When I spoke to Steven Romeo, fellow PolicyMic Pundit, current student at the University of Alabama, and founder of The Change Project, he was busy pulling all of the details together for his organization's first live installation. The Change Project, which was just officially incorporated as a non-profit two weeks ago, is “dedicated to transforming discrimination against marginalized groups into acceptance for all people through the art of photography, social media campaigns, and partnerships with anti-bullying organizations.”
Steven had to manage a lost T-shirt order during our phone call, but he still managed to speak with passion about the project and his vision for empowering marginalized youth. Ah, the hectic and glamorous life of the student-artist-activist.
I asked Steven about his work with The Change Project, his take on LGBT activism for the millennial generation, and more.
Sam Bakkila: How did The Change Project get started? What was your inspiration?
Steven Romeo: In a class I took in college for my minor, taught by Bebe Barefoot, which discussed how art derives from and creates subversive movements. I am a senior graduating in August from the University of Alabama. My minor is the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, a small liberal arts program within the university.
I started with an understanding of the queer identity movement on an academic level, based around a belief that sexuality is fluid, gender is not something we are born with, racial identities are socially constructed, and people have to discover their own sexual orientation.
I wrote an extended research paper understanding how art can be used to create social movements, which merged with some my other work on creating safe schools and doing curriculum development work. The final project for the class was a full scale art installation of the first concept of The Change Project. It focused on the quotation “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
One of my friends contacted me from the Central Alabama Pride Board and suggested that I do a photo shoot like the No H8 campaign. Everyone thought that it was a fabulous idea, and it matched so well with everything I had been thinking and doing.
Fast forward a little bit, we became a non-profit two weeks ago.
SB: How did you come up with the slogan "Embody progress"? And why do you think visual representation can be so powerful in inspiring social change?
SR: "Embody progress" is kind of punny, which is why it worked when it came out of the brainstorm.
Photography speaks to the individual, and what the individual viewing the images is going through. The images are action statements which empower the individual taking them. The idea for using the body (and the reason that the visuals are shirtless) is that we are here not to hide our own identities. People like us to hide our identities, but that is really a very painful thing.
With The Change Project, people have the ability to convey their story and their personality through their image. You can see that in each of the photographs. Some of these individuals have gone through years of torment, whereas some other pictures are of people who are really in a happy state. Our eventual goal is to be able to have people to write out their stories and to feature them on the website.
A lot of people are seeing body image as a main part of the work. This wasn't intended as a main focus, though it is obviously part of being comfortable with one's identity. We are, however, moving away from sexualizing the project, moving towards people’s stories and faces.
The colors we've chosen are important. We’re using blue and red as the primary colors that make purple, with purple being an important color for LGBT pride and red being the primary color for marriage equality.
Our shoots so far have been primarily focused on the word “change,” though sometime in the future we will choose another word and explore new themes.
SB: I was really struck by this photo. I find the mixture of strength and vulnerability, as well as this person's upward gaze, captivating. Please tell me a bit about your artistic intent here and a little more about this subject.
SR: Lily is an entertainer here in Birmingham. When the subjects let go of what they are holding on to, the images are better. Lily did an excellent job of letting the camera capture everything that her identity has to tell. The intent for every person is the same: Tell their story. A lot of the folks are personal friends of mine, and I was able to create a safe enough environment for them to be vulnerable with the camera.
SB: What have the responses been like so far? Anything negative?
SR: We have yet to have a negative response. We've had a very good response at the university, academic level. Right now we are focused on the 18-30 age level because the project is university-driven. We're hoping to be a tool for campus organizations. Half of the funds will go back to the organization that brought us to their campus, so we could also serve as a capacity building organization for local efforts, in addition to getting our artistic message to new audiences.
The most memorable piece of feedback we have gotten is from an art student at UA. She was so amazed with the work and what we were doing she had to get involved. She is now on the board of directors with us to make The Change Project a sustainable art project.
SB: How does the context of working in the South and in rural communities make your work different than other projects in the LGBT movement?
SR: Working in the South is always a very unique situation. For safe schools, you have to start adjusting your framework. You can't speak in an LGBT-only framework; you have to work in the intersectional framework, because schools want you to not only do their queer trainings, but also their race trainings, and they want to also address class issues. In development of curriculums we address these issues by addressing the situation of an LGBTQ person of color, or a poor LGBTQ student, and highlighting that each of their life experiences are different. So when we are coming up with our safe schools training and when we are partnering with other organizations, we have to make sure that they are being just as strategic as we are.
We have found through focus groups that using art and covert (I don’t like that word) messaging allows people in the South to stay within themselves and reflect, instead of feeling attacked with words like a protest or a long drawn out campaign might do.
SB: How does this project reflect your own experiences?
SR: So, the first semester at the University of Alabama I was not out. I was outed in the second semester. I then began the coming out process, which kind of had to happen very rapidly for me.
Because of that, I was faced with a great deal of harassment. I would experience harassment just walking on campus near another guy, by individuals, and by anybody passing by in cars. This would happen even if we were not holding hands, not kissing. Two guys together can be perceived as being gay, and you're going to get harassed for it.
In high school, it was really rough as well. I was not only being made fun of for my sexual orientation, but also for my weight and that was really rough too. Now, I've lost a significant amount of weight. I look very different now than I did in high school.
This the kind of bullying we're trying to target. We all have beautiful bodies, and we all have beautiful identities, and we're all unique because of that. It's sad because a lot of my work does come from my own experience when it comes to bullying, but it also comes from my work with younger people and seeing how powerful that can be.
In my work to install my first version of my safe schools system that I developed for the Young People For Fellowship Program at a high school here in Birmingham, I asked students to give their preferred gender pronouns when we were doing introductions. I had a trans* student who was just absolutely shocked that somebody asked that question, because he had never had anybody care enough to ask him what his preferred gender pronouns were.
It's sad, because he has a supportive family but goes to this school where's there's really no one to support him, where showing what his true identity is scary because of the absolute overt harassment that I knew he was getting. People are mean. If you're not white, middle class, cisgender, and if you don't look masculine, you're just not accepted.
I've always thought that everybody has their own different experience, and that's really what The Change Project tries to highlight.
SB: What got you through the rough patches in high school and the beginning of college? Were there resources that were there for you and you wish everyone had, or were there things that you didn't get that made you more aware of what progress needed to be made?
SR: On a personal level, I did it all myself. I had to conceptualize what it meant to be gay by myself, because there were no resources that I knew. I had no idea what a safezone was, what a safezone training was, when I was going through my freshman year of college. I didn't have a teacher that I could turn to who I knew was LGBT-friendly. When I lived in Florda, teachers were allowed to voice their opinions more, but you still didn't really know who it would be safe to tell.
In Alabama, there's a law nicknamed the No Promo Homo law. If a student were to tell a teacher that they are gay, the teacher would have to tell them that its' illegal and immoral. There's now an effort to repeal this law being undertaken by Representative Patricia Todd, Alabama's first openly gay legislator.
That's the resource that students need here, that we’re trying to bring to them: There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and we're here to support you. Seeing the images or people who have gone through the same things that you are going through, brings comfort, reassures students that there are people who are doing work to de-marginalize individuals in high schools and college around the country.
SB: Something that I liked from the images I've seen in your project was the mixture of tone from one image to the other. Some people in the images look happy and confident, while others reveal pain; some images communicate both.
Personally, one of the problems I've noticed when gay adults are trying to address gay youth is that there are these mixed messages. In some venues there will be too much optimism in some messages, with the omnipresent “It Gets Better” slogan, but then at the same time nearly all of the characters in gay fiction and movies die from AIDS or suicide. I appreciate your realistic portrayal of pain and happiness together in one image. Was this part of your intention?
SR: You got it. That's what you're supposed to get out of the project, that there isn't one way to view the movement at large. You're right. I've watched every gay movie on Netflix, and they all die. It's a scary message to be giving to youth.
This is something that sets us very apart from the No H8 campaign, which is very direct and very specific to the Prop 8 campaign. We're trying to speak to larger identity issues rather than particular political goals.
Beyond the scope of LGBT issues, we're just trying to give perspective on what it means to be individuals. This is often a very visual process. We're hoping to partner with a hydrocephalus walk in Long Island, and really start to branch out and show the beauty people who have to deal with certain illnesses, because that is also a very visual thing, if you have ever seen someone with hydrocephalus, the shunt is very apparent on their physical body.
SB: You just had a live installation at “Must Come Down.” How did this go?
SR: Must Come Down was a work of theater shows the differences in the experiences of LGBTQ youth get when they are coming out in a digital age. The response was fantastic. The images received a lot of attention and sparked good discussion among people attending the play. Overall, it was a success.
SB: What events do you have coming up in the near future?
SR: On Sunday, at Central Alabama Pride, we'll be doing our first open shoot social media campaign so that people can make these their Facebook profile pictures tosay “I am a voice for change.” The same thing will happen for Knoxville Pride, Hampton Pride in August, Chattanooga Pride in October, Memphis Pride, and we will be celebrating National Coming out day at Virginia Tech.
SB: That’s everything. Thanks so much!