Light City’s Labs Bring Spotlight to Baltimore’s Community Innovators

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A look at one of Light City’s conferences from last year. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

In its second year, Light City Baltimore will bring some big names to town next week for its innovation conferences, ranging from a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer to a renowned poet. But while there may be a national spotlight on the festival and its speakers, organizers have designed the conferences to bring attention to homegrown problem-solvers and social innovators, says Light City board co-chair Jamie McDonald.

“We want lots of people to come from other places, but it is first and foremost by and for Baltimore,” she says.

McDonald, a social entrepreneur who runs the philanthropy consultancy Generosity.org, returned as a member of Light City’s board this year. She has an ambitious vision for the light art and social innovation event. It could do for the social innovation world what Art Basel has done for contemporary and emerging art, what Sundance has done for emerging film, what South by Southwest (SXSW) has for emerging tech and music, she says.

“We feel like we can really own that…emerging social innovators space as something that really, authentically makes sense in a place like Baltimore,” she says. “Obviously, we’ve got our challenges as a city, but we also have incredible academic, entrepreneurial, corporate and citizen passion around how we solve those issues.”

One of this year’s speakers with such passion is Troy Staton, owner of New Beginnings Barbershop in Hollins Market. Staton has earned nods for his community health initiative in which he partnered up with Kaiser Permanente to bring care to his community through a mobile health van. The partnership offered screenings, physicals, blood checks and flu shots, Staton said, “to a place where people normally would not step out to get those types of health care.”

“You’ve got to bring it to the people, to where it’s needed most,” Staton said.

McDonald used Staton’s mobile health clinic as an example of Baltimore’s otherwise unsung community-based innovations: “The reality is, a lot of the most amazing innovation that’s happening in Baltimore is happening on the ground where the needs are most urgent because that’s where the crisis is most acute.”

However, many of those thinkers aren’t getting the exposure they need to reach more of their community or see others replicate and spread their ideas, she said.

The format of the labs offers chances for equal exposure between community-based and national leaders. McDonald likens it to a combination of “national rock star, local rock star and local and emerging rock star.”

To use the Health Lab’s mix of speakers as an example, Staton will take part in a 40-minute talk called “Hair: Mobilizing Black Barbershops and Salons to Promote Healthier Communities.” Hours before, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a scientist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 book “The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer And The Laws Of Medicine,” will take the stage to discuss genetics, and about an hour and a half after Staton goes on, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor and neuroscientist John Krakauer will talk through his work in brain science and treatment of brain injuries.

The Light City board made some changes from last year’s conferences portion. For one, McDonald said, the mix of national, regional and local speakers is more deliberate than last year.

Format-wise, they altered the schedule by setting each conference on a single day instead of breaking them up over two days, as they did in 2016. Additionally, each conference will take place at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor instead of being scattered throughout the city.

Another new component is the Luminary program, which allowed local residents who can’t afford to pay $150 to attend a lab to receive a free ticket. Participants include teachers, students, neighborhood leaders and everyday residents. McDonald said Light City reserved about 20 percent of tickets for Luminary applicants, though they allotted closer to 30 percent of all tickets for the program. The application process has since closed.

Staton said fact that Light City was extending speaking gigs to local thinkers was one of the reasons he was so willing to participate. “I see that they do it at all levels, not just from the commercial and the political, but [also] the grassroots and reaching out to people who are actually involved,” he said. “With that, you can cover a lot of ground.”

McDonald said the inclusion of speakers and attendees from all around Baltimore is an importance part of creating a dialogue with “all these amazing thinkers.”

“We do want people to understand that they’re part of this bigger vision for what this can mean for Baltimore and the rest of the country.”

Light City kicks off on Friday, March 31, and [email protected] City run daily from Monday, April 2, through Saturday, April 8. Tickets are on sale now for $99.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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