IDENTITYRVA - Exploring our Humanity
Project Summary: IdentityRVA! is a photography and video exhibit that focuses on the humanity in each of us as our fellow human beings. Through it, we are seeking to raise awareness and explore issues around how we are all more alike than we might think despite some of our differences. Eleven diverse women and eleven diverse men are part of an upcoming exhibit which launches on February 6 - March 6th at the Jewish Community Center on Monument Avenue. The opening reception and program will the exhibit participants will take place on Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 at 7:00 pm.
In addition to being photographed, Memories Videography produced the video interviews, allowing these inspiring women and men to share their stories. The videos are engaging, powerful, and quite moving. Click here to read more about my inspiration for this project!
The exhibit will be available to see for both female and male participants in January 2020 at the Richmond Public Library (Downtown).
Interview on CBS 6 Richmond
Check out my interview on CBS 6 Richmond with Jessica Noll, Greg McQuade, and Shabina Shanawaz about the IdentityRVA project!
Summary Video as Seen at the Exhibit
Take a look at an overview of the diverse, interesting, and harrowing stories the participants of the Identity RVA project shared.
Complete Participant Interviews
Dr. Tiffany Jana
Dr. Tiffany Jana (who is gender neutral prefers they/them pronouns) grew up in Europe and other cultures which provided them with a broader view of the world than afforded most people. They were often the only African-American student in their classroom, both overseas and in the states. But it wasn’t until they were attending Virginia Union University—a historically African American University—that they experienced their professor’s assumption that they would excel.
In hindsight, Dr. Jana realized that throughout much of their academic career, their teachers believed they would be one of the lowest performing students. They also realized that they took great delight in proving them wrong. Their experiences informed their profession—they navigate the world building bridges across differences through their work in cultural diversity.
Smart, eloquent, and strongly opinionated (and unafraid to speak up), Dr. Jana describes themself as creative, visionary and overly optimistic. They struggled to be clear about their gender identity until recently; lives with depression and is comfortable with who they are. “I have had an extraordinarily positive experience as an African American person. I believe God made me beautifully and wonderfully and God doesn’t make mistakes.“
The first thing you notice about Arianna Rose is how beautiful she is. Her skin is luminous and her eyes sparkle. Yet, she’ll tell you that she mostly hears, “you’re beautiful for a plus size girl.” Arianna is composed, articulate, well-dressed and accessorized and just as beautiful on the inside. She has a lovely singing voice and her rendition of “You are Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera is incredibly moving and powerful.
There have been few champions in Arianna’s life, but one of her strongest supporters was her dad who encouraged her creativity. He died two years ago from suicide. Her challenges with Sjogren Syndrome makes her feel like she has mono about forty percent of the time often impeding her ability to press on with her life and work. There are a lot of misconceptions about being plus-sized. As she says, “people assume I’m physically lazy when the opposite is true.” She does yoga, dances and people are often surprised when they learn she is a plus-sized model.
Facing adversity of her own has taught Arianna to be more accepting of herself and others. In the past year she has come to own the word “fat.” She will tell you, “I’m a fat girl.” She believes that we all have a tendency to judge people with a single glance without thinking about what that person might be battling. She wants people to see her championing herself so that they can champion themselves.
Davina Winn grew up in a harsh, judgmental home where she believed God was out to catch her doing wrong and that he would judge and punish her for that wrong-doing. She has since come to believe that God is love and that rather than rules and judgement, her Christianity is more about a relationship with God and others. In her soft southern accent, she says quietly, “the first step is always just to love somebody.”
Still attending the same church she grew up in, Davina says the church had a huge paradigm shift in the 90’s where people began to think that perhaps what they’ve always believed was wrong. A lot of people left the church because of that shift, but that transformation helped frame Davina’s current conviction that grace and love simply must be the foundation for her belief system.
Davina understands that people have a tendency to make assumptions about her belief systems because they know she’s a Christian. However, she says she would hope they would to get to know her before making those judgements. As she says, “I know how wrong those judgments can be.” She tries not to feel guilty about her earlier judgements of others. She would want you to know that she is a loved and beloved daughter of God but that she’s human and makes mistakes like everyone else.
At the age of 63, Keri Abrams has only been out as a transgender woman for about 8 years. From the time she was 3 years old, she knew that while she was male-bodied, her soul, brain and feelings were female-oriented. She always coveted the lacy anklets and the ballet flats that the “other girls” had and loved going to a friend’s house where they would play “sisters.” Kerri married four different women hoping to find the one woman who could “fix” her. As she says, “There’s a fix for this, but it’s not marrying a woman.”
Kerri’s life was so confusing and frustrating that she was intentionally rude and nasty to the people in her life so they wouldn’t get close enough to know her. She thought about transitioning in the 80’s but at the time she was involved with a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. Instinct told her that she would not survive coming out to this particular group of friends.
In late 2009 her fourth marriage was over, and she was so depressed she thought of killing herself. The only thing that stopped her was the idea that no one would take care of her dog. That defining moment changed her life, starting her on the journey to becoming the woman she is today.
Matilda Frances Lynch
Born in Pittsylvania County, near Danville, Virginia, Matilda Frances Lynch grew up in the midst of the civil rights era – she was about thirteen when Martin Luther King was assassinated. She didn’t really understand the implications of the assassination until her grandmother went to vote in the Kennedy/Nixon election and came back so exhilarated saying, “We’ve got the vote!”
Until she was an adult Frances didn’t know she and her 7 brothers and sisters were poor. In the tenth grade, she was transferred to a segregated high school, noting it was hard for some but she never experienced the hatred and meanness that others did, perhaps because of her conciliatory attitude. Of that time, she remembers though, that there were people in her family who moved to the north and were passing (as white people). “They were afraid. There were physical things happening to them and they were afraid.”
Frances lives life by her dad’s motto: “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” She would like to leave an imprint that says Matilda Frances was here. “If you see something that’s orderly and nice I’d want you to think, I bet Frances had something to do with that. I’d want you to think that.”
Nathalia Artus grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil which, according to her, is like six New York cities piled on top of each other. She describes herself as high-energy and conservative but spending time with her, it’s easy to tell that Nathalia is also kind, intuitive, insightful and collaborative. She does believe sometimes that her Brazilian culture impedes her ability to be more respectful of other people’s personal space.
It was important to Nathalia that she become a U.S. citizen. She wanted to make sure that she would have the right to be active in her adopted country, to be able to vote and most importantly know that she would always be here for her husband and son. Her citizenship became final at a naturalization ceremony in July 2017. The process to citizenship was very cumbersome, complex and costly. The entire process took several years and as much as $11,000 for the attorneys who would help walk her through all the paperwork. The first time Nathalia heard the national anthem played after she became a citizen was at a Flying Squirrels game and she “sobbed like a baby because it was so emotional.”
She hopes that if she gives a piece of her story from the Latino community, that it will inspire more people to come out and give their piece of the story.
When Shabina Shanawaz starts speaking, her quiet demeanor draws you in. Her soulful eyes are bottomless and you just know they have seen a world thousands of years old. Born in Pakistan, Shabina’s family emigrated to Bahrain in the Middle East when she was a child. She lived in Bahrain for about 18 years and has lived in Richmond for eight. She notes that there are so many misconceptions about her religion and how women are treated within it, including her professors who have wondered how her husband has allowed her to attend school.
As a single mother, Shabina’s perspective of the role of Muslim women in the U.S. is shaped by the world she wants her daughter to grow up in. She believes that Muslim women have a great weight of responsibility because they need to represent the very best part of their culture. “Everyone has their eyes on us.” With a gentle tug on her hijab she tells you that she has worn it since she was 12 and it’s “who I am.” She is often asked about it and she is always pleased to tell anyone who inquires that wearing the hijab is important because of the respect it is intended to convey and because it is such an important part of her religion. She wants people to know her or be her friend not because of what she looks like on the outside, but who she is on the inside. “When I wear the hijab, the men in my communities and from other communities do respect me.”
The pain and trauma of more than a hundred years of cultural homogenization are clearly evident when Annette and Chief Terry Price talk about their Cherokee heritage. Their daughter, Suzanne Price-Grubbs, sits quietly between them in full Cherokee dress – a traditional icon – representing a culture that is in danger of being lost. Terry is the Chief of the Wolf Creek Tribe and together with his wife and daughter they serve as modern day crusaders for cultural justice. There is palpable pride in their cultural inheritance. “I’m proud to be Cherokee, I’m proud that my family is Cherokee.”
Their anger and frustration stem from a legacy of racial inequity, abuse, and disenfranchisement, as well as ongoing prejudice, both historical and personal. At one time the Cherokee was the largest tribe on the East Coast, but from 1901 to 1946 the government began to reclassify Native Americans from “Indian” to either “black” or “white”. and it became very stigmatized to identify as Native American. The Price’s are determined to de-stigmatize and preserve their heritage, their traditions, and their language. One of their first steps is to see that the Wolf Creek Tribe is recognized by the State of Virginia which it currently is not.
Sylvia DeVoss’ story is one of loss, depression, attempted suicide and coming to terms with the idea of being gay. Growing up in a religious home she never thought that being gay – or happy – was an option for her, that is was only an option for others. As she says, “when you’re a kid, you believe everything the adults tell you.” So, as expected, she set herself on the “traditional” path of getting married, having 2.5 kids and a home with the white picket fence. Her self-worth hit rock bottom. She jokes that she was “such a loser I couldn’t even kill myself. But the truth is, it wasn’t in the plan for me to die at that time.”
After recognizing the truth in a friend’s statement: “you know you’re just gay, right?” she began to find herself. A defining moment for Sylvia was when she and a friend headed to Standing Rock to stand with the natives in their fight around water rights. “The white people were cussing at us. They called us – two white people – the “N” word.” She drove by fields where the police were pointing their weapons at them and for Sylvia, it didn’t feel like this could be America. Once in a prayer circle with a Palestinian, a Muslim, and a nun, the nun was sprayed in the face with mace by someone in a uniform. The experience changed her entire perception of her place in this world and helped her on her journey to self-acceptance.
Twila Jane Sikorksy
Twila Jane Sikorsky is the epitome of resilience, the essence of transformation. Her tattooed looks are evidence of the long and painful journey to reach the soft and tender heart that is now her essence. Twila Jane’s parents were abusive to her and her sisters growing up. Her mother is mentally ill and her father doesn’t agree with her life choices so they are no longer part of her life. “You wouldn’t treat a dog the way I was treated.” She remembers being terrified a lot growing up, and knowing she didn’t want that for her child it became the foundation for her parenting style.
Twila Jane always wanted to be a cowboy so much of her body art is about choosing images that make her feel safe or showcase her mental agility and strength. She is often stared at according to her husband and friends, but now she rarely notices. Having been judged so often on experiences in her life for which she had no control, she is a strong advocate for believing that people are often just doing the best they can. Too often, she says, “people are willing to make it your fault or consider you broken.”
Wafa – which means “Faithful” in Arabic – is so representative of her heritage and is a strong testament to her personality. When Wafa Noble talks, you occasionally pick up her soft southern accent which stems from being raised by her German Irish, Southern White, Baptist grandparents in Macon, Georgia. Wafa defines herself as a small lady, lesbian, married, feminist, Lebanese and a fur-baby owner.
Growing up within a multi-cultural and multi-religious family has made Wafa very accepting of everyone else, but early on she struggled to be true to herself. It was when she moved to Atlanta for college that she decided to find a way to come out to a friend. “Growing up in Macon there weren’t a lot of other brown-ish people and there weren’t any other people in the LGBTQ community. Coming out in college in 2001 was very scary.”
Both she and her wife – who is a registered nurse – have an affinity for helping people. Being a financial advisor is an important part of who Wafa is and to ensure her success in the industry she changed her name from Istanbuli to Noble when she married her wife. Despite the fear that she might lose business by disclosing that she is a lesbian, Wafa is committed to sharing her truth and being true to herself and her clients.