The Dear World project visited Kennesaw State University on Tuesday, Aug. 16, giving the campus community the opportunity to explore the diversity of its own stories.
The photographers behind the traveling art project and social experiment invited each participant to write a single meaningful message on their body with a marker. Then, they photographed portraits of participating students, faculty and staff, compiling them into a slideshow presented at an unveiling reception later that day.
“The Dear World team was really inspired by the stories and the people that we met today,” said Jonah Evans, executive producer of the project.
The Office of Student Advocacy hosted the event during the Week of Welcome as a platform for new students to experience their school’s diversity and love.
“I wanted to bring Dear World to [KSU] because my background is social justice,” said Nicole Phillips, director of the Office of Student Advocacy.
“Things that people may have never talked about were talked about today for the first time,” she continued. “Old wounds were examined and people began to heal. People began to connect in ways they had never connected.”
Phillips said she wanted to start Week of Welcome with something that could allow students to express themselves.
One of the students photographed was Edmund Tella, a junior double-majoring in philosophy and psychology. His message, “I am more than what you see,” told of his struggle to find his own identity as a black, Nigerian man, despite the expectations of others.
“The world around you always tries to make you something, and there’s this contrast, trying to figure out who you are in the context of other people trying to define you,” Tella said. “I feel like this was an invitation for people to look deeper at each other and try to take away the blinders of perception to see more.”
The project proved to do just that, as members of the KSU community connected with one another through Dear World’s use of visual storytelling. Some stories, like that of junior communication major Jane Parker, even broke through others’ feelings of isolation.
“When people first reflect on a story in their own life, they’re way more open to the stories of others,” Parker said.
Had she been asked to write her message five years ago, Parker told the audience at the unveiling, she might have written “homeless” or “orphan.” Instead, she wrote “overcomer,” a message that spoke to her experience living in a group home and cycling in and out of foster families before being adopted.
After the unveiling, two students who had also experienced foster care and adoption thanked Parker for sharing her story, describing how much it had meant to them personally.
“The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, ‘Nobody understands what I’m going through,’” Parker said. “The truth is, everyone knows what it’s like to feel pain, everyone has been rejected. Once everyone realizes that they’re not alone, that’s when they can be real.”
Dear World began in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina left 80 percent of the city underwater. The organization asked the survivors of the disaster to write a message of love to their city, and the project has since chronicled the stories of more than 50,000 people from all over the world, including Syrian refugees and victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
“The message changed from a local voice to a global one,” Evans said.
KSU was the project’s first stop on its 30-college road trip tour.
Dear World is invited to schools to help with curated and themed events, orientation, Week of Welcome, executive leadership development, storytelling workshops and athletic team development.
“If anything, we are just a mirror reflecting back peoples’ true selves,” said Evans. “I want them to feel more themselves today than they did yesterday.”