Posted May 25th 2010 at 9:34 am by
in CoLab Philosophy, Media Mindfulness

Beauty in the Margins

My boss, CoLab Executive Director Dayna Cunningham, took this photo on a trip to China in 2006.  She showed it to me a few months ago in the office while she was telling me why marginalized communities – communities that exist at a physical, economic, and social distance from the mainstream – are also the most creative and best equipped to solve the world’s pressing problems.

This is what she said to me:

[wpaudio url=”http://colabradio.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/dayna_why.mp3″ text=”Dayna on marginalization and creativity” dl=”0″]

I asked her how she came to think this way and she said she didn’t know; she was just born that way.  Then she started showing me her travel photos as a way to explain herself.

Instead of careful pans of the Taj Mahal, she had all these pictures of fancy doorjambs, shoes on a front stoop, buckets in a marketplace, and line-dried laundry.

Look at (and listen to) what she found in China. She took the photos with a cell phone.

You can hear in her voice the reverence she has for these beautiful things. Re-listening to her words reminded me of something she wrote in a previous post:

Growing up black, I heard stories all the time about amazing accomplishments of people who were invisible, disregarded, and disrespected — my family members. My grandfather wrote poetry and songs and patented his own inventions, like a heel with ball bearings that would never wear out (his patented drawing pictured above), but became a messenger on Wall Street when he retired from the post office; my great uncle graduated from Yale Law School, but worked as a Pullman Porter carrying bags and serving whites on the trains. These people were effective thinkers and leaders in their communities.

Everyone wants to offer up something beautiful to the world.  Listening to Dayna, I thought the words democracy in the details.  That’s a pretty corny phrase.  I think my brain was trying to get at the idea that if there were some collective willingness to find and accept the beauty we all want to offer, humans might not cut down ancient mountaintops for a little coal, or they might not force certain groups of people into fighting for basic rights.

Here is what Dayna said:

To me what’s interesting about all of this is the idea that, in these places that – you don’t expect anything to come out of these farm houses with no running water, no electricity – that you find these things that are so beautiful.

You can hear her say it at the end of this audio slideshow on the Mumbai Public Laundry:

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