missions: advancing social justice.

Out of that first conversation, the Grinnell College Young Innovator Prize was born. The $100,000 prize is granted annually to individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in the field of social justice. Applicants do not need to be affiliated with the college, and many actually submit applications from overseas; they do, however, need to demonstrate that their organizations are operational and effective in promoting positive social change. Now in its fourth year, the Grinnell Prize is one of the largest of its kind in the United States.

According to President Kington, the prize provides the school’s students with empowering, concrete examples of successful youth action. “We want to train our students to change the world, but also to understand the challenges of social change,” he said in a phone interview with The Nation. “The primary advantage is for our students to have intimate contact with young people who saw a problem and tried to fix it, despite the difficulty and despite their youth; they are showing that it can be done.”

Recent nominees and winners have backed a diverse range of causes, including fair housing, childhood education, hospice care and literacy. Half the prize money, which is funded with discretionary funds from the college’s endowment as well as targeted donations, is awarded to the individual and half to an organization affiliated with the winner’s area of interest.

Cristi Hegranes, founder of the Global Press Institute, a nonprofit news network that trains and employs local women to work as journalists in its twenty-five international bureaus, won one of the three grants available last year. After a stint at Village Voice Media and as a foreign reporter covering the Nepalese civil war, Hegranes founded GPI at the age of 25 to address what she saw as a glaring absence in the global media landscape. Both foreign correspondents and the individuals they interview tend to be male, and many reporters do not speak the native languages or possess extensive networks of sources in the countries where they are assigned.

“When I was in Nepal I came to realize that if local people, especially local women, were trained in responsible journalism and had a credible global platform to publish their work, their impact in covering international stories could far exceed that of mine,” Hegranes said in a phone interview.

In addition to broadening the range of international coverage to include often overlooked subjects such as maternal health and civil rights, Hegranes viewed GPI as a way to provide women in developing countries with stable, fulfilling careers. The organization now employs more than 100 women in its newsrooms, and has used the earnings from the Grinnell Prize to spearhead a multimedia initiative and to bolster its core funding.

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The prize has lasting benefits for the Grinnell Community as well as for the winning organizations. Finalists are invited to campus for a weeklong symposium of panels and informal meetings with students and are encouraged to teach short courses. Several of the winners have also offered internships to current Grinnell students.

GPI brought on two Grinnell interns this summer to work in the programs and development departments at its San Francisco headquarters. Says Hegranes, “I think it will be a great boon to our work to have this sustained relationship with the college and that we’ll continue to work with Grinnell students for many years to come.”

To learn more about the prize and how to apply, visit Grinnell’s website.