On Monday and Tuesday of this week I was honored with the opportunity to display some of my social awareness and humanitarian related photo work at the 8th Annual Indiana Campus Compact Service Engagement Summit. The ICC promotes socially and culturally aware social service and engagement, with a focus on developing leaders in the field through the college and university communities. The theme this year was social awareness and social justice, and I was honored to be one of the featured guests at the summit, alongside keynote speakers Eva Mozes Kor and Amal Kassir.
This was the first event of its kind that I’ve displayed any of my work at, and I went into it with a lot of trepidation. Aside from the usual worries of the artist–Is my work good enough?–the big concern I had was whether or not the images I was putting on display were right for the event. It turns out that they were, if I am to judge by the reactions and responses of those who spoke to me about them, and it’s encouraged and fortified me in continuing to do what I do. I’ve also been giving some serious thought to the idea of developing a short speaking presentation about the kinds of images I’m working to get, and how I hope they’ll impact the world. More importantly, I was exposed to some incredible people doing great things to try and change the world, as well as people who are almost certainly going to change the world themselves.
The Monday evening gala’s keynote speaker was Eva Mozes Kor. A survivor of Auschwitz and the experiments Mengele and the Nazis did on twins there, she’s become an advocate for forgiveness as a way to move past the transgressions others have done against us–not for their sake, but for ours. And as a Jewish woman imprisoned as a child at Auschwitz who found the ability to meet with and forgive one of the Nazi doctors who worked there, I’m inclined to believe that she is absolutely an authority figure on the subject. Mrs. Kor is an extraordinary woman and I feel fortunate to have been able to hear her speak.
Tuesday morning’s keynote speaker was Amal Kassir, a vibrant spoken word artist who speaks boldly about social injustices such as discrimination and prejudice, among other things. She is inspired energetic elegance, and her lyrical presentation is graceful enough to enthrall you even as the points it makes hit you like a train. One of the main themes in her presentation, which is also prevalent in her TEDx Talk (embedded below), is how we assign names to each other before bothering to ask each other our name. In other words, we make presumptions and assumptions about each other without allowing others to define themselves to us beyond what we perceive of their appearance.
Amal speaks passionately about the notion of allowing others to tell us who they are by simply asking them their name–it’s an idea that hinges on the idea that the name a person gives you for themselves humanizes them instantly: a name is the first step in seeing past the outward appearances that cause us to see others through our own biases, and it’s a step towards a conversation that allows people to bond through their differences rather than be divided by them. By asking someone to tell us who they are, we dignify and humanize them, and recognize their inherent agency by allowing them to define themselves to us rather than telling them who they are because of only what we see, or think we know.
The flip side of that is that people -are- who we decide they are, whether that’s right or wrong (and it’s wrong a lot). For instance, I’m a 6’4, long-haired, beareded, beer-bellied, tattooed, middle-aged white guy. I know (because I’m told) that because of how I initially present to a lot of people, that I have names that include “Intimidating,” “Biker,” and “Viking.” The only one of those that isn’t correct is “Biker,” but only because I don’t ride; otherwise, I’m aware that I fit the established stereotype pretty well. But I have other names, too: Father, Husband, Artist, Poet, Photographer, Student, Social Activist, Caretaker, Musician, Metalhead, College-Educated, Middle-Aged-White-Guy, and more. And each of those is correct. But most of those are lost in the first impression that I make on people who don’t know me or know anything about me. What they do know is that I’m a large, long-haired white guy. That I come from a place of privilege because of my gender and skin color. And for some, that automatically means I’m the bad guy. For others, it means that I’m a potential asset because of my privilege and the opportunity that’s come from it. For others, it means nothing.
Now imagine being someone like Amal–a hijab-wearing Muslim Syrian-American in the post-9/11 world. She was born and raised in Denver. Her mother is from Iowa, her father from Syria. Yet she speaks of how her mother is told to go back to her own country, among other really uncool things. I won’t presume to speak for Amal, since she does it so well for herself (and I can’t possibly know her story beyond repeating what she tells us) in the video below, but the point is that because of who she appears to be, who she is, and who others -think- that makes her, she wears many names–and that all of us do. Her “Social Justice Through Spoken Word” workshop, makes that especially clear, as the way she helps you construct a poem forces you to think about who you are, where you come from, and the external influences and internal ideologies that have shaped you. It is a brilliant way of forcing someone to have a conversation about themselves with themselves, and to understand how many differences–and even contradictions–there are in their own personal ecosystem.
If only we thought more about the names we assign others, and instead asked them for theirs, maybe there’d be more conversations that build bridges rather than assumptions that build walls. By listening to someone tell us who they are, we learn that they’re more like us than our outward appearances suggest; and even if there are significant internal differences, the thing that makes our differences is the same in each of us: our humanity. That’s not to say that the names we assign each other aren’t ever right, or even appropriate, but rather only to recognize that our humanity is a shared trait, and that through dignifying others we dignify ourselves.