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.