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Technologies Changing Communities, Communities Innovating Technology

11/05/2008 6:00 PM Museum
Dayna Cunningham, SL'04, Executive Director, Community Innovators Lab, Department of Urban Studies and Planning; Alexa Mills, Community Media Artist, MIT Community Innovators Lab

Description: The best way to help a community help itself, say Dayna Cunningham and Alexa Mills, is to enable its members to find their voices and talk to each other. In several projects in the U.S. and overseas, the two speakers are developing methodologies for enabling communities to express and define themselves, so they may become more engaged in a larger civic and political process.

Cunningham describes her particular focus on African"American civic engagement. She confesses she had "come to the conclusion that the infrastructure of black civic engagement was dead" -- and then the U.S. elected its first black president. However, in spite or because of this triumph, she feels there's more reason than ever to find channels for African"American involvement in the civic process.

Alexa Mills recounts her efforts in two historically black Brooklyn neighborhoods to create community"based media projects. A large Baptist church, the cornerstone of the community, was challenged by various issues of gentrification, and asked Mills to conduct interviews with a diverse group of African" American community members to hear their perspectives. "Their goal is to hear one another before projecting their voice," says Mills. Although she went into the enterprise imagining organizing the community around affordable housing, she found that instead, there was fierce concern about white people moving in and behaving in an uncivil way: New neighbors wouldn't say hello as they passed on the street or in buildings. She hopes her interviews and an envisioned future website will help make connections among new and old community members, and ultimately inform the church's future efforts.

In another project, Mills worked with people in an Eastern Kentucky town who felt oppressed by the destructive environmental behaviors of local coal companies. She helped make a movie about one local man's fish pond -- his life's work -- that was poisoned by mining runoff. The web site designed by a community group hosts lively conversations about this video, and other issues provoked by mining, and partly through this technology, the group is learning to "fight for what it wants," says Mills.

About the Speaker(s): A 2004 graduate of the Sloan Fellows MBA program, Dayna Cunningham holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and a juris doctor degree from the New York University School of Law. From 2006"2007 she directed the ELIAS Project, an MIT"based collaboration between business, NGOs and government that seeks to advance economic, social and environmental sustainability. Previously, she was an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she funded initiatives that examined the relationship between race and democracy, changing racial dynamics and new conceptions of race in the US, as well as innovation in civil rights legal work.

At the MIT Community Innovator Lab, Alexa Mills combines her passion for stories with her passion for bottom"up urban planning. Mills works directly with communities to develop media that express their perspective on various issues. Mills' body of work includes Predatory Tales, the true stories of predatory lending scams in Lawrence, Massachusetts; an interactive map of Tambo de Mora, Peru, hand"drawn by local teenagers seeking to describe their town to outsiders; and a series of short films about organizing to protect the environment from the coal industry in eastern Kentucky. All projects use various forms of media to express a community's perspective on an issue.

Mills earned her B.A. in English, with a concentration in Medieval Literature, from Cornell University in 2003. She earned her Master's in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008. Before attending MIT, Alexa directed the SAFE Victim Advocacy Program in the Domestic Violence Unit of the Washington D.C. city courthouse. Cunningham has also worked as a voting rights lawyer in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, and briefly as an officer for the New York City Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Ford Foundation recently announced a grant to the Center of $1.15M in support of three projects under the general heading of Deepening Local Democracy.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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