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Social Justice Prize Winners Announced

This past Tuesday, Oct. 29, Grinnell announced the winners for its third annual Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize.

This year’s winners are Emily Arnold-Fernández of Asylum Access and Elizabeth Scharpf and Julian Ingabire Kayibanda of Sustainable Heath Enterprises (SHE). Arnold-Fernández and her organization, Asylum Access, work to improve the lives of refugees by granting them legal access to work and education in their new countries, while Scharpf and Ingabire Kayibanda and their organization, SHE, produce maxi pads using local agro-waste to provide women with affordable access to menstrual products. The winners were selected from a pool of 151 nominees representing 29 different countries.

The Prize is awarded to individuals under 40 who are spurring extraordinary social change. Each winner receives 100,000 dollars; half of the money goes to the individuals and half goes to an organization involved in the same area of social justice as the winner. Along with their prize money, winners are awarded medals and commemorative artwork representing their efforts.

Winners are selected after being reviewed by two committees. The first consists of students, faculty and alumni. The committee divides into groups and rates nominees based on the innovativeness and impact of their projects, awarding each nominee a score. Then, a second selection committee of 10 members reviews the nominations and compiles a list of the top 10 to 12 candidates based on these evaluations. From there, it selects up to two winners, aiming to represent a diversity of issues.

Saunia Powell ’02, Program Associate of the Grinnell Prize and Innovation Fund, feels that this year’s winners have strong willingness to address taboo issues.

“[They are] going after an issue that has real impact in actual people’s lives and tackling the issue in a real way, even though it’s something that isn’t talked about or prestigious. [They don’t] shy away from talking about taboo things,” she said.

Grinnell hosts various events with the winners throughout the week. Since the Prize was inaugurated fairly recently, improvements are still being made to the program and its surrounding events.

This year, organizers have expanded events because of public interest and desired student involvement. An event in Des Moines, previously an intimate gathering, has grown into a full-scale public networking event.

“There’s an interest wider than just in Grinnell … to have an event to meet the winners. We are really happy to collaborate with our co-sponsors … to make it public and available. We specifically wanted to have students come to the event as a networking opportunity—not just to meet the winners … but to meet other movers and shakers that are young and innovative,” said Melisa Chan, Coordinator of the Grinnell Prize and Innovation Fund.

Organizers have also shortened the timeline of events. In previous years, winners were announced two and half months before coming to campus. This year, the winners will arrive on campus within one week of being announced.

Additionally, the award ceremony has been combined with a keynote speaker. The 2013 speaker will be Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist and author of “Dead Man Walking,” a highly acclaimed non-fiction account based on her correspondence with death row inmates in a Louisiana prison.

Most significantly, perhaps, was the decision to reduce the maximum number of awards from three, as it has been in the past, to two. This decision was, at least in part, made in response to criticism surrounding the amount of money being spent on the Prize.

Chan, however, feels that the Prize’s value significantly outweighs its financial costs.

“We don’t just give money to prize winners and then never see them again. We are invested in them. Winners have come back to teach short courses … to teach workshops, they’ve sponsored internships … staff fellows … and even sponsored an alumni volunteer group,” Chan said.

Above all, she listed the relationships formed in the process as perhaps the greatest reward.

“Students who have engaged with winners [in the past] have now these long term relationships,” she said. “They’re contacting each other. They’re collaborating with their organizations.”

The events surrounding the Prize begin with a screening of “Dead Man Walking”—a movie based on Prejean’s book—on Sunday, Nov. 3 and continue throughout the week. 

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