Dayna Cunningham Is the New Dean of Tisch College of Civic Life

Dayna Cunningham, founder and executive director of the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) at MIT and a civil rights attorney who has devoted her career to promoting civic participation, building community partnerships, and advocating for underrepresented communities, has been named the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. She will succeed Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, who is retiring after eight years in the role.

Cunningham’s career has been centered around urban planning, development, democracy, and community-based research. At CoLab, she built large-scale, multi-sector development collaborations that combined sustainability, wellness, and democratic control of economies in marginalized communities. While promoting inclusive economic development that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, and deeply democratic, CoLab has applied expertise from disciplines and sectors including urban planning, civil rights advocacy, business, and community and labor organizing, among others.

One example of the work of CoLab is its partnership with the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative on infrastructure projects that build an ecosystem for economic democracy for people of color. A bit farther from home, CoLab’s Inclusive Regional Development program works with communities and practitioners to support innovative models for equitable development and well-being in Latin American countries.

Before founding CoLab, Cunningham was program director of the ELIAS Project at MIT, which was a collaboration between government, businesses, and NGOs to create initiatives that supported economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Cunningham described her new role at Tufts as “a dream job” and said she looks forward to writing the next chapter in the story of Tisch College.

“To lead an institution focused on training the next generation to support and partner with communities in their shared civic work is an extraordinary opportunity,” said Cunningham. “To this work, I bring my values, my commitment, and my ideas about what is needed in this moment.”

“Dayna Cunningham’s dedication to empowering marginalized communities and her vision for a thriving, equitable democracy are a perfect fit with the aspirations of Tisch College,” said President Anthony Monaco. “We expect that her innovative and energetic leadership style will inspire even more Tufts students to be actively engaged in civic life.”

“The notion that we all not only have a responsibility to be engaged active citizens but that we each have skills that can contribute to improving our communities is at the heart of Tisch College and is something that Dayna Cunningham believes and has done throughout her professional life,” said Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, an emeritus university trustee who in 2006 donated $40 million to endow the college that now bears his name. “She will set a wonderful example for a new generation about how to effect real and lasting change.”

Cunningham earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, a JD from New York University School of Law, and an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.

She spent several years as a voting rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating cases in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states in the South. During several years that Cunningham spent as an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, philanthropy helped expose her to the ingenuity and resources often hidden in plain sight within communities, and she wanted to play a more active role in constructing independent, entrepreneurial, and inclusive means of generating resources to support democratic engagement.

Cunningham further offers that, in urban development contexts, people who are racially, economically, and socially marginalized are often not consulted about the trajectory for any given development. Not working directly with the people on the ground is a loss of vital resources for the development process. She offers higher education as one of the key remedies for that phenomenon.

“There’s a very special role for colleges and universities in providing the space—without influence from corporate or political agendas—for a fulsome exploration of what kind of knowledge, what kind of capacity we need to support democracy,” said Cunningham. “Tufts University and Tisch College are uniquely positioned to further our understanding of what’s needed to make lasting change.”

“Dayna’s deep commitment to community engagement, her ability to combine rigorous academics with community-based research, and her co-generative approach to leadership will enable her to propel Tisch College into a new era,” said Nadine Aubry, provost and senior vice president.

Cunningham said she is eager to learn more about the work and interests of Tisch College faculty and staff as well as her fellow deans. She also looks forward to giving students more opportunities to work directly with community members in hands-on problem-solving, and in accessing collective intelligence to be their entrepreneurial best selves.

“Dayna’s a brilliant, values-driven leader with a strong record of accomplishment. And she’s clearly a collaborative, generous person who knows how to listen,” said James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “I believe our community is going to really embrace Dayna as the new Omidyar Dean.”

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College, echoed Glaser’s sentiment and said she and her colleagues look forward to giving Cunningham a “wholehearted Tisch College family welcome.”

“As director of a leading research institute that strives to affect systems change toward equity in civic life, I am thrilled that Dayna Cunningham is Tisch College’s new dean,” said Kawashima-Ginsberg. “Dayna’s vision of a multiracial democracy, her expertise in civil rights issues, and her rich experience in cross-sector and community-led partnerships in the U.S. and abroad will strengthen Tisch College’s ongoing work and take it in new and strategic directions.”

— Written by Angela Nelson, Tufts Now