I can’t breathe
These are three words from the poem by Natalia Callard which was spoken by various voices in the video presentation of I AM THE CHANGE.
In March of last year, my dear friend Valerie, a black woman and professional photographer, put out a call for white models. Not models with head shots or perfect skin, but real, white people to participate in her photography project, which would evolve to become I AM THE CHANGE.
She wanted white people of all ages, all religions, all orientations. Without knowing it perhaps, she put out a call for white people to bring all their issues, all of their experiences, all of their understanding, all of their internal bias and prejudice, all of their being.
In this call she asked essentially for one thing … be willing to stand next to someone different than you and, in posing for a photo, be willing to stand up for them. That, and to put duct tape over their mouths with a series of phrases directly reflecting issues of racism, unjustified police killings of black people, and recognizing all people have value.
Her life matters.
His life matters.
But, we don’t all matter until we are all met with the same justice and equality. I say this because the last thing I want is for Valerie’s work to be perceived as an “All Lives Matter” rebuttal to Black Lives Matter movement. It is not. It couldn’t be further from the truth and her mission.
Produced through the lens of still photography, I AM THE CHANGE emphasizes the importance of joining in solidarity with empathy for those that may not look like you or have similar life experiences to you. The mission is to acknowledge injustices as we unite to shine light on the importance of the contributions we each have to make to ensure our society as a whole is able to move forward while embracing differences as a means for appreciated diversity instead of division.
What Valerie did is asked people to look at each other, and in this act of taping their mouths, say to each other that “I value you and your life matters to me.” She chose the phrases carefully and now, I’d like to share how her project created a conversation in my white family we had NEVER had – let’s talk about race and privilege.
My Grandmother Nelda and her sister, my Aunt Linda, love Valerie. They love her because they got to know her. Valerie did a very special photo shoot of mine and my fiance’s families. It was extra special, not because two families of a gay couple were coming together, but because the shoot was to capture the life and love of someone who we knew wouldn’t be with us much longer – my never-to-be mother-in-law, Ashely’s mother, Wendy. We spent the day together having brunch and shooting photos.
Ever since that day, my Grandma always wants to know what Valerie is up to. So, when Valerie asked me if I thought my Grandma and Aunt would be interested, I said yes. I knew the answer because they love her so much, they would do anything for her. My Grandma will try to say that I didn’t tell her about the tape and the phrases. She is funny like that. But, actually we had a full conversation about the tape and the meaning of the project. It was our very first, direct conversation about race.
Here’s how it went down – we all planned to meet Valerie in downtown Oklahoma City – Ashely and I coming from Tulsa, my Grandma, Sister, Aunt, and two-year-old niece from Enid, OK. Per usual, I was late.
We found my Enid crew standing with Valerie, a young black woman, and an elderly black woman. I don’t want to put words in my Grandma’s mouth, but I think she realized what she had signed up for and became nervous that she, an 80-year-old white woman, was about to make a stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – even though it was through Valerie’s project. Hence, the claim that I never told her the details. 🙂 But, her and my aunt took the tape, wrote the words, and posed for photos. They both were amazed by Mrs. Jo and her impeccable swagger as she walked. They enjoyed the time they spent with Mrs. Jo and the young woman who joined us, Special Walters. (I love her name!) Once my Grandma got past her nervousness, she and her sister were all in. And the beauty of it is, now we are all in – 100 percent.
On Friday, February 10, Valerie’s I AM THE CHANGE photography exhibition opened at 1219 Creative with the support of Curator Laura Stringer and Inclusion in Art. The small gallery space was overwhelmed with people circling through, having conversations about the photos, taking pictures with their children who were in the photos, taking pictures with Valerie … all skin tones, all ages, all religions, all orientations were there in person, saying to each other, “I value you and I will stand up for you.”
As much as this project is about race, it is encompassing of true diversity and inclusion. “…Embracing differences as a means for appreciated diversity instead of division.”
In my previous blog post about I AM THE CHANGE, I shared with you how Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar was involved, posing for a photo with Valerie’s gay brother, Jarrod, in the All Souls’ Sanctuary. The behind-the-scenes story is this – I was in my second or third week working at All Souls, in the throes of my own culture shock, when Valerie told me she could not find a minister or a police officer to pose for her project. “Girl, you are not going to believe where I just started working!”
What Valerie was trying to do is aligned with our mission and the racial justice and equality work the church and congregation have been working toward for generations. I worked with Nicole Ogundare and Marlin, and before long we were all in the Sanctuary for the shoot. Valerie did, after all, find a white police officer to pose for a photo with a black man – tape included. *UPDATE: This photo lead to a connection with D.O.P.E. (Escalating Officer Patrol Encounters), a movement for presenting solutions for police encounters so everyone goes home alive.
Laura Stringer, who curated the show, selected the images that are on view in the gallery space. Valerie worked with poet Natalia Callard and created a video of all of the images overlaid with multiple voices reading the poem. That is where the photos of myself, my sister, and my niece were shown. Seeing the photo of my baby niece struck my heart deeply. No longer will our family raise children without having necessary and honest conversations about racism and privilege.
Throughout the gallery, I became overwhelmed – not just by the mass amounts of people in a small space – but also by what I saw. The photos of Marlin with Jarrod, my Aunt Linda with Special, and my 80-year-old Grandmother with 96-year-old Mrs. Jo, and my girlfriend looking dapperwith her Ray Bans, were all part of the narrative in the gallery space.
Looking into my Grandmother’s eyes, and Mrs. Jo’s, with Valerie appearing in the reflection of both of their eyes, brought me to tears. During our first conversation about race – the day I pitched to her Valerie’s idea – my Grandma did express to me that she wasn’t sure of the Black Lives Matter movement. Valerie’s project opened the door to my Grandma and I having deep conversations and debates about racism and our privilege. And, not just one conversation, but several over the past year. My 80-year-old grandma and her 36-year-old granddaughter are now standing together, and are standing beside Valerie, by her brother, by Special and Mrs. Jo, by Muslim families, by trans and gay communities, by the marginalized and the silenced. In our own ways, through our actions and the conversations we have with others, we are making change.
We are the change.
I have watched my sister have breakthrough moments about her own privilege and internal biases since the day of the shoot, too. I’ve watched how her understanding of race and racism has shifted. It was during one of our conversations that she was dealt the blow that comes from realizing how her own whiteness plays a part in the overall scheme of perpetuating systemic racism … and the wash of guilt that follows. She’s seeing the world through a different lens after posing for Valerie. Her vail has been lifted and now she is facing the uncomfortable realizations and having those hard conversations with herself and with all of her kids.
She is the change.
My family’s experience is a microcosm of the bigger galaxy Valerie has created. To see us all, in the mix with so many others, with such true diversity and inclusion, means the world to me. I am not alone. My partner and I are not alone. My family is not alone. We are all willing to stand up and say, I stand with you and I will stand up for you. Your life matters to me.
<3 Mrs. Jo died just a couple of weeks before the opening. Valerie did get to personally invite her to the opening and she was so excited to see it. My Grandma and I were sad to hear the news and my Grandma still can’t get over Mrs. Jo’s swagger as she walked away after the shoot. It was our pleasure to meet you Mrs. Jo.