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A youthful business plan

Initiative seeks to retain 20- to 34-year-old Bostonians

Karen Morales
A youthful business plan
Justin Kang (at the lectern) addresses a gathering of City Awake, an initiative aimed at engaging millennials to find new ways to solve social issues through networking events and other programs. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Justin Kang)

Over one-third of Boston’s population is between the ages 20 to 34, according to 2010 Census data. With Somerville’s and Cambridge’s young adult populations around 44 percent each, the Greater Boston area is largely influenced by up-and-coming professionals, leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs. In a strategic move, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and City Awake have partnered to engage this burgeoning demographic and make the city a “better place to live, work and raise a family,” said Jim Rooney, CEO of the Chamber.

Justin Kang

City Awake is an organization focused on engaging millennials to find new creative ways of solving social issues through networking events, conferences, festivals and other programming.

“We want to celebrate Boston’s innovative ecosystem and its historical commitment to social justice, and combine the two,” said Justin Kang, the 29 year old founder and executive director of City Awake.

In December 2014, City Awake made its debut as a festival that brought over 100 organizations together for a week-long program of panels, hackathons, and workshops that focused on social impact initiatives. Over the course of two years, City Awake hosted more than 90 events with more than 10,000 attendees.

Kang said that City Awake started as a mostly volunteer organization with one-off programming. With the support of the Chamber however, “we’re maturing and able to launch programming where we can be really impactful,” he said.

New title

Since May 2016, City Awake has been operating as a program of the Chamber while maintaining its independent brand. Kang was also named as the Chamber’s new Director of Social Innovation.

Rooney came on board as Chief Executive Officer of the chamber last July and noted a disconnect between Boston’s younger and diverse population and the Chamber’s seasoned crowd, most of them older, white men. “Given that the millennial generation is now about half of Boston workforce and voter population, we needed to figure out, at the chamber, how to speak to and engage with that demographic,” said Rooney.

Rooney approached Kang about a possible collaboration. Rooney’s strategy was business-like in that he recognized how they could be mutually beneficial to one another.

“Justin had a very good product that appealed to a demographic that I was looking to appeal to,” said Rooney. “At the same time, City Awake would benefit from some jet fuel that the chamber could provide in terms of exposure and connections.”

Throughout their discussions, Kang and Rooney further connected on the fact that they both care deeply about the city, its success, and the way people in the area live.

“I don’t think there’s a guy who loves Boston more,” said Kang about Rooney.

For Rooney, partnering with City Awake was a natural and cooperative way to connect the passions of a new demographic with the wisdom and experience of the older demographic.

“Blending that and putting people in a comfortable environment to facilitate interaction, that’s something the chamber is supposed to do,” said Rooney. “It’s the Chamber of Commerce, and what defines commerce today and who plays in it is different from 25 years ago.”

New project

Kang is in the midst of his next big project: City Awake Delegates, a nine-month program that will elevate and raise the voices of millennials within Greater Boston’s civic dialogue.

Nominated representatives from 200 organizations will convene as 500 delegates and go through a participatory planning process beginning in late September to May.

Through forums, retreats, and thinking labs, the delegates, all in their 20s and 30s, will produce two reports: A quantitative survey with The Boston Foundation of their perception of Greater Boston and a qualitative outline of the 30 best ideas to improve Greater Boston.

“We can formalize our opinions and represent this demographic in a very consistent and authentic way,” said Kang.

With these reports, which Kang hopes to conduct annually, the organization can represent the voice of young adults to inform local politics.

“People often think that millennials only care about Late Night T or bringing back Happy Hours,” said Kang. “But we’re trying to prove the point that we have opinions on everything else, whether it’s the charter school cap or the community preservation act.”

Since Rooney was named CEO, the chamber has been more outspoken about their political stance. Last September, the chamber joined the Massachusetts Business for Freedom Coalition in support of state legislation aimed at protecting transgender people from discrimination in public places. This past January, the chamber also came out in support of the Pay Equity Bill, a new law passed in August that will prevent pay discrimination for comparable work based on gender.

But Kang maintains that City Awake, as an independent brand, isn’t necessarily about advocating for specific political issues but more about being a platform for young adults to speak on issues they care about.

Kang said that City Awake wants the delegate program to be an authentic representation of Greater Boston. He did not choose the delegates himself, but worked with community partners from various industries and neighborhoods and asked them to nominate their best and brightest, “because you own that community and we trust you,” said Kang. “So we don’t actually vet the actual delegates, we vet the partner.”

City Awake received over 1,100 nominations from their diverse group of 200 community partners including The Boston Foundation, MassChallenge and Junior League of Boston.

Diverse cohort

During a pilot run of the delegate program conducted last year with 325 nominees, their demographics were 50 percent women and 47 percent racial minorities. Kang expects a similar range as the delegates are finalized on a first come, first serve basis, and plans to measure demographics such as socioeconomic status, neighborhood representation and sexual orientation.

On September 26th, the finalized group of delegates will gather at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for a day long program as part of HUBweek. In partnership with The Boston Globe, the University of Massachusetts Boston and The Boston Foundation, the event will explore and discuss 8 major issues that will run through the course of the delegates’ nine months of work. Those issues are: health; economic development; culture and arts; public safety; education; environment and energy; housing; and transportation.

Kang has high hopes for the future of City Awake as a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce program. He said, “The level of the things we can do in the next year are going to be incredible.”