(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.