OPINION: Service-learning has positive impact on small business

Chef Sonya Jones’ 25-year-old Sweet Auburn Bread Company is in the historic Sweet Auburn district. For a new course at Savannah College of Art and Design, students from various disciplines worked to design a new storefront, logo and interior for the bakery. The designs will be implemented through a grant from Bank of America and Sweet Auburn Works. Photo courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design

Combined ShapeCaption
Chef Sonya Jones’ 25-year-old Sweet Auburn Bread Company is in the historic Sweet Auburn district. For a new course at Savannah College of Art and Design, students from various disciplines worked to design a new storefront, logo and interior for the bakery. The designs will be implemented through a grant from Bank of America and Sweet Auburn Works. Photo courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design

Sweet Auburn Bread Co. gets a refresh with help from SCAD students

Twenty-five years ago, Sonya Jones opened Sweet Auburn Bread Company in the historic district that is known worldwide as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. The bakery and Jones’ own legacy was sealed in 1999 when President Bill Clinton was photographed sampling Jones’ sweet potato cheesecake.

“You would think it would have been easy after that,” said Jones, who now runs the bakery with her son. But the subsequent years would bring a host of challenges — a tornado in 2008, a recession and most recently, a pandemic. “We would survive one thing and then it’s like, ‘We can exhale!’ But no,” said Jones during a recent conversation.

Like so many other small-business owners, Jones temporarily shuttered her retail shop on Auburn Avenue during the public health crisis. “It was about surviving,” she said. “We lost a few beats with the pandemic and now we are trying to get that rhythm back.”

There are still empty storefronts and vacant buildings on Auburn Avenue. And prices for the ingredients that she uses to create her one-of-a-kind cookies, cakes and pies, are more expensive than ever.

It was a gift, she said, to have the opportunity to give her business a refresh with the help of students from Savannah College of Art and Design.

In fall 2021, SCAD launched a 10-week course, SCAD Serve Design For Good, that brings students in Atlanta and Savannah from multiple disciplines to research and develop design solutions for local communities.

For the inaugural course, students helped rebrand SPARK Innovation Lab with Sweet Auburn Works, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and revitalizing the cultural legacy of the district. SPARK is a community, retail and office space that supports local entrepreneurs and is located in the historic Odd Fellows Building on Auburn Avenue. Jones was the first local business owner selected by SPARK to work with SCAD students.

After meeting with Jones to understand her business needs, students developed recommendations for a build-out of the storefront, interior design, marketing and branding.

“This is a totally unique experience and it has been so great to have a school like SCAD want to see what is going on around them and really want to help,” Jones said.

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Combined ShapeCaption
Sonya Jones of Sweet Auburn Bread Company has been pleased to participate in a Savannah College of Art and Design service-learning program whereby students research and develop design solutions for local communities. “This is a totally unique experience and it has been so great to have a school like SCAD want to see what is going on around them and really want to help,” Jones said. Photo courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design

Credit: the Savannah College of Art and Design

Sonya Jones of Sweet Auburn Bread Company has been pleased to participate in a Savannah College of Art and Design service-learning program whereby students research and develop design solutions for local communities. “This is a totally unique experience and it has been so great to have a school like SCAD want to see what is going on around them and really want to help,” Jones said. Photo courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design

Credit: the Savannah College of Art and Design

Combined ShapeCaption
Sonya Jones of Sweet Auburn Bread Company has been pleased to participate in a Savannah College of Art and Design service-learning program whereby students research and develop design solutions for local communities. “This is a totally unique experience and it has been so great to have a school like SCAD want to see what is going on around them and really want to help,” Jones said. Photo courtesy of Savannah College of Art and Design

Credit: the Savannah College of Art and Design

Credit: the Savannah College of Art and Design

The pandemic has brought attention to the importance of public-private partnerships in helping small businesses sustain themselves during global catastrophes. But during periods of uncertainty, smaller scale solutions like service-learning programs at colleges and universities can also prove to be a win for both students and small businesses.

Service-learning has a positive effect on college students including cultural awareness, social responsibility and cognitive learning, according to a 2012 study in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Those are all qualities we could use more of in the ever-changing workforce of the future. Researchers suggests that service-learning increases student engagement, motivating them to study more and as a result, learn more.

For years, SCAD students have had opportunities to work in communities via SCAD SERVE and projects assigned by professors, but the Design For Good course is a more formalized approach, said Dean Ballas, Senior Executive Director of Design for Good. “This is the bridge between elevated learning in our classroom and the community,” he said.

For the bakery, students created new taglines, designed an interior for greater functionality and rebranded the delivery vans, tents and packaging. “The design execution encourages Sweet Auburn communities and businesses to thrive because it helps them tell their story in a more elevated and refined manner,” Ballas said.

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Grant money of up to $25,000 per local business from the Bank of America through Sweet Auburn Works will help bring the designs to fruition, Jones said. “This is not just an idea on paper,” she said. “We hope to have it done in a few months.”

SCAD students will continue to work with businesses in Sweet Auburn, but the Design for Good courses will also expand to other communities including the Decatur Cooperative Ministry in Atlanta and Family Promise of the Coastal Empire and the Savannah Tree Foundation in Savannah.

Ballas said he wants every student at SCAD to know their voice has the power to make a difference.

Helping to build up neighborhoods like Sweet Auburn — a National Historic Landmark that was named one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2012 — is one way to make sure their voices are heard.

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