A Leader Who Lifts Us Up

On Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 a cadre of MIT community members were recognized with Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards for their efforts to cultivate integrity, leadership, and creativity at MIT. Recipients included Dayna Cunningham, who is the Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) and a lecturer at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

“Dayna is, without doubt, the person at MIT who has caused the greatest impact on me,” said a former teaching assistant and current staff member at CoLab. “Her combination of sincerity, integrity, honesty, eloquence, and spontaneity, paired with big aspirations, creative ideas, and a deep commitment to advance social justice makes Dayna a unique person at DUSP and MIT. In addition to all those impressive characteristics, Dayna truly cares about students and her coworkers -- spending time with her is always a pleasure.I am deeply grateful for her mentorship while I was her student and honored by the opportunity to be a part of Dayna’s team at CoLab.”

Cunningham's classes focus on promoting democratic participation, the broad participation of constituents in political systems, and addressing social marginality, the exclusion of groups from aspects of society. Her pedagogy informs her work as a practitioner and in the lab she directs. In a tangible sense this can be witnessed in CoLab's core belief in the power of partnering students and faculty with leaders in marginalized communities seeking to solve knotty urban problems of sustainability, wealth creation and democratic participation. Under Cunningham’s leadership, CoLab has become a focal point for students seeking to co-create solutions with local leaders in communities facing disruptive changes — whether environmental crisis, neighborhood displacement, healthcare reform or other important shifts. Prior to leading CoLab, Cunningham was the Program Director of the ELIAS Project, an MIT-based collaboration between business, NGOs and government, she worked with leaders using profound innovation processes to create multi-sector initiatives for economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“CoLab pairs students and faculty with community leaders seeking to solve specific challenges of democracy and economic exclusion that the leaders have decided are important,” said Cunningham. “Students have a chance to apply classroom learning to practical problems and co-create solutions with communities facing the sharpest edges of institutional failure. They are excited by the chance CoLab provides to have meaningful impact as part of their education. And I’m very excited to be recognized by the MIT MLK Jr. Leadership Award for this work.”

Since 1996, the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards are given annually to MIT students, alumni, staff, groups and faculty who embody the spirit of Dr. King’s work. “Service to the community” is defined in the broadest sense and includes academic, research, religious, and secular contributions in which integrity, leadership, creativity, and positive outcome are apparent. The award seeks to enhance and recognize the impact and contributions of winners to the MIT community. The MLK Jr. Leadership Awards winners are selected by the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO).

The ICEO serves as a thought leader on the subjects of community, equity, inclusion, and diversity. The ICEO is as a focal point for organizing MIT’s diversity related activities and conversations, leading MIT to make practical progress on a daily basis toward cultivating a caring community focused on MIT’s shared values of excellence, community, equity, belonging, openness, integrity, and mutual respect.

Additional MLK Jr. Leadership Award winners include, Sandy Alexandre (Literature at MIT), Gloria Anglon (Office of Graduate Education), Meghan Davis (Biological Engineering), Stephen Barr (Sloan School of Management), and Delta Phi Epsilon (Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups).