Students cutting through SUNY Cortland’s Student Life Center on their way across lower campus often see familiar faces. But how well do they actually see the people behind the smiles?
A project on display at the SLC gives passersby an emotional glimpse into the heart and soul of members of the SUNY Cortland community. Some of the highlighted people might normally blend in with the crowd. Others are sometimes misjudged base on their appearance. All have deeply human stories to tell.
Ten big, bold posters are featured in the doors and windows of the SLC, highlighting a wide diversity of images coupled with the essential life stories of students’ classmates and SUNY Cortland faculty, staff and alumni.
Viewers are seeing the first results of the university’s Beloved Community Diversity Narratives Project.
Online, campus members can peruse many more posters by visiting the university’s website Cortland.edu/beloved. All 25 soon will be prominently displayed in Moffett Center.
“As a person of color who went to college and felt immediately out of place, I can empathize with folks who feel unseen or that no one cares about their story,” said one participant, Cyrenius Weagba Nelson ’19, an alumnus who also currently is a residence hall director at SUNY Cortland. “I think this project will help our students of color see that there are members of the community they can relate to and feel less invisible on our campus.”
The project began quietly in February, when 25 members of the SUNY Cortland campus community agreed to participate in a series of artistic visuals designed to bring the university closer together in celebration of their many differences as well as their common humanity.
Six months later, visiting artist Adam Mastoon of Adam Mastoon Transmedia completed the posters.
Mastoon describes himself as a socially engaged artist, author and educator driven by a desire to create work that addresses equity, inclusion and social justice. He collaborates with communities nationwide to develop distinctive storytelling projects that engender empathy and connection.
Since 2010 Mastoon, of Barrington, Rhode Island, has captured the essence of more than 300 individuals to date in versions of the project at Georgia Institute of Technology, Swarthmore College, Rhode Island School of Design, Babson College and Washington State University. He also is the recipient of the American Library Association’s Gay and Lesbian, Non-Fiction Book Award.
The SUNY Cortland posters were created from individual photography sessions with Mastoon and his two partners; a private heart-to-heart meeting by the artist with each camera subject; and a group writing workshop to help the participants learn to tell others what makes them the people they are. Mastoon turns the resulting materials over to his graphic design team.
“To build a community grounded in diversity, equity and inclusion, kindness is a central key, and I found an immense amount of kindness at Cortland,” Mastoon said of his experience.
During the project, the campus’ chief diversity and inclusion officer transitioned smoothly from James Felton to AnnaMaria Cirrincione on an interim basis and currently to Lorraine Lopez-Janove, with each executive in turn embracing the ambitious initiative.
“I’ve found the leadership at Cortland and the students, faculty and staff that I’ve worked with to be committed to guiding DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) and building a better Cortland,” Mastoon said.
“Interacting with others who were also chosen for this project were miracle moments, bonding moments for me,” observed Regina B. Grantham, associate professor of communication disorders and sciences, about her portraiture experience. “We were traveling similar roads, similar journeys, similar destinations just in different vehicles. I am hoping that our stories will resonate with others and expand their boundaries of acceptance and they can see deeply into our souls.”
Lopez-Janove said of the project that began last year, “James Baldwin said, ‘It is the role of the artist to make the world a more human dwelling place. Adam follows this idea with a focused sense of purpose in the work he creates.”
Other volunteer portrait participants shared their impressions of the Institutional Equity and Inclusion Office project.
“Your ancestors worked hard to be where we are right now,” observed senior Kathleen Altamirano, an early childhood childhood/childhood education major who currently is a student teacher in Manhattan at the New York City Public School 51.
“I believe my story is important for others who are like me to never stick to the stereotypes of society. Instead, prove you are more than that and that you can do something great just like everyone else.”
“I was always self-conscious of how I looked, especially with my disability,” said alumna Christina Papaleo ’14, now disability access counselor at Syracuse University’s Center for Disability Resources.
“But since I have been advocating this idea of ‘braving my blind side,’ I knew that participating in this project was needed. We aren’t created to do life alone; we are given the chance to create meaningful connections with others.”
“It was humbling to sit in a room full of amazing students, alumni, faculty, and staff who live and breathe what it means to lead with love and courage,” said alumna Jamie Piperato ’12, founder and CEO of the consulting company JPHigherEd.
“This project will serve in many ways as a beacon for individuals who do not see themselves represented at SUNY Cortland and within our larger community due to the inequities that uphold barriers and perpetuate harm,” Piperato said.
“Because I think it’s important understanding other people and the culture that they have, it’s important to be mindful of your own,” said Greg Sharer, vice president for student affairs. “Each of us has some life and identity that makes us who we are.”
Mastoon’s project is part of the university’s ongoing effort to make SUNY Cortland as inclusive and welcoming a community as possible to people from increasingly diverse backgrounds and identities. Approximately 26% of the student body identifies itself as ethnically or racially diverse.
The Beloved Community Narratives project’s name comes from a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that reflects the spirit of the initiative: “Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
“It’s important to say this is a ‘we’ project,” Mastoon said, crediting a 12-member ad hoc committee as well as the vision of SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum. “He could see how this could make a difference on the campus,” Mastoon said.
Lopez-Janove credited the Diversity Narratives Project Committee, which spearheaded the project. The committee includes Alexis Blavos, Erin Boylan, Cirrincione, Evan Faulkenbury, Kaitlin Flannery, Yamelli Hernandez (student), Taylor Hunter (student), Szilvia Kadas, Michelle LoGerfo, Zachariah Newswanger, Lauren Scagnelli and Joseph Westbrook.
“Just as important, let’s acknowledge the courageous participants who shared their personal stories with all of us,” Lopez-Janove said.