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A Vision for Building a Multiracial Democracy

Dayna Cunningham, the new Tisch College dean, outlines key opportunities and responsibilities for higher education in shaping the next generation of engaged citizens

A few months into her leadership of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Dayna Cunningham, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean, is already hard at work addressing big questions: How can we, as citizens, build a multiracial democracy, and how do we learn to govern ourselves as a completely diverse nation?

“We are a country that, in the next 30 years, will be completely multi-racial. There will not be a single ethnic or racial majority,” says Cunningham. “We have to learn how to govern ourselves through crises like global pandemics, climate risk, growing inequality, and racial divides. And we don't have a lot of time.”

Cunningham has spent her career promoting civic participation, building community partnerships, and advocating for underrepresented communities. As she looks ahead to educating the next generation of engaged citizens, she took a moment to reflect with Tufts Now on her path to civic life and the important responsibility academia has in shaping a multi-racial democracy.

Tufts Now: What inspired you toward a life of active civic involvement?

Dayna Cunningham: I was born in the Bronx, and both sides of my family are from Bronx, New York, which is now the poorest urban county in the United States. We had a close-knit family, and my earliest understanding of a good life was being surrounded by family and community.

Then I moved to Westchester, which was a very different kind of community, but also a place of community involvement and civic activism. I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to take care of people. My dad was a doctor, and I was really moved by how committed he was to his patients and how much his patients desired his care. My mother originally was a nurse, and care and duty were a part of my childhood.

In college, though, I became much aware of oppression. I suddenly felt it wasn't enough to care for individual people. That got me thinking, how do you affect change on a larger scale beyond the individual patient? How do you make it so people don't get sick? And that began my inquiry into activism, engagement, and democracy, as a collective exercise in making people's lives better.

How did that mission infuse your professional career?

As a voting rights lawyer, I worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to reform how democratic institutions were configured and how they served the electorate. But I left there because I had gotten weary of litigation. It was too blunt a tool. You can change the rules, but you can't necessarily change people's hearts.

And when you change the rules, a lot of people still don't have the resources and the technical capacity to contend in the marketplace of ideas when a new proposal, urban development, or legislative policy was being enacted that would deeply affect their lives.

Even the poorest communities have assets that are not necessarily recognizable to the outside world. There's cooperation amongst unemployed mothers to watch each other's kids or do each other's laundry. There are all kinds of ways in which people manage to get by with great ingenuity.

I wanted to create a space where people with this great ingenuity could hammer out the technical dimensions of their ideas, get support, and have something credible to put on the table with decision-makers. I wanted to create spaces for people to deliberate with each other about what their future could look like and inform that debate with options they might not have considered. After all, the role of the planning discipline is to present ways of thinking about things that you might not have considered.

That was the beginning of the Community Innovators Lab, or CoLab, at MIT, which I founded in 2007.

What does the term social distance mean to you?

I have always used the term social distance, but for me it meant something very different. It was a description of gentle racism. It was the way I was treated by people who could not help but let me know that they considered me less human than they were. There was so much social distance between us that they could not fathom my humanity in the same way.

When this new this term arose in the larger discourse as a measure of taking care, being responsible, and contributing to social good, it was a moment of readjustment for me. But my understanding of the term still made sense. We know the racial disparities in the way the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. To me, it's a phrase for the kind of work we need to do as a country, to learn how to address the social distance.

What does Tisch College represent to you and what opportunities do you see for the school moving forward?

The thing that attracted me most to Tisch College was that it is the only higher education institution in the country committed to studying, capacitating, and teaching about civic life. I've spent my whole life focused on how to strengthen civic life in a variety of ways —and not always calling it civic life, but citizen engagement, citizen voice, citizen participation. For me, citizen does not mean people with U.S. papers. It means members of a community who are engaged in governing themselves.

I feel that this moment has never been more important for working to strengthen to understand what is needed to sustain democratic life and self-governance. I think many people in the U.S. take that for granted, they assume it's so sturdy and it'll always be here.

I'm African-American. I have seen personally and through my family's history all the failures of democratic institutions. I know democracy is a very frail, but very precious organism. I just jumped at the opportunity to be in a place dedicated to studying, understanding, and creating new knowledge around and building capacity for a democracy.

What are two things outside of your career you’d like the Tufts community to know about you?

Yoga is a big part of my spare time. I love yoga as a mental and physical exercise, and I've learned so much about flexibility and strength through yoga. I practice most days and I find it to be the most soothing, peaceful way to gather myself.

I also collect a very particular kind of art from self-taught artists, often who are mentally disabled. What I love about this kind of work is that, in many ways, it is it is even more outrageous and unfettered by social norms than other forms of art, because it is created by people who perhaps don’t spend a lot of time considering social norms. What they come up with is essentially so creative and beautiful.

There's a studio in Brookline, Gateway Arts, for people with disabilities. One of the most fascinating things is going to the studio and watching the artists work. Many are non-verbal and significantly disabled. For me, it is a way of considering the humanity of people who are often on the margins of society and seeing the expression and the beauty that they create.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.

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