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Tomorrow’s Changemakers

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) laboratory for applied research and action planning. Since its inception more than a dozen years ago, CoLab has worked to translate DUSP pedagogy and practice, into meaningful impact in the world. Under the leadership of Dayna Cunningham, the lab focuses on engaging urban challenges of race-based economic and social marginality. CoLab merges planning theory and practice by immersing MIT students in participatory action research projects with community partners facing disruptive moments of change in marginalized communities.

“In keeping with MIT’s mission to ‘work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.’ We teach students how to apply the planning discipline and leverage a range of community assets, including community knowledge, to advance democratic engagement, urban sustainability and shared wealth creation,” said Cunningham, CoLab’s Executive Director and Lecturer at DUSP. “CoLab engages hundreds of MIT students in projects and events every year. We are honored to highlight and celebrate some of the talented students who have come through CoLab and are now making important contributions to community innovation efforts in wellness-based economic development, community wealth creation, racial justice, urban sustainability and more.”

Sam Jung (MCP '17)

Current Role: Assistant Director, Business Development and New Economy Initiatives. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, New York City

Why are you passionate about your current role?
The extractive economy and the climate crisis are co-constituted existential challenges to the survival of our species. Communities of color and indigenous nations have long identified that cooperative, regenerative, life-affirming, and deeply democratic economies are needed to stem the tide of ecological and social erosion. I am humbled and blessed to leverage the resources of the City of New York to make this vision possible, in service of creating more just and livable futures, especially for (queer) communities of color.

How did CoLab influence your development as a planner?
CoLab creates a home for visionaries who have historically been disavowed by or foreclosed from elite academic institutions, and fosters their leadership and intellectual capacities to make immense social, political, and economic impact. The connections I have made through and with CoLab, have helped me understand how structural change in the economy could help to rectify the racial wealth gap. CoLab made it possible to be my whole self, and to make profound connections in service of realizing equity at many different scales across communities and cities.

 

Katherine Mella (MCP '14)

Current role: Director of the Planning and Policy Lab, Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI)

What is the most meaningful part of your job?
Overall, I feel very lucky to be doing work that is so aligned with my personal values. It has also been very fulfilling to work alongside and learn so much from longstanding, incredible community leaders and residents that are so committed to the vision of a thriving, healthy Bronx. I’ve been working in the Bronx for nearly six years now--first with CoLab and now BCDI, and it’s also become my home, so there is an added dimension of pride and an even greater commitment to doing this work because the vision is not abstract.

What would you like others to understand about CoLab and its impact on your professional life?
CoLab has fundamentally shaped my understanding of my role and responsibilities as a planner committed to social and economic justice. Without CoLab, I would not have been introduced to key formative ideas, tools, and work on the ground that has greatly informed my career trajectory. It has been very exciting to see how CoLab’s presence and offerings within DUSP have grown since I graduated, particularly because I believe CoLab’s vision and approach to planning is a necessary and urgent component of a comprehensive planning education.

Planning students go out into the world to become leaders and experts and make decisions that shape communities. It is critical for MIT to ensure that the planning education that students receive is grounded in an understanding of race, power, and privilege, and that students who are committed to social justice have a range of tools for helping to build a better world. CoLab is uniquely positioned within MIT to systematically train the next generation of social justice leaders and ensure that the planning education offered includes tools and strategies to transform places and economies to be more sustainable, democratic, and just.

CoLab and its partners around the globe continue to serve as a major source of inspiration in terms of what is possible when you let communities lead and you support them to envision and implement their own solutions. I cannot imagine MIT nor my own personal and professional trajectory without CoLab.

 

Carlos Espinoza (MCP '08)

Current Role: Director of Small Business Services. Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), Boston

What is the most meaningful part of your job? Working directly with people addressing needs and accomplishing goals on a day-to-day basis.

How did CoLab help inform where you are now?
My experience at CoLab as a student and as staff helped me to experiment with many different ways to address challenges posed by the practice of equitable development. My career was enriched with innovative tools to overcome these challenges. CoLab fosters an important space for experimentation, where students can succeed and fail, and can receive the support they need to celebrate successes and learn from failures and continue moving forward addressing issues posed by the practice of equitable development.

Why is it critical at this socio political juncture that we work to innovate at the margins?
It is at its most relevant given the current retrograde developments of our Federal government, which influences the monies and priorities at the local level.

 

Tatianna Echevarria (MCP '18)

Current role: Policy Analyst for the Mayor of New York City

What was your involvement with CoLab while at MIT?
I was a researcher on a few projects related to my Practicum and coursework, and also worked on a project and had an opportunity to do research and community-based work in Colombia. I helped to figure out how to secure funding and map out recommendations that resulted from the research. I also got thesis support from CoLab because the topic was related to and was a spin-off of [CoLab’s] Colombia work.

How did your engagement with CoLab shape other aspects of your academic and/or nonacademic time at MIT?
My time at CoLab was pretty influential even without a very formal role. I was regularly referred back to CoLab to throw ideas around and get support. It was nurturing space for grappling with things I was learning.