Arts mit community project

‘Reclaimed’: taking pride in our names and heritage

Two MIT freshmen create photography exhibit for International Migrants Day

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The "Reclaimed" project was displayed in Lobby 7.

Every day, thousands of MIT students, faculty, and visitors from across the globe enter Lobby 7. We walk past columns that stand like thick tree trunks immortalized in stone. Yet, these stoic pillars were transformed on a seemingly random day — Tuesday, Dec. 18. Colorful portraits of smiling MIT students were wrapped around the pale limestone columns, their pride spilling off the glossy photo-grade paper. Each photographed person carried a whiteboard on which their name was scrawled, accompanied with its meaning. Oftentimes, names were written in both English and their language of origin, from Arabic to Amharic, Hindi to Hebrew. In the stressful midst of finals week, this unexpected change of scenery came as a delightful surprise. Yet, it wasn’t simply a distraction from exams. Rather, these photos were celebrating International Migrants Day.

“Our goal was to display the diversity that exists in MIT that makes it special: our pride and our culture and our roots,” said Yu Jing Chen ’22. “When a lot of first generation children go to school in America, it’s really easy to have your name and whole identity Americanized, not just through the pronunciation, but the identity itself,” added Dolapo Adedokun ’22. The two, who spearheaded this project, entitled it “Reclaimed,” encouraging participants and viewers to be proud of their names and cultures, reclaiming what American society often forces those from migrant families to conceal.

Anyone with a migrant background was welcome to participate in the project. Most participants learned about the project through its Facebook event, word-of-mouth, or seeing the photo shoot take place in Lobby 10. Chen and Adedokun were thrilled that people they did not know, including a graduate student, participated.

Adedokun says that the project was less about spreading awareness about migrant identities and more about fostering a sense of comradery, hope, and empowerment among students from migrant families. Such awareness “is a given at MIT, where there’s probably a higher percentage of students that come from migrant families than those who don’t.” However, students from migrant families sometimes feel ashamed of their cultures, especially at a predominantly-white institution like MIT, and the impetus of the project was countering this. Chen added that with the recent xenophobic opinions surrounding immigration around the world, “it is especially important to acknowledge and embrace the fact that you are different.” Adedokun empathized that it is often hard for one to be proud of one’s background when they are part of a minority, often feeling alone. Yet, when seeing others from similar cultural backgrounds be outspoken about their heritage, such a feeling of pride becomes more accessible. When participants posted their portraits on Instagram and Facebook, often accompanying the photos with an insightful, personal explanation of their name, Chen responded, “This is why we do what we do.”

While organizing this project, Chen and Adedokun were approached by many people asking what club they were doing the project for. In truth, this project was not through a club; when questioned, Chen would respond, “We just wanted to!” In addition to motivating the MIT community to reclaim their identities, the two also hope that the project will inspire others to take action on issues they are passionate about, and “just go for it.”

Unfortunately, the display is no longer up due to MIT guidelines: projects in Lobby 7 cannot be up for more than 48 hours. While the two continue to look for a more permanent place to showcase the unique identities that make up MIT, the project’s impact was evident in the empowerment they imparted on the community in just two days.