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Q&A: CoLab, the MIT Community Innovators Lab

The MIT Community Innovators Lab 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.

1.) What does it mean to do this kind of work at MIT? Are there unique opportunities and challenges in this setting?

Dayna Cunningham (Executive Director): First, it means engaging a set of students with a particular set of ideas that we’ve defined around the intersection of three things: urban sustainability, civic engagement, and shared-wealth generation. Second, it means working with those students to help support the relationships we have with community organizations. All of that requires a particular set of skills and a set of values that we work hard to sustain and support. It means working with both our student colleagues and community colleagues around learning through this ongoing process.

2.) Who’s work at CoLab has surprised you the most?

Alexa Mills (Community Media Specialist): Program Manager Carlos Espinoza-Toro’s work has surprised me the most over the years because it’s been fascinating to watch his versatility unfold. Carlos and I graduated from the Masters in City Planning program together in 2008, so I have known him since 2006. In that time, I have seen him move from a ‘recovering architect’, as our co-worker Amy Stitely says, to someone who could organize a 30-student trip to Peru. At CoLab, Carlos started by leading a team of fifteen people in graphing the path of U.S. Stimulus Funds from the government to communities. Even their unfinished product was so powerful that a U.S. Congressman actually stole it off the wall of our community partner’s office in North Carolina. He moved on to manage the Mel King Community Fellows Program, and now is in a process to green America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His versatility is incredible.

3.) On a scale of 9.9 to 10, how awesome is Mel King? How did the Mel King Community Fellows Program come about and what has it been up to?

Cunningham: Um, 12 and ½. No! 18.25. Mel King is extremely awesome. Mel King is in his mid 80’s. He runs a technology center in the South End, where he has lived his whole life, and this center engages young people in understanding the latest technology. So here is this man in his mid-80s who understands technology at least as well, if not better, than most young people. On top of that, this guy ran for mayor. In his life, he led a whole movement in the city of Boston around neighborhood revitalization and community participation. He’s a beloved hero, and here he is in a basement in a brownstone in the South End just pulling kids off the street to teach them about technology. It’s extraordinary.

Mel was on a plane going to D.C. and he ran into the then-president of MIT and they put together the vision for the Community Fellows Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He ran the program for 30 years. The whole idea of the Community Fellows Program was to bring activists to the campus to give them a chance to reflect, to refresh, to be thoughtful about the work of social change, to work with MIT faculty, and to provide MIT with a window into change processes social change in marginalized communities - out in the world.

The current Mel King Community Fellows Program builds on that but in a different way. The original program which was structured as a year spent on the campus. In the current program, we don’t want to take community activists away from their work in their communities, we just want to bring them together for short periods of time over a year.

Espinoza-Toro: Over the past year, the Fellows have been having meaningful discussion the current political environment in the United States. They’ve been reflecting on their work in the communities where they operate. In order to broaden our vision, we took a trip to Cleveland to witness a cooperative development. In our next meeting, we’re planning to co-design the upcoming fellowship year with the current fellows.

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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 C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCMC4FCM interviews CoLab

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