Inside one of Austin's Most 'Nobel' Nonprofits
Turk and Christy Pipkin Find Solutions to Global Challenges Through The Nobelity Project
Written by Joleen Jernigan
Photography provided by Nobelity Project
“All great enterprises start with a good idea,” Turk Pipkin says, describing how he and his wife, Christy Pipkin, founded global nonprofit The Nobelity Project. Local filmmaker, writer, and actor Turk and film producer Christy started the project to contribute to long-term, positive change by “bridging gaps in education at home and abroad.” The Nobelity Project now serves more than 15,000 children in Kenya, Honduras, and the United States and has additional project partners in Nepal and Mexico. Founders Turk and Christy truly have hearts as big as Texas, and though that may sound cliche, the inspiration for the Pipkins’ project is anything but.
The Pipkins began by seeking ways to solve the most ominous and complex problems humankind faces today. They documented their journey in the illuminating film Nobelity, which Turk describes as “the search to a path for a better future with nine Nobel Prize winners as our guides.” The idea was to collaborate with nine of the finest minds alive to explore possible solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Christy explains, “We had good partnerships early on who saw the value in the film even larger than the return on the dollar.”
Nobelity served as a catalyst for the Pipkins by posing this question to its audience: “What can I do to be part of the solution?” One of the Nobel Laureates Turk interviews in the film, Wangari Maathai, motivated the Pipkins to start work on a water system for a Kenyan school. It was the birth of The Nobelity Project—and the answer to the question posed in the film.
At first, the Pipkins intended to fund the project themselves, but soon after Turk first spoke about The Nobelity Project on the radio, the couple was surprised to receive a check toward the cause in the mail. Using their talents as filmmakers and storytellers, the Pipkins realized they could rally support to bring their ideas to fruition and improve lives locally and globally.
The project quickly scaled. The Pipkins, their community partners in Kenya, and supporters stateside moved from setting up a single water system in Kenya to building a library, to building a school, to the massive scope of projects they work on today. The Nobelity Project sees its role as one of true partnership. “We look at the work as a partnership rather than charity, a community level exchange in Kenya, Roatán [Honduras] … We supply more of the money, and they make it happen,” Christy says. The Pipkins and The Nobelity Project make a commitment to the communities they work with to effect long-term change.
In 2018, in Kenya alone, the project has opened 12 school libraries, has built a basketball court, and has funded numerous merit-based university scholarships for students graduating high school. One such project in Kenya is the Muthuini Watertank Library, which began with an idea Turk had to convert an abandoned water tank into a school’s first library. The library is now finished and open for reading. Its development is documented in a short video, one of around 30 short videos and two full-length films (Building Hope and One Peace at a Time) chronicling The Nobelity Project’s work. The Nobelity Project also supports a bookmobile in Roatán, Honduras, and an eye clinic in remote areas of Nepal. Closer to home, it supports homeless children in Austin through The Nobelity Project Student Assistance Grant and the Cap City Kids’ Empowerment Academy.
One key aspect of running any nonprofit is funding. The Pipkins say they are fortunate enough not to have to spend an overwhelming amount of time scrambling for money, but they are also resourceful when it comes to fundraising. Events are crucial to fundraising efforts—none more so than the annual Feed the Peace awards gala, which will next be held Feb. 10, 2019, at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. Feed the Peace is one of Austin’s most anticipated events each year. In the past, the event has honored such greats as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Dan Rather. In 2019, the event will award musician Delbert McClinton and William Kamkwamba, the Malawian genius known as “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” from the book of the same name.
The Feed the Peace awards fund more than half of all of The Nobelity Project initiatives and 100 percent of its administrative costs for the year. 4x4 concerts showcasing four local bands serve as additional fundraisers. The last show, held in September, featured music by John Fullbright, Monte Montgomery, Kelley Mickwee, and the Peterson Brothers. The Nobelity Project used the proceeds from the show to build a new school library at Mugaka Primary in rural Kenya. In addition, the project puts on a Building Hope screening at the Paramount Theatre that brings 900 local 6th graders together to watch the film and then participate in a live video call with students in Kenya.
A prolific writer, Turk also raises funds through his Book of the Every-Other-Month Club. To date, the club has raised more than $42,000 for The Nobelity Project through its unique subscription service that sends donors one of Turk’s newly written books every other month in 2018. The six books for the year include three novels, a book of poetry, a book about the author’s “failed” screenplays, a children’s book, and a bonus copy of The Tao of Willie, Pipkin’s bestseller about and co-written by Willie Nelson. One of the novels, All for Love, has already been snatched up to be made into a movie. But it’s the children’s book, Grace and the Moon, that has special significance for Turk and Christy. The beautifully illustrated story tells of two girls, both named Grace, living on opposite sides of the world but both admiring the same moon. The story is printed in English on the left-hand pages and in Kiswahili on the right-hand pages. It’s a fitting story for the work The Nobelity Project does.
Industrious, inspired, and dedicated to the causes they support, the Pipkins continue to push The Nobelity Project forward. As writers and filmmakers, they see literacy and education as key to advancing the world and as the first step out of poverty for each of the 15,000 children they serve. The projects they undertake tend to take hold and grow at an impressive rate, but Christy and Turk are keeping up, and The Nobelity Project continues to show us what one small, committed group of people can do to make the world a better place.