"No one is aware. We are having to struggle in secret. We are afraid the bias towards homelessness could keep us from graduating."
This is the reality for most students in college facing homelessness or basic needs insecurities (food, housing, childcare, income, ect.). To many, this reality is unfathomable. How could a college student be experiencing homelessness? To our surprise, the largest gap of awareness was at academic institutions. Time and time again as we shared these experiences, the response was always the same.
"We get that it happens time to time. We get that it happens at Tarrant County College (TCC). But it does not happen here, not at our institution. Our students are successful."
Conversations with students at these institutions though would often reveal a different reality, as the opening statement in this story showcases. Understanding the depth of this challenge, CoAct in partnership with Que Vaughn Glenn and a handful of student champions, created Real Stories, an art installation aimed at raising awareness and understanding towards college homelessness.
Building off insights learned at our pilot launched in 2019 at The University of Texas at Arlington and a generous donated theater space from The Fort Worth Community Arts Center, we created a layout inspired by the story of Que's personal journey into and out of homelessness. The room was divided into two distinct area's to represent Que's struggle and the potential. The two zones, marked by red and blue lighting and 4 double sided panels, centered around theater seating, a stage area, and a projection going deeper into Que's journey. Sprinkled at random where black post cards with additional student stories. To launch the show, we hosted a public reception and invited three student champions to share their experience on homelessness.
The black post cards in addition to the location of the panels, evoked a sense of tension as visitors navigated through the space. The cards provide a reminder of how easy it can be to bypass or overlook someone in need. As observed, some visitors would step over the cards, dodging them as if landmines. Others looked from a distance and try to make sense of the content printed on the cards. Some took the time to either get on their knee or pick up a card to fully comprehend the story shared on the card. Most curious though was how the layout and content effected the way visitors navigated the space.
Entering into Que's struggle, the area basked in red light, there seemed to be a desire to quickly navigate to Que's potential on the opposite side of the room. Visitors walked carefully, trying their best to not step on the postcards, while others looked for the safe and comfortable embrace of the theater seating. When observing the content in Que's potential, visitors took their time, appreciating the 3 portraits of Que and the images of the virtual world we created to emulate Que's journey. Peering through the gaps between the panels, visitors could get a glimpse of the struggle left behind. A looming and unyielding uncertainty that can be difficult to fully embrace. Following the story sessions, visitors we encourage to revisit the exhibit and participate in an interactive piece to share their thoughts on any expanded perspectives gained.
As conversations continues through the night, we caught subtle comments about some of the participants own personal journeys. The most interesting realization however was reviewing the comments shared the day after. To our surprise, one of the visitors shared their current experience with homelessness and pursuing their education. This individual shared their appreciation for creating a space to be heard and understood. Their humble words gave us hope and reinforced the importance of creating spaces to hold these tough, sometimes taboo topics.
Many of the conversations held prior to launching this installation ended with the recommendation to not call this a homelessness project, as the term could evoke fear or hostility. However well intentioned, diluting the reality of the challenge does not allow those experiencing homelessness to have a space to share their story without the fear of judgement or retaliation. It teaches us to avoid this issue, and sustain the fear of homelessness and the judgement that often follows. This fear will force students to again struggle in secret. This secret struggle will hinder our awareness of the issue. A lack of awareness will inhibit funding and action needed to support our future leaders. Lack of support will ultimately cost us the potential each of these students could bring to benefit society. Hope is realized for those experiencing homelessness if we can keep an open ear and respect them for who they are.
A special thanks to our steering committee and the amazing artist that helped us bring Que’s vision to life.
Richard Miller (not pictured)