The “SEE ME” Project is an attempt to break down some of the more dehumanizing stereotypes that chip away at our teen’s sense of worth and purpose. Often the only stories told about them are from the perspective of adults, and very often the stories that receive the most attention are those that perpetuate negative paradigms of youth. The inspiration for this project grew from a yearning to see more profoundly into their heart and soul. I want to have the opportunity to interview youth across all economic, social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and be a vehicle through which they can safely reveal a part of themselves. There are various purposeful layers to this project. By reflecting upon and speaking about the most significant parts of themselves, youth can begin to see themselves differently from the way society portrays them. In addition, their stories will confront and counter the more widely accepted “single story” of the entitled, selfish, irresponsible teenager, awakening a new consciousness for how we should engage our youth. My passion has always been to work in meaningful and transformative ways with youth. In order to serve them in the best way possible, I must continue to make opportunities to learn from them, and these interviews will yield the content for my own learning.
I have come up with a set of interview questions that I hope will shine light on more powerful and significant aspects of our youth’s lives.
1. How is your heart? (Shared by a friend)
2. When do you feel the most powerful?
3. When do you feel the most powerless?
4. When do you show your true self? When are you the most authentic? When are you closest to being/speaking your truth?
5.When are you the least authentic?
6. What do you like/love about yourself?
7. What do you dislike/hate about yourself?
8. What makes you strong?
9.What makes you (feel) week?
10. What do you fear?
11. What do you hope?
12. When are you the most visible?
13. When are you the most invisible?
14. What do you know for sure?
15. What do you wonder? (Question suggested by a student)
16. What are you looking for?
17. What really matters to you? What do you stand for?
18. What is your intention/purpose for your life?
19. What are you listening for or to?
20. Who are you?
21. What keeps you alive? (Question suggested by a student)
The idea of focusing on their eyes came from my own experience and belief that the first step we can take in acknowledging someone’s existence is by looking in their eyes. I originally wanted to photograph their faces, but many of the students did not feel safe in disclosing their identity. In a world in which they are so often shamed and bullied, it is very scary to disclose so much of themselves without feeling raw and vulnerable. However, I still wanted to somehow convey their essence while still honoring their request. I cropped a few pictures and showed them to the students to see if this version of them would be something they would feel comfortable with – they liked the idea.
You can’t avoid someone when you are looking into their eyes. You can’t avoid their truth, their voice, nor their existence. It is very difficult to look into someone’s eyes and condense every stereotype we have of them into what is reflected through their eyes. You can objectify someone’s nose, or arm, or leg, but the eyes can very seldom be objectified. They reflect our very own existence. In the eyes of another we can see our very own humanity. This concept has been at the core of many indigenous societies around the world. Mayans expressed this concept of connectedness as they greeted each other saying, “In lak’ech,” I am another you, and, “Hala ken,” you are another me. In the Southern African region, Ubuntu, represents the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Desmond Tutu best describes it as, “My humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” The paradox of this project is that by focusing on their eyes we are forced to acknowledge them wholly, and yet by only focusing on their eyes, we leave out the other beautiful parts of them. I hope that one day, our youth feel safe enough to disclose their truths and their identity without having to compromise one for the other.
A few years ago, when I was still teaching, I facilitated an activity in which I asked student to write down all the stereotypes adults and the media perpetuated of them. The wrote: Lazy, entitled, rebellious, rude, apathetic, drug-users, complaining, aggressive, angry, dishonest, manipulative, violent, reckless, obnoxious, ignorant, disrespectful, inconsiderate, selfish, careless, troublemakers, disconnected, hypersexed, self-absorbed, materialistic, etc. Our students feel like outcasts; a marginalized sector of society that is seen as more of a burden than a gift. Not coincidently, historically, these are the same stereotypical perceptions that have been attributed to racially and ethnically “unwanted” groups. This is why I found the students’ responses so alarming, along with what I have observed to be a downward spiral of humiliating and abusive treatment of youth in places that should be safe spaces for them such as home, school, community programs, and church. While dealing with youth has its own set of challenges, as this period of development can be a difficult one for them to navigate due to hormonal changes, exploration of self-identity, assertion of independence, peer-pressure, and other factors, the disdain with which adults approach our youth is a matter of civil rights. They too have a right to thrive in our society without fear of discrimination repression, and oppression.
In providing teens with opportunities and spaces where they can safely share their stories and have critical dialogue about their experiences, we can support them in dignifying their existence. Through self-awareness and self-expression, they are more likely to experience a sense of empowerment in which they begin to take a greater active role in asserting their decision-making power, thinking critically, speaking their truth, searching for information and resources, advocating on their behalf, reclaiming their identities, and becoming the main protagonists in creating the lives they deserve. As our youth makes sense of their lives in the context of the world that surrounds them, they begin to discover themselves and their potential as they give name to what they see and experience. This is how they come to a new awareness of self, with a new sense of dignity, and a new hope. It takes many seeds to cultivate a forest. If I can be a drop of rain in that process, I will have served my purpose.