When the terms innovation and transformation are deployed, I think people are often looking unidirectionally – ahead, to the horizon. People often think of building something new and discarding something old, and/or repurposing something old into something new, something better, fundamentally changing what that thing is and does, and who uses it. When I talk about innovation and transformation with colleagues, I make a conscious effort to stop and collectively survey our knowledge of the present landscape to identify what’s working (and for whom) and how we might leverage the resources and energy that often attend innovation and transformation to shore up certain existing legacies. We also need to focus on knowledge gaps, obviously, and determine the best way to learn about what we don’t know.
Reading about CUNY and higher education during COVID in the press, I was taken by three instances of budget cuts undermining positive CUNY legacies. So I asked myself, what if innovation and transformation was about acknowledging and strengthening what exists?
I thoughts I’d use this informal space of reflection to think through working responsibly toward a definition and practice of transformation as moving backward and forward in time, strengthening part of the institutions that are working, that are worth buttressing with an influx of people and financial power, while also establishing new protocols, paradigms, and opportunities for growth, change, and innovation that are more expansive and inclusive. I do think this method of conversation is counter to consumerist, expansionist, and capitalist culture which seeks to replace (displace?) the known with the unknown as a means to perpetuate itself.
I offer a couple of examples below. The first is rooted in CUNY leadership but not seated at CUNY iself. The next two are CUNY initiatives. (I might add Women’s Studies Quarterly to this matrix, but that’s another post.)
Yesterday, I was on the phone with Prof. Michael Mesner of Brooklyn College, who has a hand in multiple efforts trying to turn CUNY community kitchens into food distribution sites across the city and planning climate mitigation strategies that take community need into account through participatory budgeting and the Mayor’s office of resilience. Half way through the call, he said “CUNY can help solve this crisis,” and then as an aside, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that over the years!”
Reading through the op-eds by CUNY PSC members, I felt the truth of that statement viscerally. As I thought about giving shape to the robust but sometimes unarticulated (or illegible?) connections between CUNY campuses, local governance sites and decision-making, and wider NYC publics. The optimist in me sees the potential for the human architecture of CUNY to be activated as a space of progressive change, led by students who are learners in the classroom but experts in the worlds they inhabit outside the classroom. I picture CUNY students in positions that connect governing bodies and the body politic, systems or initiatives like the Be A Buddy in the Bronx.
Be a Buddy is a wonderful program “designed to prepare the community for future climate events through climate health education and community preparedness. Local volunteers help at-risk residents and educate the community about climate preparedness. This is an initiative led by THE POINT in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.” The initiative designates ambassadors in the community to check in on vulnerable seniors, relating to them the processes of democratice decision making around the climate crisis, ensuring information access to those who may not be “networked.” 6 of the 10 ambassadors were CUNY alumni, staff, and adjuncts — not by design! The fact is, CUNY students represent a huge portion of the population, and what’s more, they are a politically activated portion of that population. Unfortunately, the Be A Buddy system, a system that really works and makes a huge difference in the community, is being defunded.
Later in my call with Michael, he mentioned that program that brings high school students to the community garden at Brooklyn College, introducing them to CUNY, to urban gardening, environmental learning, and how they can respond as community leaders to issues related to food justice, has been defunded. Another example of a program that works, a program with legacy, that’s being left behind as we turn the corner into a new budgetary landscape — even as the mayoral candidates debate food scarcity and access as a major talking point in the upcoming race.
Today, I was chatting with Prof. Ryan Mann-Hamilton at LaGuardia Community College, who is working with the President’s Society: Environment team to transform a portion of campus into a nexus of environmental learning, water access, rest and rejuvenation in a natural space, and a hub for local businesses to buy more deeply into LaGuardia’s community. It’s a student-led vision that is gorgeous and exciting. Then I read the article about the shuttering – or the all but shuttering – of the English Language Learning Center and my heart sank. My heart sank. What does it mean to build something new and bold to connect education to community and land , when something essential at the ELLC can’t be sustained? This goes against environmental and sustainability thinking. Sustainability thinking is as much about maintaining as it is about visioning and building toward better futures.
So what is sustainable innovation and transformation look like at an ecosystem as ull of potential and complexity as CUNY?