Q&A With MIT’s Community Innovators Lab

This is part of a series of posts that came out of a conversation between IDEAS and the MIT Global Challenge, Alexa Mills of MIT’s CoLab and Andrew Whitacre of MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media. We started a Q&A triangle where each of us asks questions through the lens of our program. Here is Alexa Mills and Dayna Cunningham from CoLab speaking about their work.

CoLab & CoLab Radio
CoLab is a center for planning and development within MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice. Its vision is for domestic and international communities to be democratically governed, provide the means for residents to generate decent livelihoods, and be clean, healthy, and environmentally sound. CoLab Radio describes how that vision happens step-by-step, story by story, in communities.

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A worker at the <a href="http://www.evergreencoop.com/Laundry/index.html" target="_blank">Evergreen Cooperative Laundry</a> loads laundry.

A worker at the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry loads laundry. The Evergreen Cooperative model operates at the intersection of three key realms: urban sustainability, civic engagement, and shared-wealth generation. CoLab calls this intersection the 'sweet spot'. Photo by Rob Crauderueff.

KM: Where do you see examples of growth and creativity in working with communities to solve some of the challenges communities face?

Alexa Mills: Every community we work with is doing something incredible. In terms of media and communications, I think the work at Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been inspiring. This year they published a video that ended with an older gentleman shouting “Blog it, Baby!” to a crowd of hundreds of his fellow Appalachians in support of the alternative energy / anti-mountaintop removal coal mining movement. They have integrated various media tools into nearly every aspect of their work,in a region where many people don’t have Internet access.

In terms of economic development, the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland are developing something that could be transformative. In Lynn, Massachusetts they’re turning vacant buildings into aquaponics facilities. Every community garden in every city is solving a whole set of problems. Aspen Farms in Philadelphia employs teenagers in addition to providing fresh food, improving the neighborhood, and building social ties. There is more creativity out there than I could ever possibly track.

KM: Tell me about the challenges communities face today. Where is there room for more innovation in problem-solving with communities? What do you see as important and necessary to bring about change?

AM: A lot of communities face challenges: poverty, access to healthy food, access to good transportation, access to the Internet, unemployment, violence. There are others.

But in terms of problem solving with communities, universities should find some room to adjust their approach. Universities have an outdated model. The idea that a single researcher works on a problem for years and then authors a book on that topic in hopes of getting tenure is, in most cases, a waste of time and brainpower. It’s the anti-collaboration. It rejects collaborations between fellow academics. It certainly rejects collaboration with communities.

The PhD system is broken as well. The most highly-educated people in America generally have one option: pursue the miserable tenure process in a highly competitive job market. I think that pursuing a 4 – 6 year degree is an incredible opportunity, and should be re-framed to acknowledge the present. Students should be able to pursue useful projects with communities that encourage collaboration between disciplines and set a community outcome as the primary goal, rather than a winning dissertation. Universities should be explicit and intentional in preparing its doctoral students for different career options, such as running businesses or working for the government.

In so many ways, academia fails to acknowledge that communities have ideas for their own survival and improvement that are often better than university-generated ideas. Even the time-frame is a problem. The most productive community-university collaborations endure for a minimum of 5 years. The good ones last 20. One semester isn’t even enough time to build a trusting relationship.

KM: I always notice CoLab has the ability to find some of the most fascinating people and bring them into one place to pursue positive change. What do you see as the long-term impact from CoLab?

Dayna Cunningham: The most important thing CoLab does is to support networks of change-makers and also to support change spaces in various cities and towns. CoLab gives people a chance to explore what it means to be a change-maker, to compare notes and lessons, to reflect and write about their experiences, to have those reflections distributed widely through CoLab Radio, and to take advantage of the resources that are here to support their particular projects. We support social justice networks, so the long-term impact is that these networks we support will be stronger; they’ll be stronger at pursuing social justice.

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This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

CoLab interviews C4FCMC4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCMC4FCM interviews CoLab