Yale Divinity School’s campus.

Incubating Innovation in Faith-Based and Social Impact Spaces: Introducing Divinnovation

Yale Divinity School (YDS) and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) are located far apart on Yale’s campus — with YDS’ Georgian-style campus perched on Prospect Hill while CITY occupies office space downtown — but a new initiative aims to bring them closer. Led by divinity students, Divinnovation is a student group that will partner with CITY to incubate innovation among emerging faith-based and social impact leaders at YDS, and to connect YDS community members with innovators across Yale’s campus. Driven by student interests, this partnership is a new model for CITY, one that Divinnovation’s leaders hope will spur collaborations like workshops, tailored mentoring, and clear pathways to connect students with CITY’s suite of resources.

To kick off the partnership, Divinnovation will be launching a new talk series on November 27. Titled the Faith-Based and Social Impact Civil Engagement Series, the program aims to provide space for dialogue between leading social innovators and students from across Yale’s campus. The first talk will feature theologian Willie Jennings in conversation with CITY innovation fellow Baljeet Sandhu, a pioneering human rights lawyer and advisor driving change in social innovation, social and economic justice, and the concept of knowledge equity. All Yale community members are invited to attend this event, and the series’ organizers hope it will spark lively, cross-disciplinary conversations.

As Divinnovation gets off the ground, we asked the students behind its launch, Arthur Thomas and Mecca Griffith, a few questions about their vision and hopes for the new program.

You’ve talked about how Yale produces leaders in a wide range of fields, all of whom need to know how to combine “heart work” with operational skills to effectively create social impact. Can you talk a bit more about this intersection?

Arthur: Through rigorous study of theology, divinity students commit an exorbitant amount of time contemplating ideas, narratives, and practices that shape societies. As such, many students are able to identify the gaps in current human practices and belief systems that lead to systemic inequities. The heart posture to exact change is a common disposition amongst theology students, but the business and organizational acumen necessary to launch practical interventions is less prevalent. Divinnovation seeks to provide students with the resources to cultivate concrete skills to be innovative, systems-level contributors for the common good.

Mecca: Like Arthur, I come from a finance background and I understand how important it is to have well-rounded people in high-ranking positions of power. The moral and ethical aptitude of a future leader should be a primary focus in today’s organizational structures. The mindfulness of leaders is what will continue to make Yale, the U.S., and the world a better, more inclusive, and more prosperous environment.

What do you think are the biggest takeaways YDS students might learn from Tsai CITY? What do you think are the biggest takeaways the CITY community might learn from YDS students?

Arthur: Tsai CITY can provide divinity students with the entrepreneurial and business tools (both philosophical and practical) to efficiently solve problems, and to bring innovation into organizations that produce the desired interventions.

YDS students possess rich resources around thinking critically about how social innovations and practices affect marginalized and underserved communities, and ensuring those voices are participating in the strategy and implementation process. Divinity students have also inherited historic models of how churches and other ministry organizations have executed these altruistic initiatives — both successfully and problematically — in the past.

In many aspects, the strength of the business mindset and practice is its relentlessly results-oriented ethos, which stresses adaptation and agility in responding to environmental and market challenges. At times, the weakness is that delivery often neglects the humane concerns, and sometimes communities suffer under the auspices of “get it done.” YDS students can effectively mediate between business/entrepreneurship and materially deprived communities by providing considerations for obtaining more healthy and humane socioeconomic results.

How have you personally used mindsets, skills, or practices of innovation in your work at YDS?

Arthur: In all the work I study, I am constantly searching for ideology, language, and practices that will foster inter-professional and interdisciplinary collaboration towards social transformation. My lived experiences and professional work experience in finance, real estate development, and churches inform the way I understand the power of ideologies and narratives for impacting community development, and how to appropriate resources more equitably for human flourishing. Society’s problems are too sophisticated for singular approaches. A plurality of academic contributions, coupled with lived experience, is critical for both innovation and responding in an agile fashion to shifting community challenges.

What are you most excited for as Divinnovation gets off the ground?

Arthur: I’m excited that students will learn crucial concrete skills, and that Divinnovation will activate both dialogue and collaboration with innovators across the broader Yale community and beyond.

Mecca: I’m excited about the possibilities for innovative thinking outside of text and focusing in on the challenges that face everyday people in the clergy and beyond. I can’t wait to see my peers lean into private and secular spaces feeling fully equipped to make a difference.

Want to get involved? Join the kickoff event of the Social Innovation and Faith-Based Civil Engagement Series on 11/27, or contact Arthur or Mecca to learn more about the initiative. Divinnovation is open to all members of the Yale community.