Vintage trains aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about social innovation and entrepreneurship. However, Clark University alumnus Harris Rollinger ’13, M.P.A. ’14, and the organizers of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP) would like to change that.
From August 10-18, Rollinger and 24 other young innovators will travel halfway across the United States — from Los Angeles to Detroit, with stops in San Francisco, Denver and Milwaukee — sharing ideas, developing leadership skills and meeting with organization leaders. The goal of their journey? To explore new locations, grow as leaders and advance projects that benefit others, according to MTP, a nonprofit founded in 2012.
“It’s the definition of experiential education,” Rollinger says. “It just happens to take place on a 1950s vintage rail car.”
Rollinger, who in 2013 started the Clark Athletics Service Learning Trip, works as a program and development officer within the Young Adult Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston and volunteers with City Awake, a Boston-based community group focused on social innovation.
He’ll take that experience, along with a unique way of examining people and organizations he attributes to his psychology and M.P.A. degrees, with him as he meets changemakers and works with the other participants to harness the power of community, leadership, service and innovation.
“In so many different ways, my student experience at Clark taught me the importance of community, and my passion for community and social justice has led me to participating in MTP,” he says. “My passion lies in the belief that supporting local entrepreneurs can strengthen an entire community.”
Read on to learn more about Rollinger’s journey and how his Clark experience helped prepare him for it.
What about a train, rather than another form of transportation, makes the journey conducive to innovation?
Something I’ve learned since starting my work at CJP is that constraints actually enhance innovation. You need to have certain constraints — like space and time — in order to accelerate change in certain instances. The fact that we’re going to be on a train for long stretches of time will force us to work together and build relationships. We can’t go to a café or use our computers because we won’t have Wi-Fi everywhere. We always think of cross-country road trips, but it never crossed my mind to do it on a train until I learned about MTP. I also think a train gets back to the heart and soul of this country, as railways first connected America. It’s such a unique way to see the country, and I’m looking forward to seeing parts of it I’ve never seen before.
What are some of the tasks you’re responsible for at CJP?
My role as a program and development officer at CJP sits within the Young Adult Initiative where we are working on increasing engagement in the Greater Boston community. The programs I oversee share a common theme of social innovation. For example, I coordinated our social enterprise accelerator program that supported young Jewish social entrepreneurs in the Greater Boston Jewish community. I also develop strategic partnerships with social impact minded organizations to host events, such as the one I hosted with The Society of Grownups called “Making a Living and Making a Difference.” It was a panel discussion with three professionals who successfully navigated the challenge of working at the point where their passions and the needs of the world met.
In addition to those programs, I’m also working on some new initiatives that will support some of the changemakers who work at our partner organizations and I do a fair amount of fundraising work as well as oversee a donor portfolio.
How will the trip’s theme of ‘unity’ factor into what you and your fellow travelers will be working on?
I think the theme of unity is important because while each of us is working on a different project, we’re all after the same thing: strengthening our communities. We all have to be more willing to share resources, ideas and connections for us to achieve our goals across sectors. I’m hopeful MTP will be an example of how a shared economy can truly function as each of the participants will look to do whatever we can to help each other.
What do you plan on doing in each city and what do you hope to come away from each with?
My plan in each city varies, and I designed it that way. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, I’m going to be meeting with foundations and people looking to fund innovative approaches to challenges in their respective locations. In Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit, my goal is to meet with organizations and individuals on the ground who create daily change. My goal is to see the different views that funders and entrepreneurs have of each community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and see if they’re on the same page. I’m fascinated by what goes into not only building these ecosystems, but how each city differs. I’m hoping to come away with a better sense of what it takes to start a community of entrepreneurship in Milwaukee and what it takes to sustain it in San Francisco.
Are there any specific people or organizations in these cities you’re looking forward to talking with or visiting?
I’m excited for all of my meetings, but especially those with the Downtown Denver Partnership and Zeppelin Developments in Denver. The Partnership has played a big role in fostering a community of entrepreneurs, and Zeppelin works on innovative mixed-use projects in Denver’s urban core neighborhoods. In Detroit, I’m really looking forward to meeting with the D:hive – an organization that provides individuals with the information and resources to live, work, engage or build a business in Detroit. They’ve also launched an organization called the Build Institute, which trains people to turn business ideas into reality by providing them with tools, resources and a support network.
This story is part of our 7 Continents, 1 Summer series, which highlights the interesting work that Clark students, faculty, alumni and staff are doing all over the world. Have a great story of your own to share? Let us know and we’ll be in touch.
How did the combination of a psychology degree and M.P.A. prepare you for your current job, your volunteer work and with what you’ll be working on while on the train?
The combination of my psychology and M.P.A. degrees helped me understand the importance human talent plays in terms of organizational success and social change. It’s one thing to have a great mission, but passion isn’t enough. You need an entire organization of talented and passionate individuals to get the job done and when you’re talking about creating social change, the stakes are even higher.
Both degrees allowed me to look at people and organizations through different angles and I’m so grateful for that opportunity. My time at Clark has directly impacted my ability to work with volunteers as that is a large component of my job at CJP. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without Clark University.
What does the term “social innovation” mean to you?
The definition of social innovation is something I’ve struggled with for a while because people are starting to lump terms like social innovation, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and social impact together when there are some distinctions between them. The definition I tend to reference is that social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption and integration of new concepts and practices that put people and the planet first. When I tell people I work in social innovation, they usually ask me what the heck I’m talking about and I don’t blame them. We have to get rid of some of these buzzwords associated with the field.
How did you get involved in City Awake? How specifically do you try to portray Boston as a destination for social innovation and civic engagement?
I got involved about 18 months ago as City Awake started to take off in its second year. I went to an event during the organization’s first Social Impact Festival — 10 days of Boston-based organizations with social impact missions hosted a variety of events — and I was just blown away. The mission of convening organizations and creating a hub of social impact resonated with me in a way that I hadn’t felt since I left Clark.
At City Awake, I’ve worked on a number of different initiatives. Up until a few months ago, it was entirely volunteer led (City Awake was recently acquired by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce). I’m currently working on our Delegates program, which is designed to engage passionate millennials in Boston through civic engagement. Specifically, I’m helping to design the programming for our September kick-off event called “Our Convention” — a gathering of more than 350 millennials at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in September. Over the course of the year, participants in the program will have the opportunity to learn about some of the challenges facing Greater Boston, build community and design potential solutions to those challenges.
Was there a particular experience at Clark that helped you grow, either academically or personally? How have those experiences helped you in your work and volunteering experience, and will help with your trip on MTP?
I had a few — my Management 100 class with Prof. Barbara Bigelow, my four years on the Clark Men’s Tennis Team, my social entrepreneurship class, and starting the Clark Athletics Service Learning Trip(CAST). Each played a huge part in my development, but I would say CAST was the most influential. Taking a project from idea stage to execution as a 21-year-old changed my life — and having Clark’s support of that idea was eye opening for me as a student and a person. It’s one of the big reasons why I do what I do.
Also, I took a social entrepreneurship class with Prof. David Jordan that directly impacted my career. It was one of those moments when I said, “I had no idea that this was a thing or that I could do this!” It opened my eyes to an entirely new field — one I now do some work in — and it’s a direct result of that class. My knowledge and views of social entrepreneurship have evolved and changed significantly since then, but it was the impetus for many of my career decisions.
From the group of friends I built, to the role that Clarkies and Clark University play in the development of the Worcester community, my passion lies in the belief that supporting local entrepreneurs can strengthen an entire community.
In so many different ways, my student experience at Clark taught me the importance of community, and my passion for community and social justice has led me to participating in MTP. From the group of friends I built, to the role that Clarkies and Clark University play in the development of the Worcester community, my passion lies in the belief that supporting local entrepreneurs can strengthen an entire community. I saw that first-hand while living in Worcester and continue to see how the city has evolved when I’ve come back to visit.
My time at Clark also taught me entrepreneurship is a privilege not many individuals get to participate in — and more should be able to. I feel lucky to be able to do what I do and to have been able to receive the quality education I did. There are so many people who have great ideas and passion who may never get a chance to create change and that’s a real shame. Thankfully, there are people and organizations that exist to create more opportunities for everyone — regardless of gender, race or access to education — to start their own business or create change as an entrepreneur.
Photo at top courtesy of Millennial Trains Project