Published On: May 29th, 2024

Photos by Margaret Lampert.

At a vibrant celebration of the city’s nonprofit sector in Starlight Square on Wednesday, May 29, the Cambridge Community Foundation announced five winners of its fifth annual Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award, which invests in grassroots solutions to big social problems in Cambridge. Each winner received a $5,000 prize to advance their idea.

Strengthening social cohesion in Cambridge by bridging divides and expanding opportunities for greater connection across the community were driving concepts for each award-winner. Two awardees are proactively building social networks that unite people across abilities and generations.

  • The Access to Community and Friendship Social Group was formed by four friends to offer a safe and accessible space for young adults with various (dis)abilities to have fun and grow community.
  • Joint Family was founded by an interdisciplinary scientist to bridge the widening digital and generational divides. Through workshops that raise awareness about artificial intelligence, Joint Family seeks to strengthen intergenerational collaboration, civic deliberation, and trust within the community.

Two other winners are focused on supporting Cambridge youth, especially those from historically underrepresented backgrounds, by building pipelines and relationships that can guide them to reaching their goals.

  • Girls Envisioning More (G.E.M.) was established by two sisters to provide mentorship and programming to young women aged 14 to 22, so they feel empowered to take on the world.
  • Scholars Before Athletes is run by a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduate to give young people academic tools, connections, and career exposure alongside athletics.

The fifth winning project is led by high school students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, with support from teachers, who are tackling climate change at a hyperlocal level.

  • Free Raised Garden Beds at CRLS is working toward a more sustainable city, starting by repurposing lumber from a campus renovation project to construct and donate garden beds for community use.

“We want young women to walk away from this program with knowledge they didn’t get in traditional school and the motivation and empowerment to believe the world is theirs – they can achieve anything,” said Joanna Elder, cofounder of G.E.M. “This is our first grant award as a new nonprofit, and we’re so excited and grateful for the doors it may open.”

For more information on the award-winning social innovators and their ideas, scroll down to their features.

“Cambridge is well-known as a hub of innovation, and to us, some of the most promising innovations are the grassroots ideas that come from our community, for our community,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation. “This year’s crop of changemakers are passionate, impressive and poised to pave the way for Cambridge to live up to the values it espouses.”

The Foundation created the Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award in 2019 to uncover emerging innovators working to solve some of our most intractable social problems. Through this annual Award cycle, the Foundation and its Award judges seek out innovators with creative, light-touch ideas that inspire new models for improving the quality of life for people in Cambridge—and hopefully the broader world. The Award and the Imagined in Cambridge! Fund have supported over 60 grassroots innovators to date — with 25 award winners receiving the $5,000 prize and 35 individuals supported by microgrants of $500. The Imagined in Cambridge! Fund is supported by generous donors in the community, including Verizon, the Upland Gardens Fund, and Cambridge resident Dan Raizen. Our nonprofit celebration was generously sponsored by Cambridge Trust Charitable Foundation and Verizon.

Recipients were selected unanimously by a judging panel, including: Brittany Butler, executive director, Social Innovation + Change Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School; Gretchen Cook-Anderson, founder, Undaunted Marketing; Raffi Freeman, co-founder, Izuba Energy; Kris Manjapra, executive director, Black History in Action for Cambridgeport and a 2022 Imagined in Cambridge! Awardee; Eliana Mamo and Hermone Siyum, Cambridge Youth Council members; Claire Spinner, Assistant City Manager for Fiscal Affairs; and a non-voting judge, Lori Lander, artist and co-founder of Many Helping Hands 365.

The five winners introduced their ideas to a crowd of nonprofit staff at the May 29th celebration. Billed as a ‘family reunion,’ the event was hosted at Starlight Square, transformed to look like a back yard barbeque, with astroturf, outdoor grills and picnic tables. It was the fourth year the Foundation has hosted a celebration of its nonprofit partners, applauding the sector for their important work. The five Imagined in Cambridge! winners were welcomed as newcomers to the Cambridge Community Foundation family.

Read about the 2024 Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award winners:

A place where you feel like family.

The Access 2 Community and Friendship Social Group

Close friends Austin and Andrew Carr, Elizabeth Gray, and Tatiana Thomas have been advocating for people with disabilities since they were teens, and now in their 20s, they are empowering connections and expanding their community to connect with peers in environments where they don’t have to worry about issues of accessibility, safety, or inclusion. With encouragement from their parents, they launched a social group at the Cambridge Community Center for young adults 22+ of various abilities to feel welcome and have fun. Follow the group on Instagram.

Building Climate Resilience

Free Raised Garden Beds at CRLS

As much as long-time CRLS biology teacher Barbara Dorritie loved teaching, her drive for climate justice made her think twice about her career path – she realized her unique position to effect hyperlocal change, in partnership with young people. Among many sustainability projects her students are leading the construction of free raised bed gardens for community use. They will repurpose lumber that’s no longer needed on campus and build and donate the new beds to local organizations and groups to significantly expand the community garden space in our city.

Empowering and thinking beyond the here and now.

Girls Envisioning More (G.E.M.)

G.E.M. got started by sisters Joanna and Jasmine Elder, who grew up in Cambridge and didn’t have access to strong role models. Now in their twenties, they wanted to change that for the next generation. Their out-of-school time mentoring program for young women aged 14-22 teaches real-life skills like budgeting, wellness, and goal setting, while, most importantly, fostering sisterhood. “We want young women to walk away from this program with knowledge they didn’t get in traditional school and the motivation and empowerment to believe the world is theirs – they can achieve anything,” Joanna said. “This is our first grant award as a new nonprofit, and we’re so excited and grateful for the doors it may open.” Visit G.E.M.’s website.

Leveraging disruptive tech to connect.

Joint Family

A neuroscientist with a background in tech, Sulagna (Dia) Ghosh says her life changed when she started volunteering with Cambridge/Somerville Elder Services during the pandemic. Seeing on one hand the social isolation that older adults in her community experienced and recognizing the struggle of young adults in an uncertain job market, she was inspired to create an inclusive platform to connect and empower generations through shared learning experiences. Joint Family brings together an unlikely group of neighbors for inclusive dialogues on pressing issues like artificial intelligence, aging, loneliness, gender equity, and digital inclusion, striving to build trust, resilience, and social cohesion. Visit Joint Family’s website.

Keep pushing. Keep striving.

Scholars Before Athletes

“I was raised by this community,” says Cambridge native Deondre Starling, “And now I put my whole heart into being a mentor to the next generation of kids.” Two years ago, Deondre founded Scholars Before Athletes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to showing Cambridge youth anything is possible. He organizes events for up to 250 youth in middle and high school where they hear from professional athletes, local leaders, and university scholars, including those from Harvard and Northeastern, while engaging in learning opportunities that inspire them to find their passions, set goals, develop new skills, and access a community that’s got their back. Follow SBA on Instagram.

About our annual Imagined in Cambridge! Social Innovation Award:

High-resolution images of winners available upon request.