Daina’s piece depicts an array of Vans sneakers and a caption that says one is judged by the shoes that they wear.Photos by Tory Bussey

“Exceptional Voices,” the exhibit that opened at the Evanston Public Library (EPL) earlier this month, explores such questions as “Where have we come from?”; “How are we all connected?” and “What is the meaning of home?”

The event was a culmination of a Photovoice project sponsored by Kids Global Network, the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Students Without Borders Club (formerly known as The Dreamers Club), and the Library. The five teenage girls who participated were present at the Jan. 9 openng to discuss their work with members of the community. Each girl had two photos with captions on display. Community immigrant rights organizations were also represented at resource tables at the event.

Anne Covode, the President of the Board of Kids Global Network, and Miguel Ruiz, EPL’s Latino Engagement Director, gave a presentation about the project. Ms. Covode said she came to learn about Photovoice through Chicago Public Librarian Julie Lynch at the Sulzer Regional Library. Ms. Covode has seen an exhibit of Ms. Lynch’s photovoice project with adult immigrants on display in the office of 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawa.

 “I was really intrigued when I saw this project because what you saw in a photograph was sometimes so much different from what the caption said, and I thought the combination of the two was really powerful. One of the first photos I saw there was of two women walking down the street, and the caption read, ‘In my country we couldn’t do this,’” Ms. Covode said.

Ms. Covode received Photovoice training last fall and talked to Mr. Ruiz about her experience. They decided to approach the ETHS Students Without Borders Club. She said, “It just turned out that Amy Moore is the teacher in that club, and she just happens to be the video and photography teacher, so it was a great coincidence.”

The adult team members of the project included Ms. Covode, Mr. Ruiz, Ms. Moore, Evanston-based photographer Yancey Hughes, Kids Global Network board member Alison Whit-Janssen, and Northwestern University student Cameron Cook, who participated in the project as an intern.

Mr. Ruiz said, “The goal of the Students Without Borders Club is really aligned with what we are trying to do with this project, which is to debunk negative stereotypes and sentiments and create a safe and welcoming environment – and also to educate ETHS teachers and students, and the community about these issues, while also providing resources for Dreamers.” He added, “We all know DACA was rescinded recently, and so through self-reflection and through some of this photography, we are building awareness of what our DACA students and community members and other undocumented and documented immigrants are facing.

“As a librarian what I wanted to get across was this idea of visual literacy, and this idea of learning about different ways of expression and how information is conveyed, and that really came across in learning about photographic techniques. We presented the students with professional photography – and of course we had books – and we had a professional photographer come – Yancey Hughes. He focuses on underrepresented voices, and it was a really great experience.”

Mr. Ruiz said that photography as storytelling was another important part of the process. “Not this idea of just pointing and shooting and saying, ‘Oh this is what I see,’ but also saying, ‘How is what I take, the photos that I take of what I see, how is that reflected and how does that represent the story that I want to tell?’ And I think that’s where the captions came in as well, and also immigration and lived experiences.”

The five teen girls created bold photos and were confident in the meaning they wanted to express. (Their full names are omitted for privacy reasons.)

“When you look at this picture, what do you see?” starts off the caption by ETHS Freshman Ryan. Her photo of a teenage girl sitting on a chair has a blurred background that seems to create movement. The girl tilts her head and smiles, looking directly into the camera. The caption continues with a list of attributes. “The funniest person ever? A girl who knows numbers like the back of her hand?” It ends with, “No, you are the world, and the world sees a girl wearing a yellow shirt and ripped jeans.”

ETHS Sophomore Leighyan captured a mural in a park in one of her photos. An African American man cradles a baby surrounded by three boys of different races. All stand within giant outstretched hands painted in black-and-white. Part of her caption says, “This image to me shows people coming together because of love. I think that all this hate between us over race is not right because diversity is something people should celebrate.”

One of the photos by ETHS Sophomore Daina depicts a colorful array of three pairs of Vans sneakers on a dark rug. Her caption begins, “I took a picture of all my Vans because they tell a story about me. As the infamous Forrest Gump once said, ‘Shoes say a lot about a person. Where they goin’, where they been,’ and I am a firm believer in this.” Daina’s caption concludes with, “. . . no one wears heels to the gym (again, you can, it’s abnormal though). Moral of the story, yes, you get judged by your shoes.”

“Give someone the opportunity to live in other places, they will probably have other cultures, other color skins, or a different way to think,” starts off the caption by ETHS Sophomore Gigi. Her photo shows multicolored rows of bags of chips in a vending machine, but the machine itself is not visible: the bags appear to be suspended in dark space. “I chose this picture as a final photo because the vending machine represents the world. I also took the blurry picture because I wanted to simulate that they are moving to places.”

ETHS Junior Diane quoted Lyndon B. Johnson in one of her captions: “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” At the center of her photo is a world map with the United States labeled “HOME.” Eight smaller photos surround the map, and each of these shows a teen girl smiling next to a world map with different countries shaded in. “I chose this as my project because I wanted to show how culturally, ethnically, and socially diverse our school and community is.”

Mr. Ruiz summed up the project’s significance for the Evanston community. “Issues of immigration and social justice are not just national or international issues, but they’re local,” said Mr. Ruiz. “Here in our community we have refugees, we have immigrants, we have allies. All of our students here are allies of our immigrant and refugee community, and so these are local issues. We have amazing people who work in that space diligently in this very room. We hear about this in the national news, but the fact is that here in Evanston – in our own schools and in our communities – the positive aspects of immigration are alive and thriving.”

“Exceptional Voices” can be seen on the second floor landing of the Library until the end of the month.