Published On: October 13th, 2022

Photos by Jeff Blackwell

Five groups receive Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award;
Nonprofits celebrated in Starlight Square

By Deborah Blackwell

Bring together a synergistic group of humanitarians and you have the makings for measurable change. Through inspiration and lived experience, intention, and action, ground-level social innovators are making a difference in the lives of those they serve, creating more cohesive, stable communities in our uncertain world.

On Friday, Oct. 7, the Cambridge Community Foundation (CCF) celebrated the steadfast work of these local change-makers at CCF Salutes The Greatest Nonprofits and Social Innovators! and welcomed more than 150 area nonprofits and their staff to a party in their honor. Under an imagined “circus big tent” in Starlight Square in Cambridge, CCF also honored five breakthrough innovators — the winners of the fourth annual Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award. Recognized for their grassroots work creating hyper-local solutions to big social problems, each recipient received a $5,000 grant to address the diverse challenges faced by youth and elderly, less fortunate and impoverished, isolated and ignored. A panel of judges, including local officials and community leaders, unanimously selected winners whose ideas address the divides that come with growing income inequality, changing demographics, and gentrification in Cambridge, as reflected by the data in the Cambridge Community Foundation’s 2020 research report, Equity & Innovation Cities: The Case of Cambridge.

“This celebration is about you, our nonprofit partners. It’s about your commitment and your dedication, through the pandemic, through civil unrest, through the difficult times our community has gone through and continues to go through,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation. “You’re always there to ensure that people have access to food with dignity, life-changing supports for young people, access to mentors whom kids will never forget, help for the unhoused, and those who are struggling, or the important work of uplifting our hearts and lives through the arts. You do all of these things building equity and justice in our community every day, so thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

This year’s Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award winners represent a sector of visionaries tackling systemic problems with individuality, and are devoted to strengthening community, whether strangers, neighbors, or friends.

•    CommuniTea with Our Elders created by Yin Guan, offers tea gatherings to “experience community in a cup” uniting disadvantaged elderly Asian immigrants and young Asian-American residents.

•    Everybody Gotta Eat creator Emmanual Mervil, through large-scale cookouts and festivals, unites neighbors across Cambridge and addresses divides of gentrification and inequality.

•    Historically Black College and University Tour and Expo (HBCU) founder Kyrk Morris exposes Cambridge high school youth of color to HBCU scholars and institutions of higher learning across the country.

•    The Mental Health ACCESS (Advancement of Culturally Competent Education to Stop Stigma) Program created by Dr. Kwame Dance, teaches teens how to support their peers through mental-health mentoring, and discover future professional opportunities in the field of mental health.

•    Space for Black Exuberance launched by Black History in Action for Cambridgeport executive director Kris Manjapra, works to recenter the African-Caribbean community in Cambridge through arts and culture, civic life, youth education, and mentorship.

“It is no doubt that Cambridge is home to some of the most innovative minds in the world,” said Michael Monestine, a member of the CCF board of directors and master of ceremonies. “And tonight, we lift up the nonprofits who are the glue of our city and the solution-seekers who strive to solve hyper-local problems with creativity, passion, tapping their lived experience, and recognizing innovation is in our city’s DNA in all ways.”

Nearly 200 people attended the circus-themed event which was kicked off by a ringmaster, and featured Boston Circus Guild entertainers performing thrilling acrobatics; local artists; a tarot card reader; a DJ spinning dance music; and inspirational rapper Black Swan, who improvised original rap lyrics dedicated to each award winner. The evening was filled with magic, not just from the energetic vibe, but also from the energy as many guests found themselves greeting other nonprofit staff whom they had worked with online but never met in person due to pandemic restraints.

“It was great to celebrate all the energy, life and fun of Cambridge in person after being apart for so long,” said Bonnie Bertolaet, executive director, Science Club for Girls. “Science Club for Girls is so grateful to CCF for supporting our work bringing the incredible opportunities of the STEM ecosystem to communities that have been historically excluded. By being such a great integrator of people, organizations and resources, CCF has been a wonderful partner in our work to cultivate girls and gender-expansive youth to be future STEM leaders in their own neighborhoods and beyond.”

In 2021, CCF invested more than $3.5 million in grants to nonprofits in human services, workforce training, housing, hunger, homelessness, elder services, youth and early childhood services, education, and the arts. CCF also continues to grow its Imagined in Cambridge! Fund, which, in addition to the Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award has provided 35 microgrants totaling $17,500 to past applicants. Pradhan affirmed that as the world grapples with the vital need for change, the Foundation continues to salute and support those working at ground level to make it happen through selfless acts of compassion and courage.

Black Swan, who uses positive lyrics to spread messages of hope, wrapped up the celebratory evening by reminding attendees, “Once you put your fingerprint on the community, then you are making change.”