Posted March 29th 2010 at 1:08 am by
in CoLab Philosophy

Innovation at the Margins

Three questions drive CoLab’s work:

1. What does it take for communities that have been marginalized by society to determine their own future, particularly at a time when the demands of ecological sustainability will transform cities?

2. How do we capture knowledge generated by people in their efforts to achieve social justice?

3. How do we build learning communities among change-makers?

For us, these questions sit at the heart of creating healthy democracies, though I am not sure we can fully grasp the magnitude of what that means yet.

We work with community leaders such as the Mel King Fellows, students and faculty, but our work does not fit a traditional academic model.  We do not begin with research and measurement by outside experts who hypothesize, dispassionately observe and draw conclusions.  We hope to co-create knowledge with the people who are making change in their communities.  We believe that their experience and learning is sophisticated and essential for the development process.

For me, this is not just an academic assumption.  Growing up black, I heard stories all the time about amazing accomplishments of people who were invisible, disregarded, and disrespected — my family members.   My grandfather wrote poetry and songs and patented his own inventions, like a heel with ball bearings that would never wear out (his patented drawing pictured above), but became a messenger on Wall Street when he retired from the post office; my great uncle graduated from Yale Law School, but worked as a Pullman Porter carrying bags and serving whites on the trains.  These people were effective thinkers and leaders in their communities.

So we structure research differently.  We pose questions with our community partners — Burt Lauderdale from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Juan Leyton from Neighbor to Neighbor in Massachusetts, Nelson and Joyce Johnson from Greensboro, North Carolina, and others.   We train students differently, preferring active engagement to passive observation.   Rather than simply publishing and distributing what we know, we prefer using digital media so that a broad group of participants can capture and share their experience of change in a fairly immediate way.  This also allows an even broader group of people to comment on, refine and build on that knowledge.  We think of this as building learning communities.

We do not discount the importance of traditional and technical research from expert institutions like MIT; challenges facing communities are extraordinarily complex, requiring a range of expert knowledge.  We regard community experience as one form of expert knowledge.

Dayna Cunningham is the Executive Director of CoLab.

12 responses to “Innovation at the Margins”

  1. anonymous says:

    I understand what you are saying. Although I’ve always been an insider myself – at prestigious universities or organizations – I’ve always felt like an outsider within them.

    Your question #2 is a hard one. Also, how do you capture knowledge without taking advantage of it?

  2. The interesting thing is that a lot of people are insiders and outsiders at the same time and in different parts of their lives. For us, that means a lot of options in understanding social conflict and in using leverage points to make change.

    To my mind, the question of capturing knowledge is for the leaders themselves who are making change but who may not stop to reflect and understand exactly what they are learning. We find at CoLab that the more we pause to understand what has happened and what it says about what we think we know– or to put it another way, what is says about our assumptions, the more we learn and, it is hoped, the more effective we become.

  3. This coming Wednesday there will be a PBS special on one of Dr. King’s last speech entitled “Silence is Betrayal ” in which he challenged militarism, poverty, and racism. And more specifically our role in Vietnam. He said “the US was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” After this stance he was castigated by all sides–even the black community–his popularity sunk in all quarters and one year later he was killed. In the times in which we live and the communities in which we work perhaps we should, in this reflective Holy Week for some religious traditions, remember that there will always be the tension between “the call to conscience-the call to conviction and the temptation to settle for convenience and comfort”. Its a mighty tension which will require at some point in a life of service engaged in prophetic imagination all of the internal resources and spiritual strength available to meet the test and temptation. The blind spot of conscience in our time is in so many ways so extremely dark, as can be seen for instance in the backlash of the health reform vote, that those who seek to correct it must know that their efforts will be challenged on every hand.

  4. Nancy Bloom says:

    As a Boston Public School teacher, I am in the trenches where theory isn’t all that important. Survival is what’s important. That’s why the first question is both powerful and confounding. Survival precludes anything but the NOW of it all. Thank you CoLab for going to the NOW and listening to the people; co-creating with the people. Traditional research does not hold a candle to your work.

  5. I concur that I really value how CoLab has become an advocate for community-based knowledge as an equal input into theory within the hallowed halls of MIT. I also wonder what your vision is for not how CoLab can not only the capture of this often ignored co-created grassroots knowledge, but also the publicize and disseminate it in ways that are useful not only to the community for reflective practice but also gather power to influence theory, policy, and institutions…

  6. Alexa Mills says:

    Dayna, your story is really interesting. I can’t imagine a life with my head full of inventions and laws, but no mainstream outlet for them. I guess that’s part of the point, though: humans are creative no matter how suppressed their creativity. As a society we should make more and more and more outlets for knowledge.

    How the knowledge can get out? When I was a social worker in domestic violence court, I felt like I knew something absolutely vital to the way our world works, but no one in the world wanted to hear it. When the Abu Ghraib news broke, I knew that I understood it – the dynamics of power and control, the mind of an abuser – better than most people, because of my job. But my knowledge hit a dead end. There was no way for me to reach the people in power.

    I wonder, often, if there could be a better roll for art in the work of knowledge capture.

  7. Stefanie says:

    Dayna, I love this post. Your family’s stories are amazing. I hear you on the genius that is often hidden, disrespected or marginalized. My dad is mechanically gifted and has a list of things that he’s invented from sanding plastic lenses for eyeglasses to glasses for people with special eye conditions. However, with barely a third grade education, he hasn’t gotten much recognition for his talents. Because of his thick Yugoslavian accent, people are quick to dismiss him. On my mom’s side, my grandfather had a knack for mechanics and an innovative spark, but the war swept him, my grandmother and their kids into Japanese internment camps. Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if we began to recognize other kinds of intelligence. Wouldn’t our wisdom be so much richer?

  8. So many comments, so little time (:

    Nancy: the funny thing is that when you’re struggling to survive, you can sometimes learn the sharpest lessons. As we all know, there is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. The problem is how can we both get through it and learn from it at the same time. For us at CoLab, this is why the collective ability to sense and reflect becomes so important. It is something we practice pretty regularly. The blackboard in our office is always covered from end to end with scribbles as different groups of us try to make sense of what we are learning in our different projects–usually on the fly.

    Danielle: we are working on how to publicize and disseminate co-created knowledge not just for our own communities’ use but also to try to “influence theory, policy, and institutions…”. Right now our best example is the CoLaborative Thesis project led by Prof. Lorlene Hoyt, one of CoLab’s principal faculty affiliates. In this project, students are required to produce an academic masters thesis as well as a technical assistance piece for community partners and a media piece aimed at reaching, and, it is hoped, influencing, a larger popular audience.

    Alexa: I am no expert on this, but we know that art has a way of capturing and making accessible, even knowable, the experiences of people that are so far beyond the pale of common experience as to be inexplicable. What emotion could possibly motivate a slave mother to kill her own child? Could it be compassion? How do we understand experiences that simply are counter-factual for people in the mainstream, but that dominate the existence of marginalized grous– driving while black, living in fear that driving with a broken headlight or seeking to board a plane for an out-of-state college visit could have you ripped from your family and sent to a country you’ve never known. Art can help us develop social empathy, a critically necessary ingredient for healthy democracy.

  9. Stefanie,

    My grandfather, the inventor of the indefatigable heel, at age 14 was headed to a fancy prep school for black boys in Virginia. His father was an Episcopal minister who pushed his kids to get an education. All of his brothers had gone there before him and the two behind him would go too. He, alas, was with a cousin who happened to wink at a white woman and both boys had to leave the state immediately or face lynching. My grandfather’s brothers all became professionals–a dentist, a college professor, a professional photographer. I don’t know if my grandfather ever finished high school. We didn’t talk about that much in the family. Perhaps my mother will log in to this blog and let us know.

    What is so interesting to me is the parallels between our grandfathers’ experiences, though yours is Japanese American and mine was African American– being considered pariahs and sent into exile within their own countries. What do their experiences tell us about the limits of this great democratic experiment that our country is meant to be? One thing their experiences say to me is that the boundaries of democracy are cultural and spiritual and not necessarily just political. Who did they mean when they said “We the people?”

  10. Becky says:

    I’m watching this conversation unfold from Sao Paulo, Brazil where we’re working with the “catadores”, or wastepickers, who are struggling to claim their legitimacy as citizens, as workers who are providing a public service to the city, and as frontline environmental activists. They are people working at the margins of their city, their society and of the global economy and they are innovating all sorts of ways of claiming political and economic space. Their story is one of building a social movement, first at the level of the streets, then to city and national, and now as part of a global movement (see:

    The catadores have a huge amount to teach others about the power of collective action, and the importance of strategic alliances across social movements, academia and NGOs.

    On your capturing knowledge question, the global movement of wastepickers has been asking for stories of how municipalities have succeeded in recognizing the work of informal sector workers in the urban economy. We’re hoping to engage students in documenting those stories in ways that can be accessible across communities globally.



  11. Dayna, I don’t know how to answer your questions. I can just sum up some reflections of that.

    1. We are inside systemic problems. So we cannot invent and build our future only by ourselves, in an isolated way. For most communities, collaboration is a prerequisite. For inventing news/desirable futures, we have to free ourselves from those elements of past that prevent us to move into the future. I imagine communities interconnected by activities and networks of people who are actively exploring ways of making ecologically sustainable initiatives socially and economically viable, and periodically celebrating each tiny achievement. If there were a single day were all communities in the world could celebrate their achievements it should be great.

    2. Knowledge is an elusive subject. Because most local knowledge (the type of knowledge communities have) is a non-rival good, many people can take advantage of the same knowledge at the same time. Indeed, the benefit of knowledge may increase if more people are making that knowledge useful for them. What makes managing knowledge tricky is that most relevant knowledge is tacit, inside the brains of those people who are using it. So, more than capturing knowledge we need to create mechanisms for enabling people from different communities share lessons from their experiences and reflections. The benefits of sharing should fuel the efforts of externalizing what we have learned. Because, questions are the main tools to search/find knowledge, we should help community members who are doing efforts for social justice to formulate questions in the frontier of their knowledge, and to help them to find and assimilate that knowledge. To work we communities in processes of co-creation is a good way to get the mix of knowledge they need to become successful. This is where action-research comes into action.

    3. There is no recipe for that question. Each case has a specific way. I have used some guiding ideas that result from my experience: (1) we have to be part of their process, it is not possible to do from outside; (2) it is like evolution, each activity has to pay its costs; (3) we have to start small and from something simple, effective and accessible with the current set of skills of these change-makers; (4) the communities of learners should be open, because we don’t know who else could be interested and who could bring great contributions; (5) it has to be open-minded to be capable of learning from people we don’t agree with; (6) it has to be disruptively innovative, because working at the edge is what makes new knowledge needed.

    Dayna, your questions are really challenging. I will keep thinking on them to see if, through time, I can come up with meaningful contributions.

  12. Alexa Mills says:

    Dayna and Stefanie,

    I was re-reading this post and it made me recall the inventors in my own family, and what s different experience I have from you. I grew up knowing who the most accomplished of my blood line were, and exactly where their contributions were publicly memorialized. Every summer, my grandmother took me and my cousins to a museum where we could see an exhibit on the Bushnell Turtle, the first submarine used in battle, invented by a great… uncle David Bushnell ( ), which was my grandmother’s maiden name.

    On the other side, my great… grandfather was Governor of Idaho ( ) memorialized in the books scattered on our kitchen table, which we bought at Barnes & Noble.

    What would my relatives have been if they had not been American white men, of English and Irish descent? If they had been on the margins, what would they have contributed? And also, I wonder about the difference between the impact on my psyche and yours, growing up with very different kinds of information on our ancestors. No one ever told me that, had my ancestors been oppressed or imprisoned, they would have made very different contributions. The message I understood was that I should be able to do as much as they did. Yet despite this evidence I had that I was from the mainstream, I always felt like I belonged in the margins.

    It makes me think of two books. Maya Angelou in ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ – she chronicles her own brilliance on the margins. And then ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ Jason, possibly the meanest fictional character I’ve ever read, and his entire family collapse into the margins of society. Their declining Mississippi plantation house, whose land is sold parcel by parcel until there is nothing left, is the backdrop to the story.

    Jason fights the margin with everything he has. Maya embraces the margin for the stories it gave her.