Whether it captures an emotion, change or perspective, art allows viewers to experience the world through a novel lens. To make this encounter possible, there must be an artist, unafraid to portray their craft. In this spirit, the Office of Community Engagement, the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing, and the Neighborhood Partners in Action at California State University, Northridge have partnered to give young artists a platform to express their visions.
The CSUN programs co-sponsored Stories that Connect Us: Resilience and Hope Among Students of Opportunity, a “photovoice” gallery where pictures accompany short prose or poems by former Canoga Park High School students — now freshmen at CSUN. Photovoice is a community-engaged research process that gives individuals the opportunity to share their lived experiences through photography and story-telling. The pieces will be presented in galleries, community spaces and in an interactive, curated webpage. The exhibit will be on display June 21–27 at the Canoga Park Community Center.
Canoga Park High School has been a longtime pipeline to CSUN. The university has been working very closely with the school to ensure that students receive help during the college application process. CSUN’s Bridge to the Future program helps high school students secure a tuition-free route to college and to become engaged in their community. Through this partnership, the art project was born.
In the exhibit, student works discuss challenges such as economic and ethnic marginalization, low family educational achievement, gang intimidation, and a heightened sense of fear around immigration and documentation. The project uses stories to constructively build relationships across ideological differences, to cultivate empathy, and shares stories of resilience and hope without glossing over the realities that Bridge to the Future students face.
This project was funded by a $5,000 grant from Campus Compact, a Boston-based coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the purpose of higher education. The grant was intended for projects that bridge divisions among people and groups, both on campus and within the community.
“Telling stories creates social change. Stories humanize. Stories catalyze. Stories can help people rise,” said Jeanine Mingé, director of CSUN’s Office of Community Engagement. “The Campus Compact Positive Engagement Grant has given us the opportunity to guide CSUN’s Bridge to the Future students through the incredible process of storytelling and art making in order to empower, uplift and connect.”
One student, identified as MAK, tells the riveting story of a brother who overcame obstacles such as drug addiction and a stabbing. MAK’s art piece, He has Many Skeletons in His Closet…, shows the brother perched over the bow of his boat, overlooking a green lake. “His displays of humility in the face of tragedies [have] inspired hope in times of despair,” reads the accompanying text. “Hope has allowed me to approach the world with optimism, even in the darkest of times.”
Another work, Observe This Cracked Egg…, features a picture of a cracked egg, the shell barely holding together, as it is placed delicately in a hand. The student artist, MG, challenges the reader: “Before reading this, take a moment to observe this cracked egg, then take a moment and think about all of your struggles.”
Another student, identified as Miracle, tells the reader about their journey to America from an unspecified country. My Migration to This Country shows the reader a picture of a bright orange sun falling into the ocean. “Being able to see the sunset at the beach reminds me of my migration to this country,” reads the caption.
“We wanted the students to reflect on the hope and resiliency that they kept during challenging times,” said Douglas Kaback, director of Neighborhood Partners in Action. “I am used to helping students through their creative process as a theater professor, but these students worked independently to create their pieces.”
The project gave students the opportunity to create and show their art. Their first exhibit took place May 21-June 4 at Canoga Park Youth Arts Center in Canoga Park.
“We were able to give the students a platform … to express themselves without fear of embarrassment,” said David Boyns, director of CSUN’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing. “There is a power instilled into their voice when they know the work will be featured anonymously.”
Stories that Connect Us showcases the creative zeal of CSUN freshmen from diverse backgrounds.
“This project empowers the students. It allows their voices to be heard,” said Briauna Johnson, program coordinator for the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing. “We made sure that we were not desensitizing people to these struggles, but were humanizing individuals.”
To view the exhibit online, go to https://www.csun.edu/wellbeing/stories-connect-us.