Spark12 considers finalists for social justice startups
By Tita Parham*
Young adults who want to change the world and know exactly how they would do it – including one from San Francisco, in the California-Nevada Annual Conference – soon will learn if they'll get a chance to put their ideas to the test.
Twelve projects are being considered for funding from Spark12, a pilot incubator for social justice ministry startups, developed and implemented by teams of young adults.
"We didn't know what to expect in terms of the initial (project) applications," says the Rev. April Casperson, a member of the Spark12 executive committee and admissions director at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. "We're pretty excited about what we received."
The new initiative was directed by the United Methodist Council of Bishops' Leadership Table and came to fruition in May 2011 through the work of a young adult team. The Council of Bishops endorsed the plan at its November 2011 meeting.
Spark12 will fund social justice ministries that can be implemented and sustained in the long term, but an equally important goal is developing principled Christian leaders, one of four areas of focus adopted by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body.
"The number of applicants, and especially those from outside the United States, shows that there is a great deal of enthusiasm for new and innovative leadership development projects. These young adults not only want to transform the world, they are doing so through and with the blessing of the Church," says the Rev. Rena Yocom, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's assistant general secretary for Clergy Formation and Theological Education. GBHEM is the lead agency in working with the project.
The design of Spark 12 is based on the tech startup model, in which a company provides seed money from investors to launch innovative tech companies and months of intensive mentorship for developers. Once in operation, the new projects can request additional funding to continue their work.
Poised for transformation
The finalists being considered came from 47 applications submitted between April and June. What was surprising about them, Casperson says, was the "sheer variety" of projects.
"On the one hand, all of the projects were very individual, which is what we wanted," she explains. "On the other hand, all the projects had a theme of social justice and wanting to transform the world, and the motivation was faith."
The goal of the projects, Casperson says, is to "focus on areas where you don't see a lot of justice [and then work] to make things more equitable for people who may not have a voice. And that was what we were really excited about."
Projects ranged from ministries located in one neighborhood, to online resources, to overseas ministry and social justice opportunities.
One team proposed building an overseas coffee shop that would reach out to people who might not be interested in a traditional church, Casperson says. Another team wanted to develop online information about just and sustainable projects, as a resource for people looking for causes to support.
"It was just really exciting to see people bringing to life ideas that they are passionate about and turn them into something that could be implemented and sustainable," she said.
The 12 finalists now must submit additional information to the selection committee, including estimated costs for their projects, competitive market analyses, references, and what Casperson calls "elevator pitches": how team members would explain Spark12 to others. They must also propose how to measure the impact of the changes they see.
"We're asking them why they chose to design (their) project, why their project should be funded, and – this is very important – how their project could be reproduced in a different context or community," Casperson says. "Because it's not enough to just have a bright idea or a good idea, but we need to know how they envision making a substantive change in the world."
Specific teams then will be invited to interviews with the committee in Seattle, Washington, in October. Final decisions will be made after that.
The teams chosen will launch their projects Jan. 6-April 7. During that time, team members will have access to groups and individuals with expertise related to the nature and context of their projects. That pool of professionals will range from church leaders to high-end executives.
Team members also will work with coaches, both lay and clergy, who will help guide their development as Christian leaders.
At the end of April, the teams will gather for what Casperson calls a completion and collaboration weekend, where members will have an opportunity to talk with "other influencers" and potential funders.
"The goal of the 12 weeks is to create something that is sustainable," Casperson explains. "But we also understand that there [will] need to be continued outreach."
The number of teams in the first cycle will depend on available funding, Casperson says. So far, Spark12 has secured initial investments totaling $175,000 from the Leadership Table, the United Methodist General Boards of Higher Education and Ministry and Church and Society, and individual investors. Any group or individual may invest. United Methodist Communications, the General Board of Discipleship, and the General Board of Global Ministries also are involved in and supporting Spark12.
Projects being considered
Of the 12 teams entering the next phase of the application process, nine are U.S.-based and three are international. Teams include one to three members.
The finalists and their projects are:
Tyler and Ashley Moreland – Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lamp Lighters hockey ministry, a resource encouraging youth participation in group sports, with a Christ-centered focus on teamwork, leadership, and core values. Access for participants is available through scholarship opportunities.
Naftal Guambe and Eurico Gustavo – Mozambique: Entrepreneurship and vocational training for female prisoners in Mozambique, to encourage successful reintegration into society after release.
Kirstyn Mayden – Baltimore, Maryland: "Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives," a resource for African-American girls, ages 9 to 14, and young women that helps them understand their worth as children of God and helps them learn to find their voices in the midst of unrealistic media portrayals of women and African-Americans.
Kenneth Pruitt – St. Louis, Missouri: A collaborative model in the city of St. Louis that connects local churches, volunteer organizations, and social service agencies to strengthen relations between volunteers and the individuals they serve.
Kendra Rich – San Francisco, California: An online series providing information about ways young adults can acknowledge and explore emotional challenges and pain, while providing a space for compassion, encouragement, and community.
Julia Nielsen and April Blaine – Columbus, Ohio: A mentorship model for existing ministries that fosters the cultivation of current and future community leaders through connections with community partners, social justice advocates, and sustainable funding sources.
James Kang and Allison Mark – Pasadena, California: A vocational incubator for young adults that facilitates a discovery of personal vocation within and beyond the local church.
Ernani Celzo – Baguid City, Philippines: A campus ministry coffee shop that will become a growing ministry for college students, as well as a source of mentorship, counseling, and community for area visitors.
Eric Choi, David Chung, and Jay Hahn – Seattle, Washington: A Web-based platform for online giving that connects donors with justice-focused organizations.
Elisa Wright – Corona, California: "Healthy Vines," a collaboration between local and public school gardens to help children learn about farming and enjoying locally grown produce.
Casey Smith – Austin, Texas: "Cooking Up English," a local church ministry that uses cooking to help non-English speakers learn more about the English language, while building community between longtime church members and those new to the area.
Ande Emmanuel – Nigeria: "The Taimakejuna Project." Taimakejuna is a Hausa word meaning, "Help your neighbor." This project will engage young people in Northern Nigeria in community service through interfaith dialogue.
*Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Apopka, Florida.
The Spark12 team gathered in Nashville, Tennessee Jan. 18-20 to design the orientation program for participants. UMNS photos by Kathleen Barry.
The Executive Team of Spark12. From left, the Rev. DJ del Rosario, Patrick Scriven (Pacific Northwest Annual Conference director of communications and young people's ministries), the Rev. April Casperson, and Joseph Kim.
At left (center of page):
Spark12 team member Theon Johnson III, who is pursuing graduate studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Spark12 team member Karyn Kuan, a religious studies major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.