Boston millennials take on our city’s biggest problems over s’mores
Sleeping bag. Toothbrush. Flashlight. Rain jacket.
I hadn’t made a list like this since… maybe ever. Summer camp wasn’t really something I did as a kid, but there I was making that list, and checking it twice.
At 29, I’m way too old for traditional summer camp, but the first weekend of June I joined more than 70 other millennials—folks generally between 21 and 35, the generation after Gen X—at Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire, just outside the White Mountain National Forest. The occasion: Camp City Awake, a weekend promising “robust dialogue, meaningful ideation and endless opportunities to play.” Hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, it was open to anyone between 21 and 39 “who is committed to the future success of the Greater Boston area.” Which includes me.
Yeah, I know. When I pitched this article, the working title in my head was, “Welcome to Camp Circle Jerk.” I was kidding. Mostly.
What, I thought, could be more self-congratulatory than members of the generation most decried for being self-absorbed, entitled, and obsessed with our personal brands convening to toast s’mores and gush about their start-up’s latest mention in the media? How many Snaps and Instagrams would I need to dodge over the course of an overnight? Would any of us survive without Wi-Fi?
On the other hand, what could be more inspiring than a group of young people openly and honestly engaging with the problems their city faces? And who better to help build relationships around ideas and social innovation than the people poised to inherit a slew of systems that have been fractured for decades?
City Awake, launched in 2013 by Justin Kang, a millennial, has since become the “civic innovation lab” of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. With projects and events like an upcoming economic mobility-focused accelerator, a social impact festival, a three-day nonprofit convention, and collaborative talks across sectors, City Awake is Boston’s largest official network of young professionals working for change.
“City Awake started as a hobby,” Kang says. “It was my outlet to be civically engaged in Boston. Ultimately the reoccurring theme was how to empower the next generation to be an active contributor in shaping the future of this region.”
What started as a retreat for a handful of friends in the local start-up community grew to a network of over 130 people attending monthly retreats to hash out the problems and challenges faced by the City of Boston.
“People in their 20s and 30s are not, for the most part, engaged,” Kang says. “We make up 35 percent of the population in Boston. If you have 35 percent of the population not engaged or represented, for whatever reason, that’s a civic tragedy.”
“That’s what City Awake is for.”
THE COUNCILOR’S COUNSELORS
My try at adult camp starts on Friday with a series of icebreakers and teamwork-oriented activities, including a physical Boston trivia competition (quick, as a team, do your best impression of a Duck Boat tour!). After we all learn some names and embarrass ourselves with a few Paul Revere reenactments and Boston accent challenges, it’s off to the cabins for some shut-eye before a seven o’clock start time the next morning.
Instead of some kind of summer camp skills course, Saturday’s activities begin inside of Camp Robin Hood’s theater, a giant barn of a building, where myself and about 75 other campers spread out and divide into smaller groups, each team engaging an area of interest for city officials: transportation, housing, education, the economy, the environment, and civic engagement. The issues, dubbed “moonshots” by the City Awake crew for their pie-in-the-sky quality, were given to organizers by municipal leaders in the weeks before camp. According to the plan, our task is to work toward actionable solutions. Sounds simple enough.
“We’re not going to solve all the world’s problems today,” Kang says, “but we’re going to engage with some of them and make a platform for you to present to the people in office.”
My first group is presented with a civic engagement question posed by Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu:
Public testimony at City Council hearings or public meetings is the primary mechanism for gathering feedback on local government. Most hearings, however, take place during the workday and public testimony doesn’t come until after presentations from city officials, meaning that residents have to miss work for an unspecified amount of time (these meetings are long) to voice their opinion and be heard.
The councilor’s specific ask:
How might we better inform the public and capture feedback from residents who cannot or prefer not to come to offer public testimony at hearings? What types of technological tools or standard practices should we introduce to make Council business more accessible and encourage interaction from constituents?
With this, we’re handed a packet outlining the goals for our morning session. Some silent glances beg the question, What have we gotten ourselves into? Luckily, we have two whole hours to distill the information from our moonshots into a specific question and to start planning our answers.
“We wanted to go big,” Katie Greenman says. A consultant, strategist, and founder of the local consulting agency HumanSide, Greenman designed the camp curriculum and is facilitating the moonshot sessions. She continues, “Our generation is known for being a bit more aware of systemic problems, and this weekend is about that, not just a Band-Aid solution.”
Greenman draws on the tenets of “design thinking”—a so-called human-centered approach to creative problem solving that is dedicated to the needs of people, as well as to the ideals of technological possibility and success in business—in composing guiding questions and group exercises to lead campers through questions that stump seasoned politicians, thought leaders, and city planners.
“I design leadership programs, teaching communications tools and collaboration tools,” she says. “[This program is] a compilation of best practices.”
Remember how much you hated group projects in high school?
That’s what the morning session is like.
The established goals—to explore what we already know about the issue, decide on a clear point of view as a group, identify a problem that we want to solve, devise ways to share our solutions, and finally deliver an action plan—are daunting. Every group gets lost in semantics, or at least takes a brief detour. At one point my team has to verbally agree to assume, for the purpose of the exercise at least, that the Boston City Council does, in fact, desire to adhere to the tenets of representative democracy. It’s frustrating—I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think that’s relevant right now. It’s heavy in circular discourse—Isn’t that exactly what another person just said? And it’s briefly nihilistic—Are they asking us to tell them how to solve public apathy?!
It makes my head hurt.
But it also leaves us with a clear understanding of the question that we needed to answer:
How might we engage citizens for feedback and hold local government accountable for responding to and acting with feedback in mind?
After finally getting a handle on our problem statement, and on what my cohort will present to other groups during the second session later on, we get a break for lunch and a few hours of free time. Lawn games are introduced, people team up to play volleyball and, while the water is too cold for swimming, kayaks and canoes are made available for jaunts on Lake Ossipee. All while a bonfire glows on the beach.
The recess seems simple or even obvious, but organizers say that building time into the weekend for us to do nothing in particular is critical.
“If someone makes one or two new friends, that’s awesome,” Kang says. “If people feel inspired and have more direction in their career and their passion, if someone feels more energized by hiking, that’s a win.”
The downtime pays off. Conversations circling the bonfire and around the mess hall, the quick introductions and asides—the networking, basically—come naturally. We’re not even finished, and campers are already looking to stay in touch with each other. Despite being in the woods, an email exchange list is set up.
“A lot of the issues with collaboration is people feeling like they’re not heard,” Greenman says. “You can’t really work with people if you don’t meet them where they’re at.”
At three o’clock we reconvene in the theater. It’s time to share our problem statements, along with any deliverable actions we brainstormed. I’m nervous—I feel like our group’s proposition is too nebulous or overly straightforward. Basically, our complication cannot actually be solved. How do you get people to participate in local government when it’s difficult and time-consuming? And how the hell do you prove to them that their voice actually registers?
As we go around the room presenting our statements, it seems that everyone experienced the same thing: They were given a big messy problem and had difficulty boiling it down to one specific actionable question. Our next task: write down a way to answer the other groups’ questions and stick it, via Post-it, to their sheet. Fresh eyes and feedback are major components of camp.
“There are bad stigmas on our generation right now: that we aren’t interested in participating or fighting for change,” Greenman says. “But that’s just not what’s going on. We are having these tough conversations, in bars, late at night, on the way to work.”
And at camp, of course.
Once everyone slaps their ideas around the room, we reconvene within our moonshot groups and tackle phase two: What’s the solution? How can we take a crack at fixing these problems? And finally, If we’re in a meeting with the city official who presented these issues, what would we tell them to do to address them?
It’s everything unbearable about the initial assignment all over again. Rinse and repeat.
And then… now what? Is this just a giant exercise to prove that people who are between 21 and 39 are capable of thinking about things other than Snapchat and Instagram? Or maybe the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, some of whose members many would argue help spur the exact same inequities we are tasked with addressing at Camp City Awake, is just trying to divert shade away from the business community.
“The people who posed these questions are very much looking forward to hearing back from us,” Greenman assures. For the purpose of the exercise, I believe her. She continues: “This [camp] is one piece in the bigger puzzle of bridging the gap between those currently in power and the rising generation.”
In some ways, my Camp City Awake peers were as cringe inducing as Master of None makes us out to be. (Shout-out to the guy who told me I should write about him. Just him, that’s it. I asked what I would write about specifically, and he said that he was learning things about himself.) At the same time, attendees were in tune with the world at large and articulate, steeped in business acumen, and motivated by philanthropy. They are start-up CEOs, college dropouts, grad students, volunteers, artists, and people working in psychology and health care. They are dedicated to Boston and to making their city better. In many cases, they have demonstrably gone beyond talking about problems and started doing something about them.
There were 75 millennials at Camp City Awake, and there are nearly 229,000 of us in Boston. If the outing taught me anything, it’s that the biggest issue with our generation isn’t that we are hopelessly self-involved, or that we don’t want to participate or help. It’s that even many of us who are motivated and engaged—and even some of us who work at newspapers, just sayin’—often don’t know how to navigate bureaucracies that were in many cases built to keep us out.
Which is why having a camp for this sort of thing is probably a good idea after all.
TAKE ACTION AND ENGAGE
The moonshot exercises didn’t stop a few weeks ago. These projects and others will be on that table at City Awake’s upcoming convention and pitchfest in October. There will also be a call for action in July for essays directed to the City of Boston on how Boston can be improved, while City Awake is also willing to help put you in touch with city officials. While the program’s current key focus issue is housing, you can reach Melanie Patchen, the program manager for the Boston Chamber of Commerce and City Awake, at email@example.com for additional information.
Below is the list of actionable questions that came out of Camp City Awake, and that will be presented at the October convention. In the meantime, if you have any suggestion you can get in touch with the appropriate agency:
Contact: Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston
- How can we invite the City’s “experts” to be collaborators on city projects? How might we identify experts? How do we help people who may not realize their expert status?
Contact: Boston Planning & Development Agency
- How do we help the Boston Planning & Development Agency facilitate collaboration with Boston stakeholders from different generations?
Contact: Boston City Council
- How might we engage citizens for feedback and hold local government accountable for responding to and acting with feedback in mind?
Contact: Massachusetts State Senate
- How might we provide an education for our students to be competitive in the job market while also making education affordable? How might we reduce or eliminate the large burden of student debt? How can we make state and city colleges more attractive to local students?
- How do we get more support for Boston Public Schools from the private sector, beyond one-day service/volunteer projects?
- How do we turn T stops into cultural hubs?
Contact: Boston Chamber of Commerce
- How do we support the sharing economy, like Airbnb, while making Boston housing affordable?
Contact: Boston Environment Department
- How do we educate and activate our community members on environmental issues?
Contact: Boston Housing Authority
- How do we connect the homeless with existing resources? How do we connect shelter/housing providers? How can the private sector be better involved in addressing homelessness?
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.