DK Holland, co-founder of Inquiring Minds USA
“We have to start with kids. Because the problem is, if we don’t start really young, these kids will never know how to be citizens.”
Meet DK Holland. DK is the co-founder of Inquiring Minds USA, a certified woman-owned business, which aspires to bring civic awareness and “classroom democracy” into grades K-5. On Inquiring Mind’s “about” page, DK refers to herself as a “writer, designer, educator, curiosity seeker, humanist, nature-lover, and friend.” In conversation, the Brooklynite breezily describes herself as “sourdough starter for the community.”
In addition to playing prominent roles at four design firms, including Pushpin, DK has launched a half-dozen volunteer-run organizations dating back to the mid-seventies: Artists in Print -The San Francisco Graphics Guild; the National Graphic Artist Guild; First Tuesday; Thirsty Thursday; and the The Greene Hill Food Coop — an ongoing member-owned and run co-op in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn with 1,500 members.
DK is an active member of the TED community — see her TED Talk here — and was part of the TED Residency’s inaugural cohort during the summer of 2016. She is also a founding member of the 1776 incubator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You can connect with DK on LinkedIn.
What Does She Do?
As the co-founder of Inquiring Minds, DK and her partners are building learner-centered classrooms brick by brick. While 90% of all students attend public schools, NYC — with its 1.1 million students — has the largest school system in the country. DK just completed four years embedded in P.S. 20, a Title 1 public school in Brooklyn, where Inquiring Minds collaborated with teachers and students to create their key programs, products, and processes.
During her wide-ranging career, DK has been a regularly published writer and columnist focused on design, as well as an award-winning designer. DK has also taught design, branding, writing, and ethics at several design schools across the country.
How Did She Get Into This Work?
As a long-time Fort Greene resident, DK has warily watched the gentrification of her neighborhood, acknowledging that while her property values have soared that this comes at a steep price of disenfranchisement and inequity: “What riches have we lost by eliminating diversity in our communities? What prisons have we filled? What civic voices and engagement have we lost?”
During Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign DK found herself engrossed by its branding and design. The day after his historic win she reached out to a kindred spirit who posed the question, “So What Do We Do Now?” DK responded: “We have to start with kids. Because the problem is, if we don’t start really young, these kids will never know how to be citizens.” At one point DK did connect with Obama and she was able to confirm that no one else was leveraging social and emotional intelligence, mixed in with civics.
So, at the age of sixty-seven, DK left a lucrative design profession behind to spend her days with nine-year-olds. DK recalls that she herself wasn’t inspired by the school — at least between its four walls. She realized that kids learn from their peers and started dozens of clubs. Everything from a “Chamber of Horrors” in the basement of her parents’ 19th century home, to a “yacht club” on the pond down the street. It turns out that these after-school clubs, which DK coaxed into being more than sixty years ago, were a fulcrum for learning and community, and that today they inform the projects that Inquiring Minds has initiated.
At the outset, DK used design principles to reimagine the classroom and spark representative democracy. DK’s theory of the case around education is that it is the lack of civic awareness that has disconnected youth from becoming fully engaged. Research (digitalcommons.nl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=space) in the educational field clearly shows that when we begin in kindergarten to encourage agency and autonomy in children, that kids realize their healthy and unique roles and grow their passion for authentic belonging.
Additionally, her life-long Quaker practice — a belief system which she regards as “the ACLU of religions” — has directly informed her work. Quakers, in fact, started the NYC public school system for parents who wanted a non-religious option for their kids.
“The child in the community – with an authority in a peer group – that’s the first structure of any classroom. If we look at the students as helping to run to school, then you see a healthy environment movement about to emerge.”
DK believes that the problem with our electorate is that we have too much authority concentrated in the hands of too few, and too many people abdicating their responsibility. “That’s why we are getting 15% voter turnout. Civic Education in the elementary school level can make a huge difference.”
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
“Jerry Weinstein came to the TED Talks for the first TED Residency and told me that I needed to be at Civic Hall.” [Editor’s note: I came as a coach and friend to fellow TED Resident Laura Anne Edwards. But I am guilty as charged; I gave DK an ultimatum.]
What Projects Is She Working On?
“True democracy means being both selfish and selfless citizens. Little kids are inherently both. Public education doesn’t nurture either.”
Inquiring Minds currently has three products and processes: Learning Walls, Kids’ Council, and Peacekeepers. Each provides inquiry tools, social-emotional intelligence, and governance in civic life in the K-5 classroom and school environment.
•Learning Walls was Inquiring Mind’s first classroom innovative tool — a pin-able, write-able surface in the classroom which uses structured thinking and conversation practices to build a visual document while encouraging dialog, debate, and collaboration.
- The PeaceKeepers Workshop teaches peer mediation to 4th and 5th graders. DK elaborates that there is a trickle-down benefit to kindergarteners who want to become involved, and are designed “lookouts” – at lunchtime they are keeping their eyes and ears open to conflict.
- Kids’ Council — channeling DK’s childhood clubs – is an after-school program in which 4th and 5th graders take the lead, setting up a micro-democracy right in their classrooms. Kids take on the role that they want to do. Instead of being designated by their teachers, they choose to be heads of snacks, IT, or co-captains. “This allows kids to be their authentic selves. They run a council, are elected in their classrooms and go back to report and be accountable.”
What Is Her Ask of Civic Hall?
“When I tell people about my work I get an ‘Oh, great!’ but they don’t reach back to their “kid-ness” to recall how profound it is to help a child. A unique, individual comes into a community with twenty-five to thirty-five other unique, individual kids and they try to find their way without losing their authenticity. Sound familiar? That’s what we’re doing that right here at Civic Hall.”
Inquiring Minds is engaged in learned-center work in pockets across the country. It’s bi-partisan, drawing both liberals and conservatives.
“A coalition is forming of organizations with like concerns in secondary schools, and in government policy which DK is helping to convene, including Generation Citizen, Columbia Center for Education Equity, and the Obama Foundation, among others. The work of Inquiring Minds requires funding, connections, and support. There are many points of entry to plug in if Civic Hall members believe in our theory of change.
DK believes that America needs reparations in terms of education — providing free and good education for it. She is inspired by this quote by Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson:
“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Inquiring Minds will have an interactive workshop/lunch and learn this coming December 4th. Look for the Eventbrite.