Katty Kaunang

'Our Stories, Our Communities' puts UO's diversity on display

A continuing online photography exhibit, “Our Stories, Our Communities: UO Diversity,” is giving the campus community an opportunity to reflect on the powerful and unique stories of UO members who come from diverse cultures, backgrounds and experiences.

The exhibit celebrates the strengths and the challenges of a multicultural community, while also supporting those who get to see and hear about the lives of others at the UO who face discrimination and isolation, but also find and develop a UO community.

The project of the Division of Equity and Inclusion includes students, faculty and staff members from across campus, as well as alumni. All are represented through black-and-white portraits and brief, first-person narratives that can be found on the equity and inclusion website and social media.

The seeds of the project began with work on a photo plan by Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Yvette Alex-Assensoh and UO photographer and oral historian Mickey Stellavato. In late 2015, Stellavato suggested creating a project inspired by the popular Humans of New York project, which was created to provide insights into the lives of New Yorkers.

Stellavato, who believes in the beauty and the power of black-and-white portraiture, suggested using that medium instead of color. She began shooting for the project in late 2016 and rolled out a few portraits at a time starting in spring 2017.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” Stellavato said. “I think it’s important for our community to hear the challenges that underrepresented students, staff and faculty face and, even more importantly perhaps, how they have dealt with and overcome them. This is particularly important for incoming freshman.”

Participant Dena Zaldua, operations manager for the Center for the Study of Women in Society, spoke to the need to see more diverse representation on campus.

“I was happy to be part of the “Our Stories, Our Communities” project because it is a great way to give a reflection back to those of us on campus who don’t often get a chance to see ourselves represented, even just walking through the EMU,” she said.

In addition to photo shoots for portraits, participants are asked to provide some basic background about themselves and discuss their UO communities and experiences, including challenges and opportunities. Students and faculty and staff members from across campus, as well as alumni, have already participated in the project.

Bethany Grace Howe, a doctoral student in journalism, explained her reactions to being part of the project: “On most days, I still look in the mirror and wonder just how the heck I got here, an advocate for a group of people I’m still trying to understand for my own empowerment. I suppose seeing those photos makes me see, for at least a moment, what others see in me.”

Pooria Manoochehri, a graduate student in nonprofit management in the planning, public policy and management program, said he’s grateful for the opportunity to participate.

“Talking about my challenges and seeing all those who share the same concerns with me makes me feel wonderful,” he said. “Making our voices heard is very heartwarming.”

Alex-Assensoh affirmed the importance of connections that the project brings to our community. “When we see these stories together,” she said, “we better understand how our differences help to build a stronger community.”

The Division of Equity and Inclusion plans to continue and expand the project. More than 35 people already have participated. New photos appear approximately every two weeks on the division’s website and on social media.

—By tova stabin, University Communications