Baltimore: Capital of Social Innovation

Last week, I was lucky enough to experience Light City Baltimore, a week-long showcase of light, art, and technology.

But what many people don’t realize is that beyond the amazing performances and public art exhibits that transformed the Inner Harbor and other neighborhoods throughout the city, Light City also hosted four different conferences on Social, Health, Sustainability, and Creativity Innovation.26090982661_812f7654fb_z

I attended the Light City U Social Innovation Conference. This two-day conference jam-packed with innovators in social enterprise, education, community development, social justice, philanthropy, and policy to explore solutions to problems faced by societies throughout the world. The speakers ranged in age, gender, race, discipline, and skill, but had one important thing in common: They all are working to make Baltimore a better city.

“There is no time to be a victim, there is power in community… even children can be empowered.” —Freeman Hrabowski, Ph.D., President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The stereotype for Baltimore is disheartening: a city tarnished by crime and poverty. The Light City conferences and speakers, particularly the Social Innovation Conference, wanted to shine light on the incredible potential that is right here in our city, untapped and underutilized.

The days were filled with intense discussions about how we can build a more equitable and responsible city if we work together. 

“You can’t go around Baltimore and not see how you’re needed. You see clearly every day that your participation is necessary.” —Wes Moore, Founder & CEO of BridgeEDU and Loyola’s 2016 Commencement Speaker

There were many inspiring and eye-opening anecdotes and people who shared their work and their vision during the conference…

One of the many groups that presented was Innovation Village, a startup nest in West Baltimore. With all startups and economics centers located in East Baltimore, the depth of the gap is astonishing. This emerging tech and innovation center hopes to promote growth, development, and life in West Baltimore. The group wants to invest in its own people instead of investing in outsiders to come in.

As a college student trying to find her way in the world, one panelist really spoke to me: A social innovator, CEO of two companies, and all-around awesome guy, Aaron Hurst spoke specifically on finding success in our work.

For Hurst, as is the case for many who attended and presented at the Light City U conferences, success is not defined by money, but by something much more valuable.

To determine whether or not you are truly succeeding, Hurst talked about the need to focus on three things:

  1. Relationships: Your connections with others are vital to your ability to succeed.
  2. Doing Something Greater than Yourself: On the fast road to success, we often forget to make serving others a daily priority. Hurst says that doing good cannot be a “every so often” type of thing; it needs to a daily priority in our immediate world.
  3. Personal Growth: Putting yourself out of your comfort zone is key to growth.

Although the groups who presented at the conference spanned many sectors and fields, ranging from education to infrastructure, technology, and personal achievement, all of them had one thing in common: prioritizing investment in the people of Baltimore.

“If you view Baltimore as a collection of stats, you’re looking at it wrong. It’s a collection of opportunities… The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”  —Fagan Harris, President & CEO of Baltimore Corps

Baltimore, of course, has its fair share of problems. They are deep-seated and complex. But this is not unique to Baltimore. Most cities face challenges that are greater than eliminating crime and improving schools.


As much as that is the truth, so is the fact that the people of Baltimore have the skills, the power, and the heart to solve its problems.

Baltimore isn’t a place just for others to come and fix and leave. It is a place to invest in, live in, and love.

“Baltimore is more well-positioned than any other city I’ve seen.” Andrew Yang, Founder & CEO of Venture for America, on the city’s startup community and entrepreneurial spirit

The Light City U Social Innovation Conference did not just showcase the incredible work happening today in Baltimore; it represented a catalyst for a change in the perception of Baltimore.

This is not a broken city, this is not a city that needs to be fixed. This is a city of incredible talent and beauty. Baltimore is a diamond in the rough; its people need only the chance to shine.

P.S. More about the Light City U conferences.

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