Last week, a 76-year-old woman came down Fraser Street, carting her walker along the sidewalk and holding a sticky note.
Written on the note was something she really wanted to express about Penn State but was unable to contribute to Internet forums. She took her note to New Leaf Initiative, 100 S. Fraser St., and posted her thoughts on the table, a safe place for anyone to voice their opinions.
Spud Marshall and Eric Sauder, both Class of 2008, partnered with Christian Baum and realized the need for an outlet for voices like this elderly woman to be heard. Their response was setting up a table with dry erase markers to allow everyday people to voice their opinions.
“We came back to this community because we felt like something was calling us here. We felt we had to go back to this town and see what we can contribute. We had no idea it would escalate into what it had over the last year,” Marshall said.
Their company, New Leaf Initiative, aims to provide a neutral community space where anybody can come and contribute their voice.
“We see ourselves as the pulse of the community. We do not side with anyone,” Baum said. “This is just a neutral zone for people to voice opinions.”
Marshall said the issue at Penn State is an example of people needing to step up and point out things that aren’t right with the status quo.
“It takes a fairly big crisis to get people to wake up and say something’s not right with our current system and we need to design something better. It’s been interesting to see this happening at Penn State,” Marshall said.
Mashall said the fault in the responses currently generated from Penn State is that the community comes up with powerful ideas however it becomes a one-time event.
The university’s response typically is to develop a strategic plan and put together a lengthy report, he said.
New Leaf Initiative is attempting to create an alternative. They want to develop a strategic plan but make it an interactive way to allow people to contribute their ideas.
“The problem with Penn State is it has been very ‘top down.’ Here is the culture and you have no way of knowing how you can contribute other than being a fan in the football stadium,” Marshall said.
The table is a simple thing that the company hopes will evolve into something much bigger in time.
The company has no plan for the comments they have received — they just want to listen. They want to start an open dialogue and over the past week have gotten an overwhelming amount of responses.
In order to come up with the prompts for the table, they brainstorm something that will prompt the question of what is next rather than looking back.
The questions aim to provoke positive feedback, Baum said.
The company has seen pictures, words, psalms and poems.
“This is a way a giving people a broader range of expression rather than sticking with just print or digital or just not knowing what to do,” Baum said.
In the seven days it has been up, the table has generated a wide variety of responses. In this short time, the sarcastic comments are beginning to filter themselves out and people are starting to take the questions more seriously, Marshall said.
“This gives students a chance to say how they feel directly. It is a very honest and candid way of doing it. We are Penn State and what we have to say matters,” Will Eckroth (freshman-forensic science) said.
Marshall said the table opens a lot of questions up to the community.
“One of the questions we have been asking recently is what do you want this community to be known for? We get a few responses that say ‘football’ or ‘the legacy of Joe Paterno’ and those are important because they mean things to the people of this town,” Marshall said, “but on the other hand we get responses like THON, academics, or the tight knit feel of our community. We are starting to get a different perspective.”
The company hopes to see tables or other interactive spaces set up all around the Penn State community to be able to hear the opinions of a larger demographic.
“At the end of the day we’re not getting paid, it is just three guys who felt like this was a good idea,” Marshall said.