Art + Social Change Mel King Community Fellows

Mel Chin and Rick Lowe. Photos by Operation Paydirt and Brett Coomer.

The CoLab Mel King Community Fellows program builds upon a 40-year-old tradition of bridging practice-based knowledge and academic research.  Dedicated to the legacy of Mel King, a still-active champion of cities and the communities they comprise, the program provides fellows with a year-long sabbatical at MIT to reflect, conduct research, acquire new skills, and build upon their existing networks. Instead of spending a year studying at MIT, however, current Fellows continue their community-based work at their respective sites while simultaneously deepening their connections with their partners and each other. CoLab staff, students, and faculty affiliates support Fellows as they undertake self-directed learning projects of mutual benefit. 

The Art + Social Change Mel King Community Fellows program has built upon a previous Visiting Artist Residency at MIT to engage highly regarded artists, Rick Lowe and Mel Chin, in furthering the concept that the arts are a relevant and valuable tool for planners. Fellows have collaborated closely with faculty and students in DUSP around the current theme of Empathetic Aesthetics, identifying ways in which planners and artists can support and complement one another’s efforts to revitalize communities. Both artists share CoLab’s passion for promoting urban sustainability, democratic participation, and shared wealth generation, and both have familiarity facilitating social justice-oriented community-engaged art initiatives.

Their Fellowship has involved regular visits to the campus coupled with ongoing work on preexisting projects. Mel Chin has used his Mel King Community Fellowship to further the Operation Paydirt initiative, which invites children, families and communities to imagine and actualize a future free of lead poisoning. Central to Operation Paydirt is the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a creative campaign advancing public education, community engagement, and the use of arts to cultivate social empathy. Fundreds – original, hand-drawn interpretations of $100 bills – have been contributed by nearly a half-million community members to demonstrate the power and value of collective community expression for policy makers and the general public. Working closely with CoLab and DUSP, Mel has continued to build and deliver capacity for activism around lead poisoning prevention and awareness, developed communication tools – including a Community Engagement Toolkit – to support organizing and advocacy efforts at the local and national level, and strengthened multidisciplinary partner collaborations towards these ends.  

Rick Lowe has used his Fellowship to explore strategies for building community ownership and shared wealth in the face of gentrification in Houston’s Third Ward, and to support the work of Project Row Houses and the newly formed Emancipation Economic Development Council towards these ends. MIT students and faculty have supported this work through the development of a series of strategic plans and reports through internships and a practicum course. This work has also been documented on CoLab Radio.  


Allegra Williams