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Cooperative! Part 2
Torn between me and we

by DK Holland

When he/she changed to simply being “K” we were really stymied. One Saturday I was working at the studio alone (and avoiding my life) and K was dusting the shelves in my office. We started to make idle conversation. “May I tell your fortune?” he/she smiled shyly and took my hand, even though (at least in my mind) I resisted. Everything K told me that afternoon came true within a few months in the most uncanny of ways. “Everything that has been bad will be good,” K said. Somehow, even with all the myriad of questions I still had about who he/she was, I slowly learned to trust K. One day (shortly before he/she vanished without a trace) K, leaning on his/her mop handle, commented casually about some sketches that were pinned on the wall. K’s insights, brief though they were, suggested a new direction that I knew was right. We changed the focus of the project, which took off like a rocket. The lesson to me was not to dismiss the marginalized, the outsider. That cooperation’s rewards come from inclusion. My new slogan in the studio became, “The best idea wins.”

There are two kinds of people in the world. Them and us. My next door neighbors Cynthia and Jim have a regal brownstone. I have a humble little cottage. They drive a brand new silver Lexus. I drive my niece’s beat-up Toyota. We agreed a long time ago to watch out for each other. We traded house keys. My neighbors are black, retired civil servants, far from rich. They grew up in the South and still retain a Southern drawl. We’ve lived side-by-side in Fort Greene, a community in Brooklyn that’s been historically 80 percent African American for over 20 years. I can count a dozen distinct cultures on our block these days. I treasure the pharmacists up the street, Bangladeshi refugees. There are at least 25 restaurants with unique and authentic cuisines just within a 6-block radius (including Turkish, South African, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Cambodian, French, Moroccan, Mexican, Cuban, Chinese, Japanese, German, American Southern, Senegalese, Thai, Ethiopian and just plain American). There are five mosques within a mile and twice as many churches. The largest and fastest growing community of Hasidim in America live right next to us as well. These are the most orthodox Jews in the world: men wear white stockings, payot (hair curls), furry wide black flat brim hats and long black coats even in the heat of summer. The women wear long skirts and stockings and wigs (if they are married). Since they choose not to mix, the Hasidim are a very easy group to demonize, to see as “the other.”

Moving to Fort Greene, Brooklyn 25 years ago was a leap of faith. The move threw me into the minority, in the land of “the other” and forced me to question every assumption I ever had about anyone not like me. It was hard work, integrating myself into my new community, finding common ground with my neighbors, each and every one with a story to tell and a talent to share. About ten years ago, a mass migration started here that threatened to ruin my neighborhood. I protested. I was deeply alarmed. “What are all these white people doing in my hood?” I whined. Then I remembered that I was white.

With 900 languages spoken in New York City, it’s hard not to jump to prejudiced conclusions. Learning to navigate in such a cultural maze is as exhausting as it is intimidating, but it works when you work it. When you find common ground, you also develop more flexible thinking, greater awareness of existing prejudices.

A lack of trust nurtures fear-based and, therefore, boxed-in, mediocre thinking. So if the missing ingredient in any cooperative enterprise that flounders or stalls is often trust, how do we know when to—and when not to—trust?

While we are wary of sophisticated and subtle cues meant to dupe or con us, it’s astounding how we can get sucked in by a good story, one we want to believe, told by someone who looks and seems trustworthy. Adolph Hitler truly thought he was doing a righteous thing for Europe by ridding it of all Jews, homosexuals, Catholics and any others deemed “impure” by the Third Reich. Around that same time the American anthropologist Madison Grant, revered founder of the Bronx Zoo, wrote The Passing of the Great Race. Grant’s book and general philosophy favored eugenics, a belief aimed at purifying the human gene pool, and this book found its way into Hitler’s hands, who praised it as his “bible” in a fan letter to Grant.5 Eugenics was also popular among us liberals, passing the US Supreme Court’s scrutiny. Think of animal breeding, culling out the runts and misfits applied to the human population. A human pygmy was exhibited with a chimp at the Bronx Zoo around this time for visitors to gawk, poke and jeer at on Sunday afternoons. This attitude—this “unnatural selection”—horrifies most of us today, as well it should. It’s a cautionary tale: It was accepted without question not so long ago.

Very recently, monologist Mike Daisey thought he was truthfully exposing the sins of Apple in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey started his story with, “I am an Apple partisan. I am an Apple fanboy. I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac; I have been to the House of Jobs; I have walked through the stations of his cross; I have knelt before his throne!” In stark and ironic contrast Daisey went on to expose Apple’s callous view of human rights and the horrendous working conditions at Foxconn, the vast industrial factory city in China, of which he had solid proof, he alleged. Daisey performed this show for over a year during which millions of listeners (and media, NPR among others) accepted his story. It was only when facts were challenged by an American journalist working in China that the truth unraveled. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.