Changing the world of tomorrow - today
Joel Daniel Harris ’04 has always believed that kids have the ability to change the world.
Now, he’s staking his career on it.
The Canton native – and lifelong Quaker – served as a youth minister for his first eight years out of college, first at The Chapel in Akron and Green, then at Canton First Friends. He’s also served with the CCO, a ministry to college students, 2006-2012, and founded Seismos, a 3-day youth pastor gathering in the Midwest. He’s a recent graduate of George Fox University, where he earned a Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership; and also a graduate of Leadership Stark County (2013).
In the summer of 2012, Joel founded TomTod Ideas – which he describes as an incubator for middle school students centered on compassion and justice issues. (TomTod is short for “Tomorrow Today”)
“Middle school students are at the perfect intersection of passion and energy, and it’s often the first time that many kids are starting to explore their faith and what it means to engage with God,” says Joel, who is now working full-time at TomTod. “Developmentally, humans go through these cycles where we’re open to consideration and exploration – we open our eyes to the world in a new way and have a unique way of seeing things. Toddlers, junior highers, and college students are in these cycles. My hope is that TomTod will take middle school students’ ideas, connect them to mentors and communities willing to lend their expertise and resources, and empower them to launch their ideas into reality."
Middle school students, he continues, haven’t lost their imaginations, and have the ability to look at angles that adults just can’t.
Several years ago, one of Joel’s students had an idea that she wanted for the youth group to pursue. He kept putting her off; she continued to persist.
“Finally, I realized, ‘hey, wait a second here, what am I doing? I’m supposed to be her advocate, and I’m passing the buck!” Joel says. “The third time she asked me was when the formative stages of TomTod began to form in my mind. "Now, if students have an idea, we have an educational process that enables them to launch their dreams into reality. They will go through a rigorous application and interview as preparation, then we'll pair them with a mentor, and help them bring their idea to life.”
When these ideas are launched, they empower the student, better the community, and encourage others to make a difference.
Joel says that he is an example of the developmental process he described.
“As a junior high kid, I was this uncoordinated geek, but because I was so tall, everyone expected me to be a great basketball player. I think I averaged two points per season. But I was active at my church, and the history of the Evangelical friends and their passion for social justice was in my Sunday school curriculum, and I was fascinated with it even then,” he says. “But it wasn’t until college that some of these ideas started sinking in – when I saw an HIV/AIDS campaign by World Vision.”
As a student at Malone, Joel began seriously investigating the AIDS epidemic – and quickly realized AIDS was not a stand-alone issue.
“There are all these other things that are at the root of it,” Joel says. “Poverty. Clean water. Human trafficking. Healthcare. Issues that matter in the United States and in developing countries.”
Joel remains active at Malone, where he has been a faithful financial donor, speaks in community worship services, and was a founder of the student organization called be:justice, in which students explore justice issues on personal, local, national, and global levels.
As a youth pastor, Joel developed programs that actively engaged middle school students in Bible study, action-oriented, local service projects, mission trips (and, of course, fun!).
“When students were in seventh grade, we would take them to Boston; in eighth grade, they spent a week at here in Canton with the thought process that ‘home’ is our students’ mission field. They’re not ‘mission vacations’ – rather, they are connected to opportunities where they can make a difference in their everyday lives, and have repeated exposure so that their experiences become more meaningful,” Joel says.
This past summer (2013), TomTod held their first Canton Dreamoratory, an innovation laboratory for middle school students, centered on the assets and challenges of the city of Canton. Using a variety of experiential, participatory activities that helped students to learn more about their city and then consider what action could be taken to highlight its assets and address challenges, the Dreamoratory seeks an integration of education and action. The week culminated in a Community Ideation Panel where students presented their ideas in small groups to a gathering of community leaders and parents in an event akin to a combination of a TED Talk, Shark Tank, and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader.
He says these sorts of active, educational encounters never fail to challenge students – or him and the other “grown-ups,” too.
“For me, seeking justice where I live has become a holistic process in which I keep thinking about all these pieces and parts of our lives and aligning them with my faith,” Joel says, adding that he feels a strong calling to the city of Canton. “I invest in areas that I care about – and am always thinking about the next area of my life that needs attention. I might be far from “achieving” a compassionate lifestyle, but the point is to be on the journey. To me, that is what an activist lifestyle looks like – small, everyday choices. “
In December of 2012, Joel married Joy Moroney ’12, a social work graduate who works as a Vocational Evaluator for Goodwill Industries. If the Harris and Moroney names sound familiar – they are: Joel is the son of Jack (and Jean) Harris, who has taught at Malone since 1984 and is the Director of Global and Off-Campus Programs and Director of the new Center for Cross-Cultural Engagement and Professor of Business Administration. Joy is the daughter of Stephen (and Sue) Moroney – Steve is the chair of the department of theology, professor of theology, and has taught at Malone since 1993.