A Working List of Social and Nonprofit Innovations


The Boston History & Innovation Collaborative, in a 2004 focus group with nonprofit leaders hosted by the Boston Foundation, developed a list of 50 social and nonprofit innovations, including those described in the narrative of this publication. Since then, we have solicited additional “Boston Breakthroughs” from a number of other community members and organizations. We are researching the list below, and will develop more detailed summaries of each of these. This list includes some innovations that are in the early stages of verification. Inevitably, a few of them will be challenged by historians in other regions—others that are left out will be added. With these caveats, please view this as a list-in-progress. We invite you to help us develop a comprehensive list by sending information to the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative at info@bostonhistorycollaborative.org.


Breakthroughs in Basic American Rights

1. First Town Meeting (1633): The earliest instance of a regularized system of gatherings in America

2. Massachusetts Constitution (1780): Written by John Adams, and widely recognized as being the oldest functioning written constitution in the world, this document informed the Federal Constitution with its Bill of Rights and separation of the three branches of government

3. Massachusetts is the First State to Abolish Slavery (1783)

4. Founding of the Abolitionist Movement (1828): In Boston’s North End with David Walker’s antislavery pamphlet Walker’s Appeal

5. First Free Black Regiment in Union Army (1863): The 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is created—led by the young white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

6. The First Journal of the Suffrage Movement (1869): A women’s rights weekly called the Woman’s Journal is launched by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Josephine Ruffin and their American Woman Suffrage Association, becoming the leading voice for women’s suffrage

7. The Refugee Movement (1914): The first aid program for refugees in the United States is organized in Boston to help the starving Armenian survivors of a Turkish (Ottoman) ethnic cleansing campaign

Breakthroughs in Education

8. First School in the British Colonies (1635): Boston Latin becomes the first school in the British Colonies and is followed in 1647 by the decree that every town of 50 families should have an elementary school and every town of 100 families should have a Latin school

9. First Sunday School (1818): Park Street Church on the Boston Common

10. First Free Public School for African Americans (1835): The Abiel Smith School is constructed on Beacon Hill in 1834 becoming the first schoolhouse in America built to educate Black school children

11. First Free Public Library in a Major City (1848): The Boston Public Library is established by the city

12. Compulsory Education Instituted (1852): A law is passed to ensure that the children of poor immigrants are educated and that working conditions for children are improved

13. The First Legally Integrated School (1855): The Abiel Smith School closes and the Phillips School becomes the first formally integrated public school as the result of a Black parent legal suit brought against
segregation in the public schools

14. First English Speaking Kindergarten (1860): Elizabeth Peabody introduces this new approach to educating young children in a program in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood

15. North Bennet Street Industrial School (1881): America’s first trade school is founded by Pauline Agassiz Shaw to train newly arrived immigrants in skilled trades

16. Facing History and Ourselves (1976): This organization is founded in Brookline by a group of teachers committed to helping students find meaning and guidance through studying the past

17. The Boston Compact (1982): A pact to improve public education is established among private industry, the Boston Public Schools, and several nonprofits, becoming a national model for urban school improvement

18. Boston Plan for Excellence in Public Schools (1984): The Massachusetts Education Reform Act establishes accountability for school systems, teachers, and students—tying state funding to improvements by each school system and requiring high school students to pass an exam before graduating

19. Modern Education Reform (1993): Through the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, state funding for schools is tied to accountability on the part of the school system, teachers, and students

20. Pilot Schools (1994): In response to the popularity of charter schools, this unique agreement between the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union sets the framework for some Boston public schools to
operate under special contract provisions that encourage educational innovation

21. Boston Schoolyard Initiative (1995): With the support of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a public/private partnership to reclaim the city’s schoolyards is established as a way to stimulate community ownership

22. Citizen Schools (1995): A creative national learning model developed by a Boston nonprofit that pairs adults with students for hands-on experiential learning activities is founded

23. Jump Start (2002): A nonprofit is founded by Boston University using mentoring relationships to help young adults with psychiatric disabilities transition from school to work.

Breakthroughs in Community Development and Housing

24. Iquilinos Boricuas en Accion (1968): Boston’s Puerto Rican community successfully fights to control the future of a piece of land in the South End called Parcel 19, winning the right to develop the land themselves, forming IBA, and building a national model for housing ownership and community development

25. Stopping the Urban Highway (1970): Opposition from neighborhood groups stops the “Inner Belt” from destroying inner-city neighborhoods in a dramatic movement unparalleled in the United States

26. Rosie’s Place (1974): The first shelter for homeless women in the United States is launched by Boston activist Kip Tiernan

27. Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s Approach (1980): LISC, today the largest community building organization in the country, creates its national/local matching of funds approach in 1980 when it opens its first local branch in Boston

28. Linkage Concept (1983): Boston is the first in the nation to require developers of certain downtown properties to give a percentage of the cost of development to projects in inner-city neighborhoods that benefit low-income groups

29. Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (1985): This initiative in Roxbury becomes the first community-based nonprofit in the country to be granted eminent domain over abandoned land within its boundaries

30. The Big Dig (1976-2004): Using the new techniques in civil engineering as well as consensus building, the largest urban infrastructure project in U.S. history results in re-knitting a number of Boston’s neighborhoods

A Breakthrough in Community Safety

31. The Boston Miracle (1992): Through “community policing” by the Boston Police Department—and a partnership among the City of Boston, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, a group of urban pastors called the Ten Point Coalition, and other community-based groups—a groundbreaking model for curbing youth violence and creating safe neighborhoods is born

Breakthroughs in Community Service

32. First YMCA (1851): In an era of heavy immigration, Boston founds the first YMCA in the United States

33. First YWCA (1866): The first YWCA in the United States opens in Boston as an organization governed by women and offering a program of services and activities for women

34. Denison House, Dorchester (1892): A small group of college-educated women under the direction of Emily Greene Balch (who would later win a Nobel Prize for her work), sets up this organization to improve the
conditions of poor immigrants

35. City Year (1988): This privately-funded, non-governmental youth service organization is launched by Alan Khazei and Michael Brown—and is destined to become a model for the national Americorps program

Breakthroughs in Parks and Green Spaces

36. First Town Common in the American Colonies (1630): The voters of the town of Boston agree to tax themselves to purchase a centrally-located parcel of land for use as a town common

37. First Botanical Garden (1837): Boston’s Public Garden is established for beauty and recreation

38. Appalachian Mountain Club (1876): The first conservation and recreation organization in the country is launched by MIT Professor Edward Pickering

39. First Public Playground (1892): Frederick Law Olmsted designs Charlesbank Park along the Charles River in the Back Bay section of Boston

40. First Metropolitan Park System (1892): Charles Eliot, a member of the Frederick Law Olmsted Landscape Architectural Firm, successfully proposes the creation of the first Metropolitan Park System to give people in an urban area access to nature

41. First Designated Historic District (1955): Beacon Hill becomes the country’s first urban neighborhood to be designated an historic district

42. Greening of Boston (1987): The Carol R. Goldberg Seminar releases a plan for a green space renaissance that becomes a national blueprint

43. Boston Harbor Islands National Park (1996): A unique national park is created, including 34 islands within Boston Harbor managed not by the Park Service but by a 13 member public/private partnership

Breakthroughs in Public Health

44. First Public Health Commission (1799): An outbreak of cholera prompts authorities to appoint Paul Revere as Boston’s first public health officer

45. First Nutrition Clinic (1918): What is now the New England Medical Center, sets up the first nutrition clinic at the end of World War I

46. First Community-Centered Neighborhood Health Center (1967): Doctors Geiger and Gibson open the Columbia Point Housing Development in Dorchester to combine health interventions with civil rights and
community empowerment—followed by the establishment of the first network of Community Health Centers

47. Walk for Hunger (1969): Launching an innovative approach to tackling hunger, this program chooses an interactive approach to building awareness and involvement

48. Violence and Public Health (1987): Boston City Hospital’s Deborah Prothrow-Stith suggests that street violence should be considered a public health issue, contributing to Boston’s community policing model

Breakthroughs in Public Art and Culture

49. First Pops (1885): The Boston Pops series of concerts featuring light music is developed by the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Henry Lee Higginson

50. The First “First Night” (1976): Founded by Boston artist Clara Wainwright and other artists and friends, spawns 200 other First Nights around the world