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In a time of divisiveness, public art project brings people together on Cabell Library lawn

November 17, 2016

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As part of the UNITY Project, students wrapped pink string around poles labeled with identifiers such as "I'm a parent, "I identify as LGBTQ" or "I speak English as a second language." 
 
Amid the divisiveness and negativity of the national political conversation, a public interactive art project at Virginia Commonwealth University is aiming to spark a renewed spirit of optimism, camaraderie, inclusiveness and respect.

The UNITY Project — sponsored by VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence, the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Partnership for People with Disabilities at the School of Education— features a circular arrangement of 32 poles outside James Branch Cabell Library.

Each pole is labeled with an identifier, such as “I’m a parent,” “I identify as LGBTQ” or “I speak English as a second language,” and participants are asked to tie a string of yarn around each pole with which they identify. As more and more people participate, the interconnected yarn forms a canopy, demonstrating how everyone is unique, and yet also connected with others.

We see the entire world reflected in the faces of our students, staff and faculty.

“We hope to bring a sense of optimism to the VCU community, in the wake of a cycle of negative events that so many of us experience as disheartening and exhausting,” said organizer Mary Beth Heller, Ph.D., director of the Center for Psychological Services and Development in the Department of Psychology. “We see the entire world reflected in the faces of our students, staff and faculty, and want to honor both our differences and our similarities. The UNITY Project offers the opportunity for us to bridge gaps and recognize the strengths in our neighbors, as our individual threads literally weave together to form a stronger united tapestry.”

The UNITY Project launched Thursday and will run through Sunday, open each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The VCU community, as well as the wider Richmond community, are invited to take part.

The UNITY Project, installed outside of Cabell Library, features a circular arrangement of 32 poles. Participants are asked to use string to wrap around each pole with which they identify.

The UNITY Project, installed outside of Cabell Library, features a circular arrangement of 32 poles. Participants are asked to use string to wrap around each pole with which they identify.

“VCU is a vibrant community, largely because of the diversity among our students, staff and faculty,” said Jennifer Elswick, special projects and communications coordinator for the Department of Psychology. “We hope that the rich web that this project creates will remind us all of the power and beauty of both our differences and our commonalities. Just the process of bringing this project together has been a collaboration — across departments, across campuses, asking people to be creative, responsive and flexible.”

As the project kicked off Thursday morning, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said the UNITY Project offers a great example of how universities such as VCU aim to bring people together across their differences.

“Diversity is important, but inclusion is important too,” Rao said. “One of the most important things that this says to me is: As Virginia Commonwealth University, we are a community of people who are committed to people being who they are. We should all have the right to be who we are — whether it is visible or not visible — we need to be able to be who we are. That, to me, is one of the most important parts of being a human being on Earth. We're making progress on that, but we have a tremendous opportunity to take it a lot farther.”

The project was designed by artist Nancy Belmont, who created the first UNITY Project art installation in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, in June. Since then, it has been replicated in nearly 600 cities in 21 countries around the world. The UNITY Project is part of Belmont’s #WeLiveBig initiative to promote human flourishing.

The idea behind the UNITY Project is to promote unity by showing how everyone is unique, and yet also connected with others.

The idea behind the UNITY Project is to promote unity by showing how everyone is unique, and yet also connected with others.

Heller saw a Facebook post about the UNITY Project in mid-July and reposted it, prompting a conversation that quickly led to a cross-campus effort to bring it to VCU.

“This is the positive power of social media,” Heller said. “Within minutes, my friend Deana Buck, who works in VCU’s School of Education, commented ‘Where can we set one of these up in Richmond?’ We quickly agreed that this would be a great opportunity to bring a sense of unity, connectedness, and inclusivity to VCU, in the midst of national events that seemed so divisive.”

On Thursday, one of the first participants was Tiffani Green, a freshman in the School of the Arts. She wrapped a piece of yarn around “I’m a student,” “I consider myself a Democrat,” “I’m straight,” “I identify as Black/African American” and “I love the arts.”

“I wanted to [take part] because it looked like fun,” she said. “And it was interesting to see what poles everyone else wrapped yarn around, and to see which ones applied to me.” 

A version of this article by Brian McNeill was published by University News. Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing

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