2017-07-05 / Start Here

Mapping a New Narrative

Spud Marshall’s latest endeavor will point the way toward innovation.
Dana Ray | Photo by Matt Fern

It’s been 12 years since Spud Marshall came to State College as an undergraduate student. In that time, State College and Penn State saw pivotal and heartbreaking moments that changed the region forever. Before and during those moments, Marshall began telling a different story for Penn State and State College, one based on strong community bonds and innovative ways to care for each other. And that story continues to grow.

It started with New Leaf Initiative, the first-in-our-region co-working and innovation-fostering space. Then came the, a shared living space for changemakers and one that is modeling communal living in a way that could inspire how Penn State and State College move on from Greek life. He also works as the “Barefoot Consultant,” facilitating programs around the country and the world. And most recently, he was awarded $5,000 as part of the Emerging City Champions fellowship program, an initiative “for young civic innovators with transformative ideas” funded by the Knight Foundation. Marshall’s idea is the “Innovation Trailhead Project,” which he hopes will help increase visibility and accessibility to innovation spaces in State College.

The idea was one he’d had a long time ago, inspired by the local favorite Purple Lizard maps. The accessibility to hiking and nature in our area completely changed with a great map. What if local innovators and culture makers had a similar map? “I keep a shelf of old ideas, proposals and grants I’ve written that never found the right home. I pulled this one out and gave myself a day to make it happen. It took very little re-imagining to propose it to Knight — it was just a good fit.”

The idea is to place visible and interactive “trailheads” throughout the community that highlight locations where communities are doing innovative work in our region. Found in public spaces, the trailheads would make these locations more visible and encourage people to connect with them. The Innovation Trailhead project (learn more at is just a small part of this bigger vision of what our community could be. It helps draw attention to spaces and people who have the stories that change how someone thinks about being from State College.

“This doesn’t solve every challenge innovators face in getting their story out there, but it’s a way to get the conversation going,” he says.

Conversations and community are at the heart of all of Marshall’s work. “I’ve had a pretty unusual and weird career so far,” he says. “But the thread that ties it all together is building communities. Everything is about that, from having vulnerable conversations to equipping young people to live meaningful lives, or my consulting work.”

The heart of Marshall’s work was borne out of his student experience, one that ultimately made him choose State College as his long-term home. As a student with a supportive community off campus, he didn’t feel like the partying culture represented his experience at all. “I wasn’t just a student, and those relationships grounded me here and helped me love the place in a way I might not have otherwise.” He notes that his mentor during that time, Penn State adjunct professor Bruce Martin, had a profound influence on his life. “Bruce told me, ‘Your job is never to plan for the people you might impact in five years’ time. Your job is to plan to impact the people you are currently connected with.’ That understanding has really helped me in the challenging parts of my journey,” Marshall says.

He continues to challenge major assumptions about who millennials are, what they want and what it takes to keep vibrant talent in small and rural communities. Here’s one narrative that Marshall works to counter regularly: that young people are only moving to the big cities and places like State College don’t have a chance.

“But that doesn’t always match up with what we’re experiencing on a local level or the work communities are doing around the country,” Marshall insists. “Young people want to live creative and meaningful lives, which they assume they will find in the city. But there are opportunities beyond the cities for that to happen — and perhaps for it to happen more fully in smaller towns.” Marshall believes the innovative work in small cultural hubs like State College is critical in giving effective models to other communities and helping creative, driven people everywhere. As he says, “We need culture makers who will create jobs, not take jobs.”

And he’s reaching out to tell that story in other communities as well, taking some of what he’s learned locally to a rural area of the Mississippi Delta region where people are asking similar questions about retaining vibrant culture makers. “These people deserve the access to resources, opportunities, that the big media centers get. If State College was known as a town that helped shift that narrative, that would be so compelling I would never leave. And I think it can happen.”

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