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Inspiring future social entrepreneurs

THIS MONTH, as Boston welcomes delegates of the world's oldest political party in service to the world's oldest democracy, we celebrate the inventiveness and genius of democracy itself -- the power of citizens to unite to shape the future of their country and the world at large.

We are reminded that progress depends on human ingenuity and civic imagination. What better place than Boston to celebrate democracy and innovation?

From the Boston Tea Party to the midnight ride of Paul Revere to the "shot heard 'round the world," American democracy was born right here. What a truly revolutionary concept that citizen soldiers could emerge from their homes, farms, and shops to challenge the greatest army of their day in the name of freedom, liberty and independence.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with calling Boston the "hub of the universe" (he actually wrote, "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system"), and although in today's global society this may seem like a big claim, a cursory examination of Boston "firsts" helps us understand the truth in that description.

In 1776 a Bostonian, John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. Boston is home of America's first public park (the Boston Common), first public school (Boston Public Latin, 1635), first college (Harvard University, 1636), first library (the Boston Public Library, 1653), first church built by free African-Americans (African Meeting House, 1806), first Sunday school (Park Street Church, 1818), first kindergarten (founded by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1860), and first subway system (1897). In 1855, the Phillips School became the first integrated school in the country.

Boston, of course, also has a deep history in technology firsts, including the first phone call, made by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, in a Boston machine shop in 1876, and the first computer, developed at MIT in 1928.

Given this rich history of innovation, it should not be surprising then that since the 1990s, Boston's legacy of active citizenship and innovation has led our city to become the capital of social entrepreneurship in America.

Social entrepreneurs are change agents who, like their counterparts in the private sector, bring new ideas, techniques, systems and solutions to the civic and social sectors. As the Ashoka Institute describes, "The job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize when a part of society is stuck and to provide new ways to get it unstuck."

Simply put, "social entrepreneurship" is the American way to change America, and Boston is leading the way.

Boston's social enterprises, many of which have grown to become national organizations, include: Building Educated Leaders for Life (after school), the Boston Children's Chorus (diverse youth chorus), Citizen Schools (after school), City Year (national service), Facing History and Ourselves (social harmony), First Night (community celebration), the Horizons Initiative (homeless children), Jumpstart (preschool literacy), New Profit (investment philanthropy), Peace at Home (domestic violence), Peace Games (conflict resolution), Read Boston (literacy), Ten Point Coalition (clerical civic leadership), United Leaders (political leadership development), Year Up (urban youth development), YouthBuild (urban youth development), and many more.

As we move forward in the 21st century, it is time for Boston's citizens to build on our community's legacy of innovative thinking and entrepreneurial leadership, and to make Boston as known for its social entrepreneurship as it is for its revolutionary patriots and its beloved sports teams. It is time for Boston to consider a widespread initiative for social entrepreneurship similar to the After-School for All, Success by 6, and the Boston Plan for Excellence initiatives. Here are just a few ideas for Boston's philanthropic and public sectors to consider:

* Establish and build upon funds specifically for social entrepreneurs. A robust capital funding system is needed to start new social ventures, invest in organizational development, and take tested initiatives to scale.

* Build a headquarters for social entrepreneurs. Housing creative, committed people and organizations under one roof would promote collaboration and innovation.

* Offer social entrepreneurial fellowships. Providing Boston area college, business, law, and medicine graduates the opportunity to compete for two-year social entrepreneurial fellowships and loan forgiveness programs will encourage new generations of young leaders to act on their idealism.

* Require service and civic curriculums. Boston's colleges and universities, which shape the minds of tomorrow's global leaders, should require students to engage in community service in Boston's neighborhoods and increase the work study allocation for service from 7 to 25 percent to enable all students to do so. Additionally, colleges should emphasize citizenship and public service in their curriculums.

* Scale community service initiatives. Since community service experiences are where many new civic ideas are born, Boston should become an "All Star service city," with at least 20 percent of our young people participating in a year of fulltime service, and all elementary, middle, and high schools in the metro region adopting comprehensive community service programs.

By supporting Boston's leadership in social entrepreneurship, we can ensure that Boston's legacy of citizen-led democracy continues through the 21st century.

Alan Khazei is CEO of City Year. Earl Phalen is CEO of Building Educated Leaders for Life. 

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