Storytelling Initiative Receives Global Innovation Award

January 23, 2015

The Swearer Center for Public Service has been selected as a winner of the 2015 Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award for the launch of the Swearer Sparks website and Storytellers for Good program.

The Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award recognizes top innovative approaches in social entrepreneurship education at colleges and universities around the world. It was established five years ago by Ashoka U, an initiative of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, and the Cordes Foundation, a champion of bold, innovative solutions to the world's toughest problems.

Swearer Sparks provides a space for Brown University’s social innovation community to connect with one another and share their ideas, experiences, and beliefs through the power of digital storytelling. On the website, users can access 200+ stories created by Brown storytellers and changemakers; 85+ profiles of students and alumni exploring social issues in communities around the world; and dozens of resources for active and aspiring social innovators.

Multimedia stories on Swearer Sparks are created through the Storytellers for Good program - a selective group of students that meet regularly to learn skills in digital media, explore the craft of storytelling, and produce engaging stories with social impact. Their stories not only provide valuable points of connection among students and alumni in the Brown community, but also present media as a powerful tool for social change in the world. Together, the program and platform function as a dynamic, diverse storytelling and relationship-building machine powered by the Brown community.  

Above: An image from a photo essay by Liza Yeager '17’ on Moving Mountains, a social venture started by Social Innovation Fellows Ivy Sokol ‘15 and Jared Rothenberg ‘15. See the essay at"Storytellers for Good gives me a space to talk with hugely inspiring changemakers about what drives them, and how they do what they do,” says Yeager, entering her fourth semester in the program this spring. “It's an incredible privilege, but its also helped me understand how - by using my own media skills to share their work and ideas in a way that makes people care - I have the power to make an impact, too." 

Communications Manager of the Swearer Center Alexandra Braunstein will accept the award at the upcoming Ashoka U Exchange before an audience of 650 leaders in higher education. The Ashoka U Exchange, hosted by the University of Maryland this February, gathers over 120 colleges and universities from nearly thirty countries to share best practices and advance collaborative projects.

Braunstein, who designed and directs the storytelling program at Brown, describes the values behind the program: “No matter what our stories look or sound like, we want them to be accessible, relevant, and inspiring. But the question really driving this work at a high level is ‘How can storytelling be useful as a tool for community-building?’ That’s an idea that really resonates with our students and the work of the Swearer Center.”

Above: A screenshot of Swearer Sparks ( Members of the Brown community can nominate stories, which are then screened, selected, and created by student storytellers - and published back on the website.

With the creation of the Swearer Center for Public Service in 1986, Brown University became one of the first campuses in the nation to establish a formal center for public service. Over 25 years, the Center has built a reputation for transformational learning and strong community partnerships, evolving and deepening the idea of “engaged scholarship” at Brown. What began as a handful of programs and fellowships has blossomed to encompass dozens of programs that help advance Brown's mission to “serve the community, the nation, and the world" through innovative, integrative approaches to academic and community work. It began its work with storytelling in September 2013 with the creation of the Storytellers for Good program, followed by the launch of Swearer Sparks in May 2014.

“Before Alex joined our team, much of the incredible work our students did in the community and around the world was largely invisible,” says Acting Director of the Swearer Center Kate Trimble. “With Swearer Sparks, student service and reflection have a dynamic new platform that also builds community among social innovators on campus and out in the world. Overall, the two programs are helping us think more critically about the role that effective communication plays in social change work.”

Swearer Sparks was selected from 270 submissions as one of the six winners of the 2015 Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award. To read about the other awardees and read a full press release from Ashoka U, click here.