Posted April 5th 2010 at 4:49 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy

Are you an activist scholar? You are not alone.

In the essay below, MIT Activist Scholar and Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Lorlene Hoyt uncovers the importance of universities and communities collaborating to solve modern urban problems. Hoyt has led a partnership between MIT and the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts since 2002.  Hoyt is a Faculty Affiliate at CoLab. Her essay is a call for activist scholars, at MIT and beyond, to boldly explore alternative forms of scholarship.


The late Donald Schön, MIT professor of urban studies and education, published an article challenging the prevailing epistemology of the modern research university. In it, he made the case for a ‘new scholarship’ characterized by ‘reflective action research’ within ‘communities of inquiry.’ I never met Donald Schön, but I have gotten to know him by reading his books and co-teaching a class called the Lawrence Practicum with his friend and mine, Professor Lang Keyes.

In recent years, CoLab has evolved into a hub for inter-disciplinary innovation within a growing, dynamic, and diverse learning network. From Sao Paulo, Brazil to Lawrence, Massachusetts, CoLab actively connects civic leaders in marginalized communities around the globe with one another for the purpose of co-generating new ideas and strategies to solve systemic failures. I often say to myself, “I think Don would appreciate all that’s happening through CoLab.”

How Are Communities Marginalized?

In CoLab, I found a home for my collaborative work with the people of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence, located 30 miles north of campus, is one of the poorest cities in the United States. Home ownership rates are less than half the national average; unemployment rates are twice the state average. About half of the adults living in Lawrence have a high school diploma. Why? History matters. One of America’s first corporations, the Essex Company, built the City of Lawrence in three busy years. From 1845-1848, the company exploited Irish immigrants, most of who lived in shanties made of wood scraps and tin along the river’s edge, to construct the cities first mills, its canals, and the Great Stone Dam. By harnessing the energy of the Merrimack River to turn turbines and power the colossal textile mills, the Essex Company generated enormous wealth. However, they didn’t invest in the City of Lawrence or its people. They chose, instead, to invest their profits, over several decades, in development of institutions an hour’s train ride away, such as as the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How Do Communities Determine Their Own Future?

For several years, the people of Lawrence, working in collaboration with universities, have developed and applied a new theory of urban transformation they call network organizing, which involves unleashing community-based assets to achieve a kind of gentrification from within. Network organizing is at once a theory and a strategy that “connects people to each other and to opportunities for people to step into public life – from the neighborhood group to the City Council – in a way that feels safe, fun and productive.” By practicing these strategies, Lawrence residents united and achieved such goals as pressuring the Lawrence City Council to approve a zoning overly district in 2003 to permit housing in the historic mills. Today, a diverse alliance of civic leaders, residents, and alumni are working to transform three dilapidated mills, known as Union Crossing, into what promises to be America’s first LEED Platinum certified mill complex – a “green” neighborhood of apartments, stores, and playgrounds.

A Rendering of Union Crossing by Coldham & Hartman Architects.

This semester, I am co-teaching the Lawrence Practicum with Marianna Leavy-Sperounis, a graduate student at MIT and former Network Organizer for Lawrence CommunityWorks. The students in the class are working with newly-elected Mayor William Lantigua, the first Latino mayor in Massachusetts, to redesign the relationship between the people of Lawrence and the Essex Company, (now a subsidiary of Enel, one of the world’s largest energy companies), which still owns the rights to the mighty Merrimack’s water and the hydroelectric facility located at the south end of the dam. With support from CoLab staff, we are experimenting with media-based methods of reflection to uncover and disprove perennial assumptions about the city’s future with civic leaders, residents, and Enel’s representatives. Stay tuned.

Calling Activist Scholars – at MIT and Beyond

Donald Schön and others, including Ernest Boyer, long advocated a fundamental shift in higher education and its notions of scholarship. CoLab is a supportive environment for activist scholars, at MIT and beyond, seeking to integrate the traditionally walled-off domains of research, teaching, service, and practice. It is, in effect, the manifestation of what Boyer described in this seminal article, The Scholarship of Engagement, as “a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with one another.” If you value learning by doing, if you seek methods for giving voice to the knowledge embedded in marginalized communities, if you believe in realizing such ideas as democratic engagement, shared wealth generation, and urban sustainability, you are not alone.


Boyer, Ernest L. “The Scholarship of Engagement.” Journal of Public Service and Outreach 1, no.1 (Spring 1996)

Schön, Donald A. 1995. “The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology.” Change, 27, 6.

Traynor, W. J. and J. Andors, “Network Organizing: A Strategy for Building Community Engagement.” March/April 2005 Shelterforce 1-9.

3 responses to “Are you an activist scholar? You are not alone.”

  1. Hi Lorlene, great reflection.

    Working with communities in Latin America, I discovered that for most of their relevant problems, there was no single theory we could be perfectly applied to design a viable solution. Indeed I found that for one problem we could find many competing non-perfect theories, some old and some new, each of them providing a very different solution for the same problem, and the challenge was to help the community to build criteria to select the theories that, in some way, could inform the planning process for that particular people and context. When I first read Schön, in late 1990s, I finally found a philosopher who was approaching with rigor the kind of problem I was facing for almost two decades.

    Recently, reading Jack Mezirow, I found the idea of critical reflection on assumptions that is key to understand the way students learn when participate in a practicum. As you have said in your post, disproving assumptions is the most transformative learning we can get from practice. It is when our assumptions collapse from some unexpected result of action is that our interpretive framework is challenged, presenting us the need of reframing our understanding, and that is when the deepest transformations happen.

    A reflective practitioner has to be clear about the difference between the processes of learning inside a lab, under known and control conditions, and how we learn in naturalistic condition, in professional practice. Under naturalist conditions, disproving implicit assumptions is the main driver of the learning process.


    Mezirow, J. (March 1998). On critical reflection. Adult Education Quarterly, 48, 185–198

  2. Wow I think I saw a documentary about this once 😉

  3. Alexa Mills says:

    For me the most interesting concept in this article is the idea of ‘gentrification from within’. I love the idea that a group of people can use their internal assets to improve a place, rather than just being subjected to outside forces on their community. It’s a very modern interpretation of the old American hang-up with ‘self-improvement’. Lawrence’s concept moves from the self to the collective. Universities should seek to be part of such collectives, wherever they can do so gracefully.