"It does not happen here, not to our students."
As we have hosted conversations on college homelessness this phrase became a common response from staff members at academic institutions across the metroplex. This perception coupled with the bias held towards those experiencing homelessness make this challenge difficult to identify and resolve. To address this issue, CoAct in partnership with a few student champions created Real Stories, a traveling art installation aimed at raising awareness and understanding of college homelessness. With a wide gap of awareness still present at college campuses, the recent opportunity to bring our 2nd viewing of Real Stories to Tarrant Count College (TCC) marks a milestone in our journey.
Building off a Phi Theta Kappa survey conducted at South Campus in 2018 and insights from our first viewing, our team built an immersive experience utilizing the personal stories shared by students on the challenges they face as they try to be successful students at TCC. From a distance, visitors only see faint silhouettes and shimmers of color from the personal portraits of Que Vaughn Glenn, the key influencer for Real Stories. As they approach, the silhouettes reveal the embedded stories derived from the survey. Each unique font represents an individual struggle highlighting the day-to-day challenges students at TCC face. Within the areas created by the silhouettes, the experience becomes more intimate as visitors are granted an opportunity to explore Que's personal story. Surrounding his story are graphic panels, representing distinct chapters in his struggle. As visitors face the opposing wall, they see the red figure, revealing the consequences if we choose to ignore the issue. As they migrate to the other enclosed area, they are graced with 4 panels representing Que's potential. Centered is a view of the blue figure which shares Que's one request and the key factor for creating hope, respecting people for who they are. Surrounding each enclosed area are audio recordings and a digital sketch of Que's journey. Outside of the main space, we positioned a journal to capture insights on any student who wanted to share their real college experience.
This layering is intentional. If one simply glances at the installation, they will only see the silhouettes. Similarly, if we observe the issue in passing, we will only see students getting to and from class. It is not until we make the time to listen to each of the stories that we learn about the reality of each student's struggle. Building off the artwork created, Real Stories also incorporates storytelling to share the inspirational stories of student champions on their personal journeys into and out of homelessness.
For this viewing we hosted our storytelling session on November 18th in alignment with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. This experience gave us the opportunity to learn from Kevin Lee's struggle to get back into school after an unexpected eviction, Shanelle Tennyson's adverse relationship with a medically ill mother, and Que Vaughn Glenn's conflict with a verbally abusive mother. More so, we learned about the amazing potential each student brings. Kevin's pursuit to become a judge so he can uphold the laws that are supposed to protect his fellow peers. Shanelle's amazing talent for singing and her pursuit to become the first to graduate college in her family. Que's vision to share his peer's stories and ensure we understand the true meaning of homelessness.
The night ended with some unexpected but rewarding observations. After viewing the exhibit and hearing from the three student champions, additional conversations sparked with the participants about their own personal struggles. Some reflected on how fortunate they were to have family members to support them on their own journeys. Others shared inequitable cultural norms that imposed judgement and abandonment for pursuing a career rather than a husband. These conversations, which are often non-existent in many social gatherings, became comfortable to share openly. The experience gave us an opportunity to feel connected through our vulnerabilities. Reflecting on this, we shared how grateful we were for the pivotal support figures that helped us achieve our goals. We acknowledge how homelessness is more than what is projected in the news and encompasses a multitude of factors. We understood how fragile our support systems can be and that homelessness could happen to anyone.
This feeling was reflected throughout the entire night. Multiple visitors were seemingly uncomfortable. Hands crossed, heads down, and with the echo that sounded off each time someone took a footstep, it became obvious that, not only was there a shared feeling, but this feeling of uncertainty is how we can best portray the realities of being homeless. We were all able to feel immersed, uncomfortable, cold, annoyed, but at the same time, thankful that we could all be with each other. Two visitors on separate occasions visited the front desk asking where the food was, looked down, and said something along the lines of ‘I wish I could donate this food.’ Three visitors mentioned being really cold, and one small child could be heard in the hallway talking about homelessness to his mother. While these situations may not be ideal at points and may cause difficult emotions, this is how we start conversation.
Given the grim realities students face, these conversations are still difficult to hold. Stigma, false perceptions, and the culture of bootstrapping can make sharing a homeless experience difficult and threatening. In our journey to develop this project it has been suggested multiple times that we refrain from using the word homeless, as it can be threatening or scary. If we are to normalize conversations on this topic, it is important we create spaces free of judgement where we can comfortably share our individual experiences and speak fluently about the actualities of homelessness. It is through these stories that we can inspire the narrative change on homelessness and incite the action needed to support our future leaders.
A special thanks to our steering committee and the amazing artist that helped us bring Que’s vision to life.
Richard Miller (not pictured)
Join us online at Real Stories Virtual to dive deeper into Que's journey into and out of homelessness.