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Labs@Light City, Baltimore’s Unique Social Innovation Conference, is a Flashpoint for Local and International Changemakers by Cara Ober

Despite a tight budget, Baltimore City teacher Latesha Higgs was determined to attend Light City’s first Social Innovation Conference in March 2016. She wanted to raise awareness around mental health issues in minority communities and thought the conference could help her get started, so she applied for a scholarship offered to offset the cost of the ticket. According to Higgs, the scholarship turned out to be “a huge blessing” that has significantly changed her life.

Last year’s social innovation conference, called Light City U, consisted of six days of speakers and hosted approximately 1500 attendees. Higgs admits that she was nervous the first day, surrounded by “so many community leaders and professionals that I felt like I didn’t fit in. I started to think that I made a huge mistake and kept wondering to myself, How can I, a 5th grade teacher on a very tight budget, make a significant contribution to social change in Baltimore?”

Latesha Higgs

Despite her doubts, Higgs decided to stay. “I knew I wanted to make a difference in my city and I knew the best place for me to learn how to do that was at the conference. I sat in the second row from the front and ten minutes before the first speaker approached the stage, the doubts, fears, and insecurities grew worse and I found myself battling an anxiety attack, but I refused to leave. I had to be there. I was blessed with such an amazing opportunity I wasn’t going to turn away from it. Eventually, just before the first speaker stepped on the stage I was able to regain my composure before anyone noticed what was going on with me. After the first speaker, I was thoroughly convinced that I was where I needed to be. Speaker after speaker, day after day, I was informed, motivated, challenged, and encouraged to help change the narrative of Baltimore.”

After the conference, Higgs felt a renewed sense of purpose and mission. Just over a month after the conference, she was accepted into Morgan State University’s City and Regional Planning Graduate Program. She also got more involved in local community organizations and started to attended events that allowed her to meet and converse with city officials. Today, she is the president and founder of the not for profit organization, The DIVA Effect, Inc., which empowers women in under-served neighborhoods through leadership and life-skills training to strengthen their families and change the narrative of their own communities.

Adding to a rapidly growing resume, Higgs will serve as a presenter on a panel at the second annual conference, renamed Labs@Light City this year, where she hopes, “to inform, motivate, and challenge community stakeholders to take an active part in strengthening Baltimore public schools.”

Higgs is just one of the speakers for this year’s Labs@Light City social innovation conference, which “brings together national and local leaders and engaged, inspired citizens from diverse backgrounds to explore cutting edge concepts for sparking social change.” Even in its second year, the conference is already one of the nation’s largest of its kind and arguably the most diverse and unique.

This year, Labs@Light City will offer six different ‘labs’ – Health, Green, Education, Social, Design, and Food — for six full days of lectures (one topic per day) and hands-on activities with Pulitzer Prize winners, New York Times best-selling authors, MacArthur Fellows, national and city leaders, as well as local founders and thought leaders who are committed to Baltimore’s economic, social, and creative ecosystem.

“Our goal is to stretch the audience’s thinking to make Baltimore a better place,” said Jamie McDonald, an investment banker turned social entrepreneur who co-chaired the 2016 and 2017 Light City Festivals. “We are combining well-known international and national keynote speakers–Baltimoreans, as well as international—to push boundaries and also show that Baltimore’s thinkers and leaders can stand toe-to-toe with international minds.”

McDonald, Founder and CEO of Generosity, Inc. and past Chief Giving Officer at Network 4 Good, explains that, “No other innovation conference exists that spans the same range of topics and speakers. Labs@LightCity is diverse in every way possible – sex, race, age, location base – and will offer a diverse range of perspectives and opinions. Participants can attend just one or all six labs and if the price, $149 a day, is a barrier, you can apply for hundreds of no-cost tickets sponsored by a our partners and supporters.”

Changa Bell

Changa Bell also attended the inaugural Light City Labs in 2016 and came away impressed and inspired. Although Changa has lived, worked, studied and traveled all over the world, his roots are here in Baltimore City. Bell is returning this year as a speaker at the Health Lab. “I am presenting a topic titled Searching for Silos, a Journey to a Healthy Self, which is about the spiritual wandering that we sometimes do as human beings and how that can translate into a ‘healthy’ albeit ‘well’ self,” he said.

Changa Bell is owner of Sunlight & Yoga Holistic Wellness Center in Roland Park and Founder of The Black Male Yoga Initiative, Inc., training and certifying black men to be registered yoga instructors and community organizers. He is a Georgetown University certified Health and Wellness Coach and mindfulness expert. Changa is also the Executive Producer and host of NPR affiliate WEAA 88.9 FM’s new holistic wellness radio show, The RelationShift Experience airing live every Wednesday at 7pm.

Changa is a decorated community worker, and has been honored at the White House with The President’s Service Award from President Barak Obama and The Corporation for National and Community Service and has received honors here in the city by the Mayor’s Office and City Council.

One reason that Bell decided to participate in this year’s conference is to promote the idea of connection in Baltimore. “We are very neighborhood-centric and isolated from one another,” he explained. “We have hubs where we meet, but no true community gatherings for meaningful impact, camaraderie, and collaboration. I’d like to see us first acknowledge some of these invisible barriers that have been put in place via policy and political, socio-economic structures and replace the barriers with opportunities for connection and collaboration.”

Another reason Bell decided to participate as a presenter, after attending last year’s Light City, is that he respects and admires the festival.

“What I do know about Light City is that the leadership is sincere,” he said. “From my observation, Jamie McDonald practices what she preaches. The Light City board is diverse, they offer tiered pricing to the point of free scholarship, and at present, there is not an air of social pretense, so inclusion/acceptance feels par for the course. I feel like this may be the most unique aspect of Light City, but also love the amazing laser lights, light artwork, musical events, and after-parties… The fact that there is a party, parade, moving art, and more! It’s like Burning Man East. I think Light City is just plain interesting.”

Jimmie Thomas

Jimmie Thomas is another Baltimore-based presenter scheduled for this year’s Light City Design Lab. Thomas is originally from Tallahassee, FL but has been working in Baltimore since 2009.

As the Principle/Producer of Curators of Hip-Hop and founder of Channel Me Media, Thomas has mentored kids in performance, teamwork, business skills, and video production since 2011. The journalist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur will discuss hip-hop artists, businesses, and organizations in conjunction with issues that affect Baltimore’s communities through performance, a short film screening, and a Q&A session on a panel with DevRock, CEO of IRYHME program and the Minister of Culture for LBS and moderated by Brandon Lackey, CEO of The Lineup Room Recording Studios.

When asked about the needs of his adopted city, Thomas replied, “Baltimore needs more black-owned performance spaces. Hip-Hop is not welcomed in most venues. Baltimore is known to be an artist haven, but it’s a haven for a chosen few: the MICA students and regulars who float the circles where the grant money exists.”

After traveling across the globe in the name of Hip-Hop, Thomas has realized that dance is an international language. “Baltimore has the club dance culture, but it doesn’t get enough love in this city. It will eventually die out if the city’s youth don’t help it survive. You’ll see a good dose of Baltimore club dance at Light City this year.”

Although Labs@Light City is similar to some of the larger social innovation conferences, like the Social Good Summit, held in in NY and the Social Innovation Summit in Chicago, this year’s conference promises to focus more on Baltimore’s unique gifts and problems, rather than an emphasis on celebrity, tech, and pop glitz that others seem to offer. Although there are big, national names involved, this conference wants to pair them in authentic and meaningful ways with the cultural and economic leaders who are embedded in Baltimore’s communities.

“I’m here to build bridges,” said Thomas. “I hope to connect the resources to the people who are actually doing work in the communities. I know there are a lot of different TedX style conferences, but this one seems uniquely Baltimore, trying to meet Baltimore audiences where they are and offer what they want and need. The fact that people involved in the labs are mainly from Baltimore or work in the city is key for the development for the city as a whole.”

Thomas continues, “I’ve met some of the most brilliant and resilient people here but they don’t know one another because of Baltimore’s ‘tale of two cities.’ This conference is heading the right direction of bridging that gap. To me the most valuable thing about Light City Labs is the 5th element of (Knowledge).”


Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.

For tickets and more information about schedules and scholarships, head to the Light City Website. There are $99 tickets available at the Labs@Light City site through Monday, March 27.

Light City Photos courtesy of Light City, created by Justin Tsucalas for Light City, and also from individual interviewee’s websites.

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