09/25/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Social Good for All: Dialing Hartford From the Echo Chamber

The 2013 Social Good Summit (#2030NOW) was a gathering that was at once inspiring, invigorating, and idea-generating. Melinda Gates urged us to harness tech and mobile to solve critical health, education, and poverty challenges.  Malala rejected fear in favor of her dream that all girls receive the education they deserve.  Al Gore issued a rallying cry to fight climate change.  

But, as is often the case at these events, some of the most thought-provoking moments happened off the main stage.

"You live where?!" an "accidental filmmaker" who travels around the world capturing social good stories asked me, as a group of us made our way to lunch.

"West Hartford. It's in Connecticut.  Right outside of Hartford, where I work."

"Is that the horrible place you pass between New York and Boston?"

This isn't the first time I've been questioned about my stomping grounds.  When I spoke at Chicago Ideas Week in 2012, someone told me, verbatim, "you have got to get the hell out of Hartford."

As I'd say if you teased my little sister, I can knock it, but you can't.  Yes, there are things missing from Hartford, particularly for a twenty-something social entrepreneur.  Yes, I do get out of, and have left Hartford for short trips and multi-year endeavors for new opportunities and connections.   But, Hartford is a city with a vibrant cultural scene, generous foundations, and (gasp) smart social good and social media leaders.

But the comment stuck with me, not simply out of hometown pride.  It made me wonder if we do-gooders at these various summits -- mostly from cities like New York, LA, San Fran, and DC, with some Boston and Chicago mixed in -- are living in an exclusive, self-affirming, echo chamber? Do we claim to speak for a generation, our beloved millennials, when, perhaps, we actually speak for a small sect of highly educated, relatively affluent, big-city-hopping progressives?

I'm including myself here. When I graduated college, I moved into my parents' basement and ran a nonprofit.  I made no salary for the first 10 months, working as a waitress by night and social entrepreneur by day. I was okay because I am, by comparison to the gross majority of the world, privileged.  I had health insurance through my mom's job, parents with a habitable basement, and college loans not quite large enough to require employment decisions based on salary. I was driven by passion and purpose. I went to Davos for the World Economic Forum's annual meeting as a Global Shaper. I wear Warby Parkers (awesome buy-one give-one eyeglasses) and have a FEED bag. I was invited to Eden. I know that, when people talk about Sandbox and Dots, they're not referencing recess activities, but networking communities. I live in (and love) this social good world -- a world where we passionately believe we can (and actually do!) make an impact on the lives of others.

But I also live in another world.  One where my friends didn't create their own jobs or start charities, but work for insurance companies, school systems, medical suppliers, and small businesses. They don't consider themselves "gypsies" or global citizens, but are establishing themselves in smaller U.S. cities and towns.  They're millennials who use Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (the generation and tools called out at Social Good Summit as game-changers).  They're smart, generous people, who'll be running businesses and raising families when 2030 actually is #now.

And, as I furiously tweeted #2030NOW with quotes and ideas from world-changers and do-gooders, I wondered if those friends and family in Hartford, or upstate New York, or Newport, RI were following along. Or, whether they were invited to join at all?

I think these gatherings are valuable. They highlight truly impactful innovations and organizations like SOCCKET and Charity Miles, Global Health Corps and the Human Rights Campaign.

But, these same gatherings can be a slippery slope to a back-patting, "Go us!" exclusive echo chamber.  Rather than speaking for a generation, our focus needs to be finding ways to reach out to a generation. 

Over and over again, 2013 Social Good speakers said "we can't do it alone." So let's stop trying to.  Let's tap into and inspire talent in new communities -- among people who work jobs with shifts and a dress code, and may not know who Malala is, where Davos is, or what Purpose does. Let's favor inclusion over affirmation. Let's reach out and embrace small towns and cities.  These people, in these places, have a lot to offer in ideas, volunteer hours, activism, donations, and more.

We need to find ways to invite everyone to be a part of this world of social good -- even (or perhaps, especially) if their hometown is a traffic hassle on your Boston to NYC commute.