DeKALB – A new collaborative art project that promotes belonging amongst individuals who live, work and study in DeKalb has been described as “a moving experience.”
In addition to being mentally and emotionally moving, “Faces of Belonging” is physically moving, with photographs of 12 community members displayed on DeKalb public transit buses.
The project’s website describes “Faces of Belonging” as a way to honor “the faces and voices of community members who work to create a sense of belonging … whether that is through social justice work, promoting equity, mentoring or ensuring the safety of our community, each of these individuals make DeKalb a more welcoming place to be.”
Jessica Labatte, associate professor of art and head of Photography at NIU, said that creating a project around the idea of “belonging” came last fall after a community conversation with Dr. john powell (who prefers his name uncapitalized), an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, housing, poverty and democracy.
“After the event, we realized the importance of building a sense of community, belonging and inclusivity in the community,” Labatte said. “We wanted to create a public art project, something collaborative that showcased community members.”
The project was funded through a Healing Illinois Grant from the State of Illinois’ Department of Human Services and the DeKalb County Community Foundation, in partnership with the City of DeKalb, Northern Illinois University, Family Service Agency, the Ellwood House Museum and the DeKalb County History Center.
Fifteen community members were photographed for the project, and their portrait photographs appear on 13 buses. The project’s photographers were senior NIU undergraduate student Jacob Rivera and NIU graduate student Amy Fleming. The subjects chose the location of their photographs and their outfits.
“By allowing them to choose the location and what they were wearing, we wanted to make them feel empowered, strong and bold, for them to feel at home,” Labatte said. “I believe photographs assert the existence of something and tie it back to reality. The project was able to celebrate the diverse population in the community.”
Marcus Cox, the transit manager for the City of DeKalb, said that the project was installed on city buses March 31 and will be on display until September or October.
“The project is on display on buses, visible to everyone in the community,” Cox said. “It’s a reminder of the importance of unity, and how we can all be supporting and embracing a sense of belonging.”
Dwijen “DJ” Bhatt, owner of Gurukrupa Indian Grocery & Copy Service in DeKalb, posed for portrait photos with his wife Mona, 9-year-old daughter Abha and 4-year-old son Varad.
“It’s amazing that we could be photographed all as a family,” Bhatt said. “As a family, we help and support each other. Being a part of the DeKalb community feels like a family. Everyone treats each other like family. I love being here, I love being part of the DeKalb community.”
DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd, who began his new role in DeKalb last month, was another member of the community photographed for the project.
“It was an honor to be chosen to appear in the project,” Byrd said. “It’s an opportunity to introduce myself to the community, to show diversity and be a representative for others.”
Photographer Amy Fleming said that she believes the project brings the City of DeKalb and NIU closer together.
“I’m a strong believer that photography can convey a very important message, and that message with our project is that everyone belongs in our community,” she said. “The photos are raw and real, they’re not actors or models. They’re genuine. The photos and the project represents different types of people, a diverse group of people in DeKalb.”
Photographer Jacob Rivera believes the message behind the project is that “there is always a place to belong.”
“You’re not alone,” Rivera said. “There’s always a place to fit in and belong, and that place is DeKalb.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle