In Marketplace Commentary

Designer Ken Hanson has spent his own money funding the first year of Greater Together.

Greater Together is Hanson's vivid, passionate dream

It's virtually impossible to count or keep track of the incredible variety studies about segregation in Milwaukee and of plans and efforts and ideas that have come down the pike to fix this single most vexing problem we have.

It's fair to say that the studies have quantified the problem of racial disparity in our community with persuasive accuracy. I also think it's fair to say none of the solutions -- voucher schools, diversity training and pledges, mentoring, night time recreation programs for kids, job training and education programs -- has made much more than a small dent in this problem. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good people have tried to help, and while there may be an individual success or two here and there, the overall problem persists.

The single most intransigent barrier to solution has been, I believe, that the white community, and the business community especially, doesn't really care about the problem. There is no emotional embrace of this problem. It doesn't grab anybody's heart.

That's mainly the reason there is hope that a very unique effort called "Greater Together" may well have a chance of mobilizing people to actually solve this problem. The program is built around the power of art to build that emotional connection and is the brainchild of Ken Hanson, founder and CEO of Hanson-Dodge Creative, perhaps the most respected design firm in Milwaukee.

Hanson, who's been a friend for over the three decades, may seem an unlikely candidate to dream up and lead the kind of movement. He's a middle-aged white businessman who has worked hard to create a successful business.

"I grew up with a father who was an old-school Democrat," Hanson says, explaining his drive for social justice. "I went to parochial school, with all the usual stuff, 'love they neighbor as thyself' and that kind of thing. That was the stuff that stuck."

Then along came a series of studies and news stories about how segregated Milwaukee was and how divided the city had become and how it was the worst place in the country for a black child to grow up.

"AIGA (the American Institute of Graphic Arts) was turning 100 years old and they asked me to help in the celebration," he said. "About the same time is when I became aware of the severity of the problems in Milwaukee. I thought how can we solve our problems when we don't even talk to each other.

"So I suggested that we focus on the next 100 years. How design can lead in the work to make this a better place. The celebration of design would be about the next 100 years. There was a need to make all the studies more poignant."

The first thing that Hanson developed was a small booklet celebrating the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Every MPS student took one home. But more needed to be done to create the kind of buy in Hanson was looking for.

Thus was born the Greater Together Challenge. Announced at a news conference July 15 at City Hall, the idea was to have people create and submit an idea to help address the problem of racial difficulties. Over 130 suggestions were received from individuals, businesses, organizations, artists, scholars and elected officials. The Greater Together coalition grew to so many organizations that 250,000 people were gathered under that umbrella.

A committee narrowed the list to 15 finalists and the winner will be chosen Monday night during an event at Turner Hall. Members of the audience will choose the winner after each of the 15 presents their idea. The event starts at 7:30.

"I look at this a lot like a branding problem," Hanson said. "Some people are going to buy it and some aren't. I definitely feel there is overt racism here and there is a lot of inadvertent, passive racism because the issue just isn't important to them. I feel I can help trying to break through that veneer.

"Think of this in terms of music. Say you took all the black music out of American rock 'n' roll. Think what we'd have. Well in Milwaukee we have taken a lot of talent out of the city talent pool."

The easy question to ask is how something like graphic design can actually help an intractable problem that has bedeviled this city for decades.

"I think I can repackage the concept of racism, segregation and social injustice into a concept of prosperity and diversity," Hanson said. "I can help paint a picture of where we are going.

"The world of design has changed in recent years. In good branding you have to fix things first. You can't just put lipstick on a pig anymore. You have to get in there and help them be better.

"There is an incredible power in the visual. It's about clarity, about being clear about something. And part of that clarity is clear thinking. I honestly think I can help do a lot better over time in creating a more emotional connection. Getting to that point is really important."

This entire thing is a labor of love for Hanson, who has spent his own money funding the first year of Greater Together. It has not been without some questions in his own mind.

"I think about how wonderful it would be if restaurants and bars and stores and galleries were full of all kinds of people," he said. "That would invigorate the entire city.

"I've thought about what I'm doing over the last few months. There have been a lot of moments when I've asked, 'why me?'" But then I come up with a pretty easy answer.

"Why not me?"

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