JANESVILLE, WI - The Rev. Tanya Sadagopan invites everyone to bring their best ideas on how to make Janesville a better place. On Saturday, Oct. 19, the First Congregational United Church of Christ will host a “Love Your Neighbor” social innovation challenge. During the free event, the church will provide $5,000 in seed money to five innovative projects. The daylong workshop features mentors who will be on hand to coach individuals and teams as they develop ideas.
Then innovators will pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. “There’s no preconceived notion about what it is we are expecting,” said Sadagopan, pastor of the church.
Ideas can be anything with a positive impact on the community. They can involve youth, the environment or business but are not limited to those areas.They also don’t have to be big.
“A lot of times, the ideas that get attention tend to be larger-scale projects,” Sadagopan said. “But small projects are important, too.”
Sadagopan is reaching out to all people in the city, especially those who are not normally part of the decision-making process.
“People may have ideas about how to make their community better, but they don’t have a platform or the financial resources to make it happen,” she said. “This is an opportunity for those with no experience to say, ‘I have an idea, and I think it can make a difference.’”
The invitation is groundbreaking because the church is the first faith-based organization in the country to offer such an opportunity, Sadagopan said.
“Churches generally think about ways to respond to difficulties or tragedies,” she said. “We are used to responding to events but not used to being proactive and generating opportunities of investment.”
First Congregational is partnering with EDGE, an innovation team of the United Church of Canada, and with the Catalyst Team of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ to bring the challenge to Janesville.
Money to fund the premier event comes from the Catalyst Team and First Congregational.
The Catalyst Team chose the church—in the heart of Janesville’s downtown—from all UCC churches in the state to host the first challenge.
“Janesville was selected because of the revitalization efforts going on downtown,” Sadagopan said. “There’s the revitalization of Main Street and the riverfront, plus a new hotel going up.”
She called the selection “a vote of confidence in Janesville and its people.”
“We are hoping some new things come out of this,” Sadagopan said. “We are opening the door wider for innovators who may not think of themselves as innovators.”
The Rev. Tisha Brown of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ brought the idea for a social innovation challenge to the Catalyst Team after hearing how such events worked in Canada.
She believes such challenges can make a difference in communities.
“We are trying to reach out to people who are change-makers,” Brown said. “We are trying to reach out to people who have a vision for their community for the future and who have the courage to share their ideas with other people.”
The amount of seed money is not huge.
“But any entrepreneur will tell you that every big idea starts small,” Brown said.
In addition, the challenge provides people who will stand alongside the innovators with ideas and words of encouragement, she said. Next year, two social innovation challenges are planned among state United Church of Christ churches.
“We hope the idea will spread in Wisconsin,” Brown said.
A representative of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, an ecumenical body, will attend the Janesville event. The representative will report back to the council, which could spread the idea to other denominations.
Brown grew up in Monroe and had friends who worked at Janesville’s General Motors plant.
“I saw all the things those families went through in the 1980s and the 1990s when I was in high school,” Brown said. “Janesville has a special place in my heart. The innovative challenge is a way for me to take the pain and heartache of that time and to build something new.”