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© Frank


An Interview with Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of CoLab

by Dayna Cunningham
May 6, 2018

This interview with Dayna Cunningham, the Executive Director of CoLab, was conducted and condensed by frank news. Dayna previously worked as an Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation and as a voting rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Dayna Cunningham Office Portrait

All right, let's begin.

My name is Dayna Cunningham and I am a civil rights lawyer by training. I spent about seven years in the field working mainly in the Deep South on voting rights cases, and then I went into philanthropy. From philanthropy landed at Sloan, looking particularly at organizational innovation and development.

Why did you come to Sloan [MIT School of Management]?

To get an MBA.

Why get an MBA after already having a law degree?

Philanthropy was a really interesting deep dive for me into the way resources are organized in society. Resources for social justice. I saw a lot of warts in that world. A lot of missed opportunities and ways in which the structure of philanthropy was actually not set up to advance community voice, meaningful participation, real democracy. I also saw that a lot of communities that are on the margins, that are excluded from social institutions, minority communities, communities of color, poor people, have a lot of resources.

When you're sitting at that desk in philanthropy, all day long interesting, creative, entrepreneurial people are coming to you. And they're pitching you stuff, and suddenly you get this overview of all of these assets in a place that you, as a program officer, are meant to consider as being bereft and without resources. It was a real shift in mindset.

I realized if my commitment to democracy and my commitment to voice, particularly to people of color, and at the margins, was going to be fully realized, I had to think more about independent means of generating the resources. Not just philanthropy as a pathway to democracy. So the obvious choice was to go learn about management and the business discipline that every day turns entrepreneurs into people with a lot of resources.

Can you give a specific example of these resources?

I could spend all day on that. I met with a woman who was the head of an organization that works with First Nations people around the world. She had this map that identified the world's remaining reserves of natural resources. Overlaid on that were the areas where First Nations were still predominant. And it was almost a direct fit. The obvious point is that the communities that are on this map are still the ones with these kinds of resources in the world.

But that actually is not the main lesson for me.

There were two main lessons for me. One was, as she showed me this map, she was telling me the story that of course these are the places where there are profound struggles for self-determination. Big struggles to maintain the communities’ control over the assets. So one storyline coming out of this was,

how do you have the wherewithal to defend your patrimony when you are a First Nations community and you are not necessarily having access to the planning expertise or the resources needed? Particularly in a world where there are development experts who would use their technical knowledge to cheat you of your patrimony.

There was another layer of this which was, what are the cultural resources that have enabled the communities to preserve the natural assets? There is something else here at play that is pretty invisible in most development thinking, which is that people held onto something for a reason that was embedded in their culture, and their life ways, and those things obviously result in a set of assets that the biosphere needs.

She came to the Rockefeller Foundation?


And the purpose was to…

To get money. To get a grant.

To be able to handle the resources the way they wanted to and keep power over them? Or to protect the land and not extract the resources?

Both. That was one of her points. In some places actually, the need for development is dire. We want to modernize and develop, but on our own terms, and in full possession of our resources. In other places, we, for a variety of reasons, want to preserve things the way they are. Their organization was focused more on, how do you deploy the resources to achieve the goals you set for yourself as a First Nations community? How do you make the arguments on a global scale for this claim of sovereignty and self-determination in deciding how your resources will be used?

Were there things at the Rockefeller Foundation you weren’t able to do that you wanted to do?

It gets back to what I was saying earlier.   I think the underlying model of philanthropy – at least in addressing challenges of poverty --  is subsidizing wealthy people to deploy technical reasoning to address problems of poor people in accordance with wealthy people’s values and priorities. 

When I was in philanthropy there was a big interest in democracy. And philanthropy, and its support for civil society, as the third leg of the stool in upholding democracy — along with markets and government. Underlying all of this was an assumption that the communities that philanthropy purported to help were baron, were bereft of resources. I had meetings with my colleagues and I’d say , I'm working with community partners trying to figure out what my  strategy will be in this area. And they said, what do you mean you are working with community partners? We don’t partner in that way.  It is important for us to decide strategic direction. Everybody wants the money, so how can you leave these questions open for decision and deliberation amongst a group of people who really just want the money?  But I thought, how do we know if we're effective if the people who we are hoping to build work with, aren't part of the process of framing what the work looks like?

Not just in philanthropy, but in social science as well, much of the dominant discourse about poverty, the underlying assumption is deficits – maybe character flaws, cultural dysfunction, sometimes failure of democratic will, but the underlying sense, I believe, is that somehow poor people are  defective people.

It's a construct that somehow upholds the necessity, or at least inevitability of poverty in a society, and then seeks to ameliorate around the edges.  Technical rationality is the way you ameliorate around the edges and the only people who can do this, at the end of the day, are technical experts. And I saw day in and day out, that those coming to see me were not technical experts alone, but stakeholders in all different parts of the problem, and they all brought something really important. And sometimes philanthropy could actually be a barrier to all of these stakeholders having the most meaningful and productive engagement with the problem solving.

Dayna Phone at Desk

Particularly in big philanthropic foundations, are their hearts in the right place and their methods just flawed?

I don't think it's a question of intention. And that's why I think having an understanding of structures is so important. I was in New York the other day and I was learning that New York is one of the most segregated cities in the country.

In what sense?

Racially segregated by geography. Why is that? Is that because New Yorkers are more racist than most other cities?

I would think not.

I would think not, right? But here you are with a city that's deeply racially segregated. The point is, I think it has much more to do with development patterns, with finance, with a set of things that channel human behavior, but aren't driven alone by human intention. It's that segregated because it's really expensive to live in, and people of color don't have those kind of resources. You could go on and on. I'm not apologizing for racism. But I am pointing to structures that share outcomes.  Most of the time, we get into the river and get carried along by the current.  The river current is the structure.  Sometimes you can paddle backwards or against the current. Or you can try to go sideways and find another current where there's more possibility to move differently.  But most of the time we go along with the current.

What I wanted to understand by going to business school was, what is the discipline of execution? I have always been a social change activist, it’s the only thing I've ever done in my life. I was shocked to learn that a lot of entrepreneurs are their own form of revolutionaries. They have a crazy idea. Everybody thinks they're out of their minds. They set their sights on a goal and they pursue it to the end,  and bring something into the world that solves a problem that didn't exist before, and that creates value.

I was really tired of being on the critic side of the social justice endeavor. I really wanted to try building some stuff, and doing something in entirely different ways. That's what it was. It wasn't about playing the game. In fact, it was understanding the rules of the game, but not to play it, to do something different.

How did this all turn to CoLab?

I left the Sloan school and had worked with professors there I really liked. Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, who were doing organizational development and social innovation. And that really captured my imagination. I spent a year working with Otto on leadership development and multi-sector initiatives for social transformation that put businesses in collaboration with civil society leaders and government leaders.

And then CoLab happened.

What is CoLab?

Well on our website we say, “CoLab is a planning and development lab in the Department of Urban Studies, and we work with communities at the margins”.

We believe that the knowledge, experience, and insights of people who have experienced institutional failure is a critical resource for development that is often overlooked.

We bring the planning discipline to bear in situations where development is needed; we use planning to support the involvement of people who are usually overlooked.

You say planning discipline, which makes me think that it's not necessarily spatially urban. Is that correct?

It's not always, though it is often.

Why do you think cities are important to what you're doing?

If you go back to the Greeks they believed that cities are the birthplaces of democracy, and that's not trivial to me. It is where you find concentrations of people managing the business of what it means to live in a society with other humans in a concentrated way. They’re figuring out the transportation systems, they figure out the water systems, the food systems. But they're also figuring out how to allocate resources for those systems, and all kinds of other things. It's where markets develop.  Cities are the locus of figuring out the problems of human settlement.

Having said that I have recently been in conversations with people working in rural areas who say the formulation I just gave you, about "why cities?", is a way of relegating rural areas to sites of resource extraction. My background predisposes me to see cities the way I just described. Lately, I've been thinking about, in a world of finite resources, where stewardship of living things becomes increasingly important, how do we reframe the relationship between cities and rural areas away from the traditional model?

What do you mean by stewardship of living things?

I used to say human well-being. And I have a much better understanding now that you cannot isolate human well-being from the rest of the living world. It just means to say that you can't have human well-being if the rest of the world is dying.

How do you approach that in CoLab? How do you get past anthropocentric thinking?

I do think part of what we need to understand better is the intelligence of living systems. Not just the availability of living systems for what we would like to use them for.

Would that fall under the idea of ecosystem services, rather than utilitarianism? From an environmental perspective?

That's one cut. But I think that also is not necessarily fully grasping the intelligence of the living world. One way to think about this is if you think about biomimicry. Biomimicry being this idea that there are all of these patterns and phenomena in the natural world that reach near- perfect efficiency by processes that we don't understand. And if we can figure out how these processes work, we will be so much further along in advancing productivity of the living world. Not just more resource extraction, but more long-term viability and sustainability.

Could you highlight some projects going on in the CoLab now?

Our most concerted effort in the U.S. is in New York City, mainly in the Bronx, but also increasingly in Brooklyn, and hopefully looking forward to L.A. We're trying to figure out what are the actual mechanisms and operating principles that underlie a more inclusive economy.

What kinds of structures do we need to build to enable citizens to play a much more active role in shaping economies to deliver well-being for themselves and the living world?

In the Bronx we have this structure called The Community Enterprise Network. The Bronx is the poorest urban county in the U.S. but is full of resources, like billions of dollars in procurement spent each year. And yet it is the poorest urban county. The world's second largest food distribution center yet it is full of food deserts. It has hospitals everywhere and has terrible health outcomes. Highest levels of asthma in the country.

Why is the asthma rate so high?

The Bronx is crisscrossed by superhighways and trucking routes. And, because it has a lot of old buildings that contain indoor risks to air quality.

Like asbestos?

It can be asbestos, it can be dust, it can be outdoor pollution coming from leaky old windows, it can be lead from the paint crumbling on the walls, it can be rodent infestation, it can be mold...

If the way structural philanthropy works is to not hear the voice of community people, perhaps that's because it's more efficient to just do and not communicate. When do you bring the community in, and how do you make the most efficient beneficial structure?

This is an argument that comes up a lot in the environmental space. That we are running out of time so we better do the fastest thing to ameliorate threats to the environment.

I would argue that we will not save time if we come up with solutions that do not enable all hands to be on deck. Because the solutions will be ineffective.

A really good example is a lawsuit brought years ago by some environmental groups to stop the New York City Housing Authority from burning garbage. They won, and the city had to stop all kinds of after-school programs, cultural programs, workforce development programs in order to pay for bagging and shipping off the garbage instead of incineration.

I wonder what percentage of those people [in the enviro group lawsuit] were NYCHA residents.

A) Good question. I would guess not many. B) The environmentalists declared victory. They got the city to stop burning trash. But now kids didn't have after school programs, workforce development was scuttled, and when the tenant associations and various groups came back and said congratulations on your victory, can you help us advocate for more money for after school programs, pre-K, workforce development? The environmentalists said well, those aren’t really environmental issues.

So you can imagine a scenario in which the next time environmentalists come around looking for some sort of victory on an environmental threat, public housing residents are organizing to stop them. Why wouldn't you organize to stop them? Even though you might be the most likely to suffer from the environmental threat, you are still trying to get back after-school and workforce and other programs.

There is this way in which efficiency and effectiveness can be pitted against each other by the technocratic reasoning of the “poverty industrial complex.”

Where would CoLab come in on one of these issues? What’s the approach?

Our starting point is where are communities facing disruptive moments of change? Who wants technical support to come up with better solutions than the ones that are being posed that might not take into account the communities’ own lived experience with institutional failure? We are looking for communities where there is sophisticated leadership that can be peer collaborators with us. We go places where we are asked to go, because people have a challenge that they want to address. And then we work with them to figure out what is most urgent and what will be the response.

It's not us coming up with a response, and then backing into a timetable, and then backing into a constituency - it’s the other way around.