IMPACT Social Entrepreneurship Awards: Year One

Social Craft builds a home on the campus of Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore

$10,000: It's a daunting amount of money to a student, especially when the task is to spend it in three months on a single project. But three CCA student IMPACT teams proved up to the challenge in summer 2011.

The IMPACT: Social Entrepreneurship Awards is a new initiative at CCA, run by the Center for Art and Public Life under the direction of Center director Sanjit Sethi and program manager Rebecca Wolfe. It is one of a trio of unique programs managed by the Center that connect students with outside communities to address specific, real-world problems.

The three winning IMPACT teams had competed against numerous other contenders, and they all had what the judges were looking for: They were interdisciplinary, they had strong relationships with their proposed community partners, they were attentive to a relevant social and humanitarian need, and they balanced innovation and pragmatism.

Sanjit Sethi says, "The name of this speaks for itself. At its core the IMPACT program is about innovation, community, collaboration, and making. It celebrates the entrepreneurial drive of CCA students combined with their desire to create a tangible, positive impact within a specific community."

(Note to students: Info sessions for summer 2012 IMPACT are happening in San Francisco on Nov. 8 and 17 at 6 p.m. in the Timken reception area, and in Oakland Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. in front of A2 Cafe.)

The year-one IMPACT teams reported on their completed projects on September 29, 2011, in Timken Lecture Hall on CCA's San Francisco campus.

WAZO Design Institute

WAZO Design Institute was composed of communications designer Konina Biswas (Design 2011), printmaker Ben Ilka (MFA 2012), business strategist James Lee (DMBA 2012), and product designer Paul Wood (Design 2011). Their proposal was to create a design and production facility in Kayafungo, Kenya, where local students would make shoes out of cloth and used car tires. The goal was to invent a locally sourced, sustainable, beautiful, functional, affordable product, and to have that product address a local health problem, hookworm, which is contracted through the sole of the unprotected foot. Paul Wood had spent the previous summer in Kayafungo, living with families and laying the groundwork.

WAZO's project, in its final form, beautifully embodied the mandate to exert a meaningful "impact" on the selected site and the local collaborators. "We went to Kenya planning to make lots and lots of shoes," reported James Lee, "but the project became much more about training the students to be design thinkers. They made shoes, for sure, but they also learned strategies and techniques that will enable them to become creative entrepreneurs and apply design thinking to any new product or endeavor. The bigger picture is that known design and imaginative processes can be used to tackle social issues."

The team had to be constantly creative and flexible while on the ground in Kenya, navigating the maze of local individuals and organizations (official and otherwise) whose cooperation was required, not to mention dealing with material and facility shortages, and cultural and communication gaps. There were also budget management issues to contend with; once in Kenya it is possible to operate with very low costs, but flying there from the United States is quite expensive.

By the time the CCA students left, the Kenyan students had established a self-run organization that will continue to function. Six of them had secured future internships with one of the local craftsmen they had met as part of the project, and all of them had earned certificates of financial literacy from Equity Bank, which means that they can now apply for business loans.

Social Craft

The Social Craft team prefaced its final presentation with a guided meditation in which they asked audience members to imagine themselves "at home." What do you do at home? What do you eat? Where do you sit, and sleep? The group was sculptor Cara Levine (MFA 2012), architect and sculptor Nicholas Morris (Sculpture 2013), and educator and social practice artist Cassie Thornton (MFA 2012). Even before they heard about IMPACT, Levine and Thornton were already plotting to somehow find a way to get to India and do a project. They met Morris at one of the Center's "mixer" events for students in need of team members from other majors, and recognized in him a kindred spirit. Their project, they decided, would be to explore the idea of home by building an actual home on the campus of Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, a college in Bangalore, India.

The three spent July and August leading a class of Srishti students in doing exactly that. After arriving on campus they picked a location: the roof of a partially completed campus building, which happened to already be the temporary residence of the workmen constructing the building. The students at Srishti were from well-to-do families and not accustomed to interacting with workers, or the dirt and discomfort of a construction site. The "seats" of their improvised classroom were disused toilets, and the raw material for the new rooftop home was trash from the construction going on beneath. They built a makeshift crane to haul the trash up to their fifth-floor building site.

The CCA team soon discovered the upsides of working in India: materials are inexpensive (especially when you are making something out of trash), labor is affordable (especially when your workers are mostly student volunteers), and almost anything can be accomplished under the radar. At one point the class's home-building efforts did surface on the radar -- in a local newspaper story -- and Srishti's president paid a visit to the project site. "She said, 'Hey, I'm a big fan of conceptual art, but we didn't get any permits for this, so can you please start calling it a sculpture instead of a house? Great, thanks!'" remembers Cara Levine. All along the way, the trio deliberately blurred boundaries: between performance and everyday life, work and home, teacher and student, stranger and friend.

The "visiting faculty" to their class included not only the workmen but also a cook, a professor, a bricklayer, a working mother, an architect, and a master yoga teacher. One of the Indian students' biggest challenges came at the end, when they confronted the socially onerous task of placing a value on these people's contributions, and paying them accordingly. An even more difficult question than defining "home," they found, is defining "work" and what it is worth.

IMPACT Skyline

Team IMPACT Skyline was operating just a stone's throw away -- at Skyline High School in Oakland -- and yet they too were dedicated, in a sense, to bridging cultural and communication gaps. Design strategists Alvin Cheung (DMBA 2012), Michelle Dawson (DMBA 2012), Corey Lee (Design 2011), and Sanam Nassirpour (DMBA 2012) had proposed a three-part project to encourage interactions among Skyline's teachers, who tend to stay in their rooms and shy away from interacting with one another.

The concept was holistic: Problems whose causes run wide and deep, such as teacher turnover and feelings of isolation and stress, can be helped via strategic interventions. The CCA students' interventions included mechanisms for idea exchange in the copy room and a designed online space for discussion and resource sharing.

There were some challenges, mostly schedule-related. Many of the teachers who had planned to be on campus over the summer unexpectedly weren't, which created delays, and some of the work the students had expected to do themselves, on the fly, actually needed to be done by union labor. Yet the team did succeed in transforming the room into a space that all the teachers now want to linger in, with whiteboards, chalkboards, and mailbox "badges" for inter-teacher messaging. And the online forum is in use and gaining in popularity.

The third component of the project -- a culminating workshop -- was a great success, according to Sanam Nassirpour. "We brought the teachers up to speed on their newly available physical and online forums. We also created some basic problem statements and led them through design-thinking exercises. The design-thinking mode was totally foreign to many of them, but at the end they all seemed really confident with it."

Apply for IMPACT 2012

If you are a student with a potential IMPACT idea, the Center for Art and Public Life encourages you to connect with students outside your academic program and apply for summer 2012! See center.cca.edu for the info session schedule. Info sessions are happening in San Francisco on Nov. 8 and 17 at 6 p.m. in the Timken reception area, and in Oakland Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. in front of A2 Cafe.

Sanjit Sethi says, "In many ways IMPACT is advanced education. Students take the initiative to seek out other like-minded students and the collaboration of a local, national, or international community organization and propose a project. They aren't doing this for a grade, but rather because they have conviction. It is exactly the type of experience that they will face out in the real world. IMPACT speaks to the character of CCA as an institution that inspires learning and creativity -- not in a vacuum, but rather in service to one's community."

In order to increase the number and diversity of IMPACT team applications in 2012, the Center is planning to double the number of informational and team-building networking sessions it hosts. To make sure you hear about these events, sign up for Center news at cca.edu/subscribe and visit center.cca.edu for the schedule.

Read more about the year-one projects at centerimpact.wordpress.com.