In an effort to spark innovative ideas for social change in Baltimore and around the world, organizers of the Light City festival enlisted a series of entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders to share their own experiences.

But when they took the microphone Monday during the first day of the festival's two-day Social Innovation Conference, several speakers said the best ideas to be found are in local communities — particularly those traditionally ignored by the broader technology sector.


"We, as a society, are predisposed to think tech entrepreneurs look a certain way and live in certain locations," said Jeff Cherry, founder and executive director of the Conscious Venture Lab. "We have to put a stake in the ground and say, 'We're going to change this.'"

In short panel discussions that came back-to-back throughout the day, speakers focused on a range of topics, including hiring residents returning from prison to getting more African-American girls into science and math courses. One panel of speakers talked about the power of collaboration, while others discussed the role millennials are playing in "remaking the urban landscape."

Cherry and others on the "We Got Next!" panel — a play on a phrase used on pickup basketball courts, meant to suggest that urban communities are next in line to be tapped by the tech sector — said a billion-dollar business idea could be bouncing around the mind of an overlooked minority student in a downtrodden neighborhood in Baltimore. Those who want to help Baltimore innovate should be thinking of ways to draw the idea out.

Dayvon Love, of the local black empowerment organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said people have to stop thinking of ways to "fix" Baltimore, and start thinking "instead of investing in our ability to help ourselves."

The aim of the conference, which continues Tuesday in the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor, is to "bring together leaders in social enterprise, education, social justice, philanthropy, and policy to explore real-world solutions to problems faced by societies throughout the world," according to organizers.

While the discussions were varied, one topic that never seemed far from the minds of the speakers and audience members were the events of one year ago, when Baltimore experienced unrest and a night of rioting, looting and arson after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Gray suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody on April 12, and died a week later. Rioting broke out after his April 27 funeral.

Speakers lamented that Baltimore's reputation had been damaged by the unrest but suggested one of its benefits was a new energy and desire for change that was on display at the conference.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who spoke on a panel titled "Balancing the Scales: Safety and Civility," said the conference and the larger Light City festival were "a great way to kick off" the month of positive anniversary events that he expects to "speak to where we were a year ago." Some outside Baltimore "have low expectations of Baltimore in the coming weeks," he said, and the city has to "prove our detractors wrong."

"Baltimore is not 'The Wire,' Baltimore is not 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' Baltimore is not the riots," Davis said. "So many people have painted us with that broad brush that I, for one, have a chip on my shoulder about that, because it's untrue."

If anyone does try to start problems during the anniversary events, he said, "the community is going to speak very loudly against that."