Alisha Harrington joined Impact Hub Boston as a Lead Host in April 2016. I recently sat down with her to learn more about her previous life as a public defender in Philadelphia, her move back to the Boston area, and what brought her to Impact Hub Boston.
My journey really began while I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up in Wayland, MA, a very suburban town, but I was always interested in urban areas. I then moved to west Philadelphia for school, an area that was confronted with countless urban issues, and I was interested in learning more. I took courses on urban education and the history of the relationship between the university and the community. The university served as this tremendous resource, yet just outside, the city was surrounded by all this turmoil.
While at school, I connected with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which was dedicated to developing courses and programs that focused on solving real world problems in the surrounding community of West Philadelphia. The model was one of partnership: the Center’s vision empowered everyone to work together to come up with solutions to local problems. It brought people together – very diverse people with very different backgrounds – to design these solutions; “design thinking” before it became popular. We talked a lot about American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey and the role of education in society. My professors made learning relevant, engaging and exciting not only to me, but to everyone who participated, from the college students to the students from the local middle school who were working with us. I was so committed to this model of learning that I ended up working at the Center my first year out of school, coordinating programs between Penn and a local middle school. While that work was fantastic and engaging, I was also pulled in the direction of law school. I ended up at Boston College, which was a great decision because it’s where I ultimately met my husband. After law school, we moved back to Philly and I took a role with the public defender’s office because I wanted to continue solving problems in urban areas and hopefully work towards a more just society.
Working as a public defender was challenging. I was in the courtroom every single day and given impossible caseloads, since I was handling all the cases in my courtroom with very little prep time. My colleagues at the Defender Association, however, were so passionate and committed to justice that it was also a very inspiring environment. I learned that most cases fell into a gray area, where there was no clear “good” or “bad” guy. As frustrating as that was at times, my experience as a public defender was invaluable. I gained insight into a system that was continually dealing with issues of institutionalized racism, economic disparities between communities that have money and those that don’t and how that tracks to the type of justice received.
After starting a family and moving back to Boston, I decided to recalibrate. I wasn’t interested in going back into law because I didn’t feel like I was making a big enough difference in solving problems in society. While living in Needham with my family, I started becoming very involved in my children’s school system. I served as president of both the elementary and middle schools’ PTAs, which provided a window into how kids learn and connected with my past experiences in thinking about the role of education. Despite being in a “high-performing” school district, I saw how constrained teachers were by the curriculum and testing requirements, and how they could not be as innovative as they perhaps wanted to be. I also saw kids becoming disengaged by school, which they viewed as a place that didn’t connect to the real world. I wanted to see the vision of Penn’s Netter Center come to life, because every child deserves to see education in that same light. With much credit to Ashoka and their Changemakers campaign, I thought about how we could create programs to get students thinking in a problem-solving, entrepreneurial way.
I also kept thinking about a quote from an op-ed by David Bornstein in the New York Times that I had read, which asks the essential question we all should be asking ourselves, whether we work in education or not: “How do we find, elicit, nurture and harness the talents of millions of potential changemakers for the greatest good? It’s not just a question for would-be social entrepreneurs. It’s relevant for policy makers, managers, educators, parents – and ourselves. Many of us have little idea of our own change-making potential.”
I kept writing this quote down and sharing the idea behind it with whoever would listen. How do we get people to see their tremendous potential and convince them to leverage it for the betterment of society? We do this by changing the way we educate our youth. After 18 long months, which included conversations with a variety of decision-makers in the school district, professors at Babson College and Needham teachers, I gained buy-in to launch the Pollard Entrepreneurs Project, a partnership program between Babson College and Needham’s Pollard Middle School. It was a pilot program to see if there was interest in this sort of learning. We had no idea how many students would be interested in the program; I thought maybe 10-12. We ended up having 75 students show up the first day, and many more emailed us about it. I am hopeful this type of learning can make its way into the school day so we can reach more students and allow for more collaboration across disciplines.
Over the many months reading articles, blog posts and tweets by innovative teachers and thought leaders while putting this middle school program together, I realized my next step needed to be in the world of social entrepreneurship. I wanted to work somewhere that was energizing and inspiring, where I would be surrounded by passionate mission-driven people who were solving problems. This was the community I was craving.
Wow, that’s quite the journey! So what brought you to Impact Hub Boston?
The mission of Impact Hub, of course, and the fact that it is such a broad, diverse community of innovators. I am inspired by the people who work here, both the members and the rest of the Impact Hub team. These are all creative, committed people who are working to make the world a better place, with respect to the environment and sustainability, technology, education, clean water and energy, food innovation – the list goes on. The ethos is one of togetherness, the idea that although we have diverse backgrounds and interests, we are all committed to each other and to advancing this social mission. It’s a wonderful environment to be a part of.
What projects are you currently working on?
While I’m still in learning mode, getting to know Impact Hub’s operations and all the members, one of my goals is to develop an event focused on education and youth development, since that is where my personal passion is. There are several Impact Hub Boston members working in these fields, so it has been exciting to find other folks committed to a similar cause. For me, the goal of education should be to inspire more kids to be social entrepreneurs and maybe one day end up at Impact Hub 🙂
What part of the Impact Hub Community is most exciting to you?
The wealth of knowledge and varied backgrounds of members is so exciting, as is the idea of creating spaces where people of different backgrounds can come together and develop new ideas – you never know what will come out of that kind of collaboration. Typically in schools, government, and even the legal profession, you have these silos where people don’t get a chance to interact. I love the idea of all these incredibly diverse people having organic conversations, and having that potentially inform the work they’re doing. I’m also excited by the role Impact Hub can play in furthering the social innovation scene not only in Boston, but globally by the Hubs around the world.
What are some skills you are looking to build or skills you can offer?
I’m always looking to further develop all aspects of my skillset. I am particularly interested in program development, broadening my technical skills and learning how to leverage the power of social media to not only connect, but build and create. I’m very inspired by the maker movement and would love to learn some design/build skills. Great design can be so intoxicating, and I’m fascinated by it. Personally, I’m eager to offer my community and relationship-building skills that I’ve developed over the years. I love talking to people and making useful connections, which is a great part about being on the Impact Hub Boston team. I am hopeful that I can contribute to advancing social innovation in my own way.
Movies, live music (rock generally), exploring new neighborhoods, watching live comedy, travel, and spending time with my family and friends. I’d love to go to Chile or Peru, but I also have an obsession with Italy. I have been all over the country but would go back in a heartbeat. In college, I studied Italian and lived abroad in Florence, and I finally took my kids there last summer for the first time. It was fantastic to introduce them to the idea that a whole world exists outside of the United States.
Ice cream – chocolate and peanut butter with pretzels sprinkled on top. It must be the salty/sweet combo that’s so appealing.