‘City Awake’ Aims to Make Boston the Center of a New Social Impact Industry

Organizers of the City Awake Festival want to build a future for social impact in Boston. Flickr Creative Commons

If Justin Kang has his way, in five years Boston will be the center of a new professional culture, drawing job seekers from all over the country.

Kang is one of the main organizers of City Awake, a festival (running through Saturday, December 13, with a full list of events here) dedicated to building a community around “social impact.’’ A buzzword? Maybe, but also a key component of his vision for Boston’s future.

“I think millennials, and even people who are older, are seeking purpose-driven careers – more meaningful, impactful careers,’’ says Kang. “That’s why I think this is the optimal moment for Boston to brand itself as [a center for social impact], because we have the resources.’’


Most of the “social impact organizations and enterprises’’ represented at City Awake’s Expo, held this past Saturday, were non-profits. Some are familiar charities or research foundations, like UNICEF and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, while others have a younger ethos, filling their websites with the language of hyper-connectivity that characterizes Silicon Valley.

One such organization, Impact Hub, calls itself “An innovation lab. A business incubator. A social enterprise community center.’’ Another, StartingBloc, says it looks for “entrepreneurs, activists, bridge-builders and innovators’’ so it can “connect them to their tribe and give them the… support they need to create impact.’’


Kang has a Valley-inspired vibe himself: He talked to me about the festival’s role in catalyzing the social impact ecosystem. Still, he doesn’t want Boston to become a carbon copy of San Francisco. In a city that has the right mix of youthful innovation and institutional backing (Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts is City Awake’s founding partner, for example) he believes Boston is ripe to build something new.

“Right now everyone wants to be the next tech center of the world,’’ he says. “In five years, everyone is going to want to be the purpose-driven city because that’s what millennials are looking for.’’


(Click [fragment number=0] to go to the bottom of the page for a round up of job resources in the social impact sector.)

Visitors at the City Awake Expo at District Hall.

And it’s millennials who are being scouted at City Awake.

New Sector Alliance, which was at the Expo and co-hosted the City-Connect networking event, focuses exclusively on grooming young people for high-level management roles in what they call the “social sector.’’

The company runs summer fellowships for college students, plus the Residency in Social Enterprise program, which places recent college grads into a non-profit organization for 11 months.


Minh Nguyen, New Sector’s Development and Communications Coordinator, echoes Kang’s hope of creating a place for life-long careers in non-profit work. “An indicator of success for us is if they stay within the social sector, so even if they don’t stay with the current companies, they go on to start their own or into upper management somewhere else.’’

New Sector has a hefty application process, but there are also organizations in Boston offering professional development training to as many people as possible. So Just does progressive political organization for the millennial activist.

David Perlman, one of the group’s so-called “Star’’ volunteers, emphasizes the group’s casual approach and online community, where people are encouraged to post resumes and job openings in the non-profit sector. So Just also organizes professional development trainings – ProfDevs in Perlman’s lingo – that cost $10 if you register online. He says the “Art of the Shmooze’’ networking class is one of the most popular.


Ali Fuller, founder of Level Ground MMA, talks with someone at the City Awake Expo.

One reasonable question to ask of the City Awake project is whether this connecting, catalyzing and ProfDev-ing actually helps needy people. After all, almost everyone attending the events is already a young professional.

If the burgeoning social impact sector could point to one person as a successful embodiment of its theories, that person would likely be Ali Fuller, founder of Level Ground MMA in Roxbury and Dorchester.

Fuller is a 27-year-old with an MBA who volunteered with AmeriCorps and spent several years doing youth outreach work in Brazil. She sounds like a start-up guru when she talks about “breaking down silos’’ and “leveraging strategic partnerships,’’ but she also worked with the Boston Foundation, the city’s hundred-year-old philanthropic institution. I saw her chatting with representatives from practically every organization at the Expo, but when I went to interview her I found her in a corner practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu moves with one of the high school students she mentors.


Fuller says both aspects of her background are crucial to the work of Level Ground, which uses mixed martial arts training to help underprivileged young people, but also provides them with academic and professional resources.

“We want to make sure that we’re not recreating any wheels’’ when it comes to youth development, she says. “I see a lot of the benefit in creating strategic partnerships here – shared learning in terms of best practices, in terms of how people are approaching the same types of issues.’’

Level Ground MMA itself is trying to get the next generation involved in the social impact sector. Fuller is launching a pilot program – in conjunction with Impact Hub and Cambridge Innovation Center – to mentor her students in entrepreneurship.


Still, Fuller says it all comes down to helping the kids. All the networking in the world can’t make up for real relationships. “We have a really, really chummy atmosphere,’’ she says. And as for mentors: “If you’re not vibing with the students … if you’re not radiating that energy as well, then move on, man.’’

[fragment number=1]Resources for readers interested in the social impact sector:


*New Sector Alliance: “Through intensive fellowships New Sector Alliance prepares emerging talent from across the nation for high-impact careers in the social sector.’’

*Starting Bloc: “The StartingBloc Institute is a transformative 5-day experience for entrepreneurs, activists, students, bridge-builders and other innovators.’’


Net Impact Boston: “The Board Fellows program places Net Impact Boston members on non-profit boards for one-year fellowships. Fellows attend meetings, join committees, and work on relevant projects—all under the mentorship of a current board member.’’

Root Cause (for non-profit organizations): “Root Cause’s Social Innovation Forum provides a unique opportunity for innovative nonprofit organizations and social enterprises to gain visibility, expand their networks, and build capacity.’’

Professional Development Communities

*So Just: “Socializing for Justice (SoJust) is building a cross-cultural, cross-issue progressive community and network in Boston based on the Philosophy of Abundance and Philosophy of Radical Inclusion.’’

*Impact Hub: “We are a community and coworking space for those who want to join together to make a difference. We believe in unconventional solutions, creative thinking, and collaboration.’’


*Cambridge Innovation Center: “CIC started in 1999 with a vision and a simple idea: ‘Startups make the world much better. We can help them by setting up and managing their office for them so they can focus on their business.’’’

General Assembly: “General Assembly transforms thinkers into creators through education and opportunities in technology, business, and design.’’

Volunteer Opportunities

*Level Ground MMA: “Level Ground leverages Mixed Martial Arts to unleash the strength, power, and ingenuity of urban youth to fight for and seize their dreams. We are currently operating in Roxbury and Dorchester, and focus on serving youth who are exposed to a disproportionate level of violence, poverty, and lack of access to education.’’


TUGG: “By harnessing the power of the region’s technology ecosystem to source, screen and fund social innovation, TUGG helps young people to realize their full potential through entrepreneurship, education and life experiences.’’

Teen Empowerment: “Teen Empowerment (TE) inspires young people, and the adults who work with them, to think deeply about the most difficult social problems in their communities, and gives them the tools they need to work with others in creating significant positive change.’’

*featured in the article

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