Marilyn Gittell and Dayna Cunningham
Marilyn Gittell was my teacher, though I never took a course with her. I met her while working at a foundation where, among other things, my charge was to develop an education portfolio. I had no experience in that field and instead was given a short list of potential contacts to get myself oriented. Each person I called asked, “Have you talked to Marilyn Gittell yet?” When I decided to focus the new program on parent participation in schools, I shared the idea with my husband. He also said, “Talk to Marilyn Gittell.”
I’d heard of Marilyn; she was my husband’s dissertation advisor. He went to Hunter College in New York City to get a Masters, but she refused to let him stop there, insisting that he get a PhD. He said it was easier to get a doctorate than to argue with her, so he signed up in Political Science at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.
With some trepidation, I called her out of the blue and told her about my project. About a week later, Marilyn and I sat in the Museum of Modern Art’s restaurant and talked for four or five hours, through lunch and into the dinner hour. That day, we began an intense collaboration that lasted until her death.
When I changed jobs, she helped me transition what had become our parent participation project and became my trusted advisor in the new position, critiquing every draft of my program design and regularly offering solicited and unsolicited assessments of my work. I ran out of ideas in that job; she pushed me into an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I started my own organization. She helped me think through its mission and let me send new staff to her for orientation. She also gave me great advice on being a working mother.
Marilyn and I traveled around the country and to many parts of the globe together looking at participation and engagement within marginalized groups. These trips were my field training. Always the teacher regardless of the setting, in a stage whisper, she would meticulously point out the important dimensions of genuine community participation.
Our most important project was the Forum on Race and Democracy, a group of leaders from around the country exploring the impact of race on prospects for healthy democracy. Marilyn participated in and consistently pushed for a focus on high-quality local participation in our work from its start in 1997 until the fall of 2009.
These are some of the core values she taught me to integrate into all of my work:
• The importance of observation in the field: She could detect pretext within seconds and had special contempt for false efforts at community engagement. I saw her unsparingly dissect half-baked engagement efforts in Capetown, Budapest, Chicago, the Bronx, and in my son’s preschool.
• The centrality of citizen participation to democratic practice: Her mantra. She took great delight in seeing people who had been marginalized become politicized and involved in their communities.
• The necessity of a meaningful say: She wanted people to have enough information and sufficient opportunity to influence decisions that really affected them.
• The primacy of local organizing: to Marilyn, the unit of change was the neighborhood, and residents were the key drivers.
• Faith in collective intelligence and concerted action: She really, really believed that people became smarter by working together and could make significant change in their communities.
Over the fourteen years of our wonderful collaboration, I remember only one significant disagreement about the role of leadership in participatory processes. For Marilyn, I did not sufficiently value the role of collective leadership; I thought she had unreasonable faith in its power. But as I reviewed old emails in preparation for this post, I found the following, sent shortly after one of her orientation meetings with CoLab staff. Vintage Marilyn, emphatically all caps, perfectly enunciating the last word:
I WANTED TO ADD RE OUR LEADERSHIP DISCUSSION THAT WHEN A PARTICIPATORY SYSTEM IS INITIATED, IN ITS PROCESSES IT WILL BE PROVIDING FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF MORE “LEADERS” AND/OR PEOPLE WHO SPEAK UP, BUT IMPORTANTLY OF A COLLECTIVE OR COLLEGIAL KIND AND THAT’S WHAT THEN FURTHER FEEDS THE PARTICIPATORY SYSTEM. OLD STYLE LEADERSHIP TRAINING WILL UNDERMINE THE FUNCTION AND PURPOSE OF PARTICIPATION AND ITS RELIANCE ON SELF-GOVERNANCE AS THE MEANS TO ACHIEVING AND DEFINING THE COMMON GOOD. SEWA IS AGAIN A MODEL, THROUGH ITS INSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURES IT REINFORCES THE PARTICIPATION I.E…IN COOPERATIVES, JOINT OWNERSHIP, MICROENTERPRISE ET. AL. THE MOTTO IS ”WE ARE SEWA AND SEWA IS US” AND THAT IS TRANSLATED INTO ALL ASPECTS OF THE ORGANIZATION. THE CURRENT LEADERSHIP IS THREE WOMEN, ONE OF WHOM CAME FROM THE TOBACCO WORKERS UNION IN SEWA. BUT EVERYONE PARTICIPATES. PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO YOUR STAFF.
Post by Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of the MIT Community Innovators Lab:
This post is part of a series called Voicing the City: Remembering Marilyn. Professor Marilyn Jacobs Gittell was a longtime member of the doctoral faculty in Political Science at the City University of New York. She passed away on February 26, 2010. She was a renowned scholar, inspiring teacher, and highly respected social activist. Please feel welcome to contribute a post or a comment.