It’s said that change is the only constant in life. The pace of things at Colorado College represents that better than most. We jump from block to block, year to year, in near-constant motion. Initiatives and ideas are no different, even ones that are decades old. Change happens. Such was the case in the fall of 2014, when it was determined that due to student participation and rising safety concerns, the CC Community Kitchen would shut down. A flagship initiative of the college for years, this announcement met with understandable protest and concern from the campus and local community.
Acting swiftly to respond to concerns, the college initiated the Soup Project Challenge. The challenge was facilitated by Innovation@CC and the Collaborative for Community Engagement, and aimed to fund student projects that addressed hunger, homelessness, and poverty in the greater Colorado Springs community. Of the proposals submitted, four teams of students received funding last spring, including the Grits Collective.
The Grits Collective, founded by students Benjamin Criswell ’16, Caitlin Canty ’16, and Paige Clark ’16, aims to use the power of storytelling to challenge common societal prejudices toward the homeless population.
“The power of humanizing stories,” says Criswell, “is really profound.” Homelessness is one of Colorado Springs’ most prominent issues, debated regularly across the political spectrum of this city. What’s never debated, and almost always dismissed, are the “stories behind the faces,” as Criswell puts it.
The homeless population is, Clark says, “a lot of the time, intentionally ignored.” The work of the Grits Collective aims to change that, utilizing a two-pronged approach in their work. In conjunction with several local organizations, including the Marian House Soup Kitchen and Urban Peak, the Grits team sits down with clients as they eat, collecting their stories. Collecting and publishing them, via the Colorado Springs Independent, are the advocacy parts of the approach. The second part is empowerment, bringing home to both readers and writers that a homeless person isn’t just a homeless person – they’ve got a story to tell, and a life worth learning about, as well.
The Grits Collective isn’t simply about advocacy and empowerment; it’s also about creating an attitudinal legacy across the Colorado College and Colorado Springs communities. Reed Young ’17, an intern with the Grits Collective since the summer of 2015, emphasizes how ‘siloed’ much of the contemporary thought surrounding homelessness is. “There’s a psychological freedom that comes with having the security of a house, a job, a car,” he says.
“People who’re secure tend to think that homeless people are lazy. In reality, they’re the most active people I know. They’re constantly moving, getting on buses, finding their next kitchen stop – they’ve got to constantly think, and evaluate choices,” he says.
Another benefit to the Grits Collective is that the volunteers get to see the political theories and policies discussed in their CC classrooms in action, on a micro-level. “We take the abstract ideas we learn in our classes, and get to see their impacts in the real world, on real people,” says Criswell. In many ways, the work that the Grits Collective is doing is the most liberal arts work of all — taking classroom concepts and engaging with them in a life far beyond the classroom. The work of the Grits Collective, accessible online at gritsco.org, also is being archived in Colorado College’s Tutt Library, making it available for future researchers.
The future of the Grits Collective looks bright. Bringing underclass students into the fold leaves the program in steady hands for the future, and ensures that the legacy of the Community Kitchen continues for years to come. There is even talk of expanding the idea to other cities, nationwide. Clark, who’s moving home to Tulsa to pursue her master’s degree after graduating, plans to launch something there. Other college campuses, Criswell mentions, seem a natural place to start. Additional partnerships with organizations in Colorado Springs are in the works.
“It’s by far the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” says Clark. “I’ve managed to build great relationships with the people I’ve met, and not just the organizations we’ve worked with.” Young echoes these sentiments, wholeheartedly. “It’s enriched my CC experience hugely, as well as empowered me to engage with the community we’re a part of,” he says.
A popular quote, though its author is disputed among scholars, reads, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
If the work of the Grits Collective is anything to go by, that change is here, and now.