Could a wall bring people together?
Jul 12 2020
In the United States, as in other countries, it is customary to ask, "How are you?" when greeting someone. This question has solidified into a social ritual that we all encounter every day. But do we mean it when we ask this? And are we expected and allowed to answer this question openly and with honesty?
Answering someone when they ask how you're feeling can often be fraught with uncertainty and pressure in most social contexts. When we ask and answer the question of "how are you," we are often merely completing an exercise in propriety; we are uncomfortable sharing our real emotional state with others, especially when we aren't feeling well. We want others to hear us, but we also want to belong—and so we say that we're fine.
There are real and substantive structural barriers that prevent us from answering this simple question truthfully. But can these barriers be overcome? Can we imagine spaces where honesty is valued, and people trust that their feelings will be seen and respected?
To overcome a systemic issue, we must address and reform the structures that lie at its heart. We must make an active effort to construct welcoming environments that consciously work to encourage openness, honesty, and community. This challenge starts with each of us.
For two weeks in 2017, I was tasked with developing a small, targeted project that would help to bring about positive change. I chose to focus on bringing positivity to the community surrounding me: the American University student body. With final exams and semester projects coming fast to a close, I wanted to create a space and an occasion for students to reflect and share how they were feeling, both individually and as a collective group.
I designated a wall in the university's Katzen Arts Center for one week as a place for people to put up notes corresponding to how they felt. Providing sticky notes of different colors, I provided on-site instructions to those who encountered the installation to pick a color that they felt best represented their feelings. They could then decide to either write their current emotional state in words or express it by alternative means, such as sketching or doodling. Finally, they had the option of putting their note up on the wall, alongside others' notes.
Throughout the week, students in the community freely participated in the project and ultimately produced a collective mural of their feelings and moods. Students shared—in their own words and drawings—their feelings of joy, triumph, and excitement, as well as stress, worry, anxiety, and fear. For one week, these feelings were given visual prominence and weight in a public space. Through this process, a simple wall became a forum for an unfolding communal dialogue.