The Kendall Square Association (KSA) is delighted to partner with Ceasar McDowell and the Civic Designers team to meet the ambitious challenge we set at the KSA 2018 Annual Meeting. We asked the question: Can Kendall Square pilot and scale ways of building inclusive institutions, by applying its R&D mindset to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue?

While the task is formidable, many in our community are excited that the KSA is partnering with McDowell to create an action space for diversity champions through the DEI Learning Community. “Ceasar is the perfect candidate for this role because I believe that he will serve as a partner to all the industries represented in Kendall Square,” says MassBio’s Edie Stringfellow.

For KSA President C.A. Webb, it was McDowell’s depth of experience and multi-faceted understanding of the Kendall community that made him the perfect partner for co-creating this journey that will begin with the first cohort.

Consisting of 15 Kendall leaders from tech, life sciences and even retail Kendall institutions, the DEI Learning Community will launch in January. Over the next twelve months, this group of diversity champions will gain exposure to promising DEI interventions, formally assess their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses concerning racial equity — as well as turn inward to engage in considerable introspection. Others interested in the topic but not in the first cohort can also follow along — stay tuned for McDowell’s monthly e-blasts filled with relevant events, useful online resources, and frequent updates on the Learning Community’s progress.

The pathway to catalyzing change in Kendall Square

McDowell says the best place to make a difference is in the institutions that people touch, that they’re actually involved in. This project is particularly important, he says, because “if it’s not going to happen in the workplace, it’s not going to happen.”

That philosophy should fit well with the Learning Community’s champions who applied to participate in our year-long pilot. The applicants expressed a strong desire for practical solutions.

We need “concrete, specific, measurable steps for helping more members of underrepresented groups […] benefit from Kendall Square’s prosperity,” wrote one. Another said they hoped the group would produce a clear understanding of challenges by sector and a roadmap prioritizing strategies to address the needs.

But wanting actionable solutions didn’t stop the applicants from also dreaming big.

Echoing many others, one declared that the group should work to ensure that Kendall is “not only known for science and technology,” but also as a utopia that embraces the highest levels of idea sharing, learning, and collaboration among people from all walks of life.

McDowell doesn’t have a magical solution for transforming Kendall into a utopia. But he does have a rigorous approach that will marry hard work with considerable self-reflection, assessment of member institutions, and ultimately empowerment.

The Learning Community’s success, says McDowell, will depend on whether those who participate feel that “they don’t have to ask permission,” but “that they have the authority to act in a way that actually builds a more inclusive society.”

About the Civic Designers Team

Like a superhero, McDowell has an alter ego as a professor, podcaster, and activist. He is also a prolific public speaker, sharing the key credos that underpin his work, such as designing for the margins. On top of all of that, McDowell founded The Move at MIT, “a movement to rebuild our public’s muscle for democracy.”

The through line in all these activities, McDowell says, is “designing new civic practices, for the complicated community that we are now, for democracy to work in this country.” In this context, McDowell’s interest in the KSA’s DEI Learning Community makes perfect sense. It’s exciting to him that, because of its clout, the KSA’s work on racial justice issues could have much larger repercussions in Cambridge, the region and beyond.

McDowell will be joined by Vatsady Sivongxay and Holly Harriel on this project. Sivongxay, an entrepreneur and community advocate, is the former Director of Public Policy for Boston’s District 7, and served as a pro-bono attorney, before opening her own law practice. Harriel is the CEO of CivicSalon LLC, a consultancy focusing on civic engagement and community-building projects for anchor institutions.