A non-profit organization empowering black voices through creative, community narrative projects.
INTRODUCING PROJECT: TOKEN
A creative hub dedicated to empowering ethnic minority voices, combating racial tokenism on college campuses.
What is the (intended) impact of the project? The project attempts a creative, community narrative-based, strategy for stimulating dialogue about ethnic minority experiences, and spotlighting the rich textures of minority voices, within and beyond, student and faculty communities at Davidson College.
How will you accomplish the goal? The project will activate participant narratives through qualitative labor, building relationships with conversation, and creative labor, curating participant voices into public art through photography, videography, and spoken word poetry.
Keywords: (racial) tokenism, narratives, community, postcolonial & decolonial & deterritorial poetics, internal colonialism, politics of excellence, exploitation, health & wellness.
Originated on the campus of Davidson College, funded by the 2017 Duke Endowment Resiliency Grant, and the English, Africana, and Educational Studies Departments, Project: Token began as the Token Wall, a shadow box, art installation project, that curated photography and oral narrative text, to spotlight the voices of 17 students of color.
Project: Token turned a critical lens to Davidson College’s social and racial climate, an environment common to private, predominantly white colleges, which frequently, knowingly and unknowingly, tokenizes ethnic minorities. Two common examples being 1) the selective acknowledgement the “successful minorities,” who then become commodified statistics for the school’s diversity quota or 2) within aestheticized approaches to diversity and inclusion.
By first recognizing how easily institutions can strip agency from minority voices, it then becomes possible to reclaim the narrative. Participant narratives brought context to an array of experiences, for example, a dominant sense of otherness students of color feel navigating predominantly white college campuses. Additionally, to create full, dichotomous stories, each participant brought us to where they feel most comfortable on the campus. By building relationships one person at a time, the project stimulates conversation on tokenism, and the counter-narratives about students of color, thriving in environments designed to chip away at our sanctity.
The Team conducted photoshoots at each unique site, and a series of semi-structured oral narrative interviews. The methodology sought to retain agency, and allow each participant to guide their own narrative in the highly conversational model. After printing the photographs onto 16”x24” canvases, and transcribing the narratives into text, the two components were mounted onto the Token Wall.
The inaugural launch from March 27th, 2018 to April 27th, 2018 | The Token Wall combined art installation technology and qualitative research methodologies to defamiliarize and deterritorialize the predominantly white college atmosphere with voices and faces of color. The Wall stood in Patterson Court behind the Black Student Coalition for a month becoming a physical space for dialogue and solidarity through shared human difference. For the entire month, students, faculty, and staff could engage with the spatialized “voices” of the Project: Token community.
On May 3rd, 2018 | Project: Token continued with an hour long event held in the Lilly Gallery, bringing together students, faculty, and staff, to reflect on changing the campus climate. The event contained an original spoken word performance, curated by Mr. Maurice J. Norman, that weaved the textures of the Project: Token community, and Mr. Norman’s autobiographical reflections, into a seamless narrative.
Since the inaugural launch, Project: Token has obtained a digital presence, and continues developing, in two associative parts 1) digital humanities project and 2) a literary project.
Project: Token will strengthen the original methodology (oral narrative interviews, photoshoots, etc.) with additional qualitative and creative elements for community building. The project will become a creative hub dedicated to combatting tokenism on college campuses, empowering students of color through emotional social support, soft-skills development, and artistic mental-health practices.
- Project: Token will curate a series of close readings, and eventually literature reviews, to gather and disseminate resources about racial tokenism (articles, projects, resources, and so on).
- Project: Token will provide students of color with additional, creative, resources for academic and personal development, supporting ethnic minorities additional support.
- Project: Token will defamiliarize, deterritorialize, and ultimately, decolonize, the college campus with voices and faces of color.
- Project: Token will collaborate with students, faculty, staff, departments, and projects, both on and off-campus, to incite solidarity between ethnic minorities and broader communities.
- Project: Token will stimulate participant creativity, providing students of color an artistic mental health tool and medium for self-expression
- Project: Token will continue to spatialize voices and faces of color into “TOKEN WALLS,” specialized to participant and themes of tokenism resistance
- Finally, Project: Token will activate rich, evocative, and agential participant narratives through the Fruitage of the Spirit.
Fruitage of the Spirit (FoS)| The next stage of Project: Token will rely on a ritual for spiritual enrichment called the Fruitage of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, and self-control. The FoS will provide nine distinct lenses into unique facets of the participant, evoking a fuller representation while creating commonality withon the larger participant body. The FoS will engage with human spirituality and provide deeper insights into the universality of the human condition. Content derived from the FoS will further inform curated into Project: Token’s digital humanities and literary projects.
Digital Presence | Project: Token’s digital presence and S.I.L.E.N.C.E’s social media platforms include website, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and TikTok.
Token Wall | The Token Wall will be a year-long creative project that harnesses the participant’s personality, informed by the FoS, photography, narrative text, and themes of tokenism resistance, into a miniature shadow box.
Innovative Community Building | By providing a space for participant’s to be heard and engage, Project: Token will support, and attempt to ease, how ethnic minorities navigate predominantly white racialized climates on college campuses. The project will embolden the participant’s creative vision and voice, allowing the participant unbridled access to their own creativity and agency; moreover, Project: Token will provide access to quality soft-skills training, with the goal of developing participant’s leadership abilities and emotional intelligence. Project: Token will adhere to community building one individual at a time. Therefore, course curriculum will be a variety of one-time one-on-one sessions until the conclusion of the project cycle (of course, alongside, group meetings). At the end of the year, the relationships built through close engagement will form a strong community bond with Project: Token participants.
Logistics Moving Forward
DIGITAL HUMANITIES PROJECT | ORDER OF OPERATIONS
The renovated website will focus on developing a scholarly essay (conceptual frameworks, research methods, and results & analysis). The website already contains a rough timeline (origin story), and network visualization (growing Token community). I am studying/working on the implementation of a creative, community narrative project that assists students of color in combating tokenism on predominantly white college and universities. I argue that by using interlocked creative mediums and art forms, qualitative methods, and digital humanitarian platforms, it becomes possible to build an archive that effectively empowers ethnic minority voices.
The primary sources I will be studying include the archival data preserved in Project: Token’s archive and scholarly databases: oral narrative interviews (both previous and continued) from 17 students of color at Davidson College, and photographs. The conceptual frameworks I rely on include 1) the impact of the arts as a wellness practice, 2) deterritorializing/defamiliarizing spaces through language, and 3) innovative, ethical community building through digital humanities. I will focus on creative a meaningful bibliography, a series of secondary source reports, and eventually, a literature review. In the timeline of my semester, I will look closely at the primary source, Transforming the Ivory Tower: Challenging Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in the Academy by Brett C. Stockdill and others.
I have done a bit of preliminary research. Scholars including Jeo R. Feagin, in the article “The Continuing Significance of Racism Discrimination Against Students in White Colleges,” report a sustained feeling of alienation experienced by Black students and students of color in other minority groups. The general assumption, he reports, assumes tokenism impacts the experiences of students of color but do not address 1) the mental health resources (or lack of) available to students of color and 2) the accessibility or reliability of mental health tools for the various intersections of minority identifiers.
I am interested making colleges and universities safer for the people of color, harbored for four years, largely in a critical development period into young adulthood, by institutions that lack the necessary tools for that student’s healthy, and safe, racial development. As a black male, my racial learning has occurred through a series of physically and emotionally, violent moments. An example being microaggressions that manifest, conscious or subconsciously, through subtle acts and language, and cumulatively chip away at a student’s mental integrity.
I cannot promise a cure to racial tensions, or an immediate solution, but can develop a tool for students of color to rely on for additional support. Others would be interested in a community platform that benefits the campuses most marginalized student groups.
For the next phase of Project: Token I will perform a creative, retrospective analysis, of participant narratives, responding to them through memory and spoken word poetry. Additionally, I will begin a working bibliography of close read chapters of Transforming the Ivory Tower, supplemented with other relevant articles.
NETWORK/COMMUNITY BUILDING ORDER OF OPERATIONS
Center for Civic Engagement (Bonner)
Center for Diversity and Inclusion (STRIDE)
Center for Student Health and Wellness
Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement
FreeWord Poetry Ground (Pipeline)
Special Collections and Archives
JEC Advisory Council
Commission on Race & Slavery
Technology & Innovation (Website)
Dean of Student’s Office
Token Wall (materials)
Media Equipment & Team (videographer, photographer, video editor, web designer)
General operational expenses.
SESSIONS & TIMELINE | The project will have a yearly program, within the two college semesters, that occur one the first Saturday & Sunday of every month. The larger group session will occur on the Saturday & Sunday weekend, with the smaller, break-out sessions occurring throughout the month.
PARTICIPANTS | Project: Token will have a maximum of 17 slots available.
Transforming the Ivory Tower : Challenging Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in the Academy, edited by Brett C. Stockdill, and Mary Yu Danico, University of Hawaii Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/davidson/detail.action?docID=3413528.
Secker, Jenny; et al. “Art for mental health’s sake.” mental health today, July 2007, Brighton, England.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
“What exactly is Project Token and how does it show resiliency, self-compassion, and belonging?”
At Davidson College, North Carolina, students of color become commonly subject to institutional tokenism. Predominantly white institutions broadcast their “tokens” by displaying only their achievements without highlighting their struggles. This tells half of the story. Selectively showing the “successful” experiences of a minority student chips away at the very real experiences of their peers: students still trying to figure out how to navigate the campus, or create opportunities for themselves. Many students of color instill a culture of “silent pain.” In a world of micro-aggressions and imposter syndromes, students of color struggle without expressing. This inferiority complex can create an array of facades and emotional insecurity. This project provides an opportunity to break from those facades. Spatializing photographs and narratives on an art installation allow for visual confirmation to the struggles many would rather internalize. By opening a dialogue surrounding the art installation, this project can reinvent a culture of “silent pain” to that of honest communication. The emotional transparency of students of color sharing their narrative, their pain, but still holding a vibrant smile, will broadcast and resound a message of resilience. As recent research has shown, first generation students, for example, feel more discrimination, isolation, and loneliness. All these factors discourage belonging and social cohesion of the student body. On the other hand, when students report higher levels of optimism, they report higher levels of satisfaction, which translates to improved performances in the classroom, extracurriculars, as well as social life. By showing the resilience and strength of our students of color, we hope it will increase their optimism which will have a positive impact on our campus.
“How will you all collect data? How do we know that the money invested will have effective results?”
Project: Token will utilize qualitative research method interviewing, observation, and close interrogation to construct an archive of narratives around the participant biographies and oral memories present in communities. This project will use these methodologies to build relationships with these peoples and closely engage with reconstructing oral memories in a way that retains participant agency.
Project: Token relies on the qualitative data collected from participant narratives interviews, and field-notes from weeks of interactions with communities to further inform the historical data uncovered from a critical examination of the archives. Statistics, graphs, pie charts, etc., can only tell so much. But “thick data” as social scientists call qualitative studies, presents readers with a multidimensional observation of the realities of the participants. Within the detailed interviews lived experience becomes rich data to reveal a complex, adductive picture. At Davidson College, the interviewers asked three central questions, “What do you identify as your ethnicity? How has your ethnicity influenced your experience here at Davidson College? Where do you find the resilience in your culture?” In between those three central questions, the interviewer maneuvered the conversation with smaller questions that built off the intimate details the participant chose to share. The methodology of these interviews produced a unique experience with each participant. When transcribed into text and mounted onto the art installation, readers experienced a wide array of voices.
Project: Token utilizes the quiet art of photography to engage in an intimate spatial legitimacy with its participants, while allowing the audience to digest a story at their own pace. Each participant will bring us to their selective “element” for portraits, group shots, and live shots of their everyday life. Each photograph will be properly documented with a caption, date, and setting labeled underneath. At Davidson College, we went to athletic events, classrooms, eating halls, dorms, all spaces within Davidson, to document the unique environments students of color felt most comfortable. Each photograph will tell its own powerfully aesthetical narrative with additional optional captions of thought, personal experience, fear, triumph, etc. Furthermore, this project hosted weekly sessions via “office hours,” phone call, or any communicative medium, with the participants ensuring the foundations of a lasting relationship. This further allowed participants to tell their own narratives, in their own words and language. While a photograph tells a story and the caption provides further detail, hearing the students of color claim agency over their photograph reinforced the autonomy of their agency.
“We have had those types of projects in the past! Why should we care about this project now?”
Projects including “Dear World on campus” by Dear World, “I, Too, Am Davidson”, “I, Too, Am Harvard, and Pomona College’s “Struggles of the Low Socioeconomic Students” utilized photography to highlight the experiences of students of color navigating predominantly white institutions. Project: Token’s emphasis on the resilient, thriving nature of students of color differentiated this project from the single faceted “struggle” focus of the projects stated above. On the other hand, Project Token differed from Dear World, being solely student driven and designed to tell multilayered narratives. This project believes in protecting the humanity of minority voices by showing the success through the struggle, the triumph through the trials. The purpose and presentation of Project: Token differentiate it from these projects with similar frameworks. Through intentional archival techniques and qualitative research methods this project will become a diagnostic tool used to decolonialize and reveal records of Afro-indigenous interactions. This project provides both a physical and digital platform for participants to share their narratives. Originally an art installation digitized onto a central website, this project seeks to expand its archive and the efficacy of its mediums.
“Who is Involved in Project Token?”
At Davidson, College, I recruited 3 students of color to help perform the variety of skill sets this project demands. Each team member a senior, a sophomore, and a first year student involved interchangeably in photography, interviewing, organizational tasks. Furthermore, the narratives of the team members themselves provided the project with a unique accessibility to various pockets of students of color on campus.
By participating and spearheading all major aspects of this project, I cultivated my own ability to photograph, interview, and conduct in-field qualitative research.
“This all sounds fine, but can we see a sample?”
For more details please
visit the website at: token.silencenpo.com
 To defamiliarize means to render unfamiliar or strange (used especially in the context of art and literature). In context of Project: Token, the spatialized voices and faces of color will disrupt Davidson College’s predominate whiteness, placing ethnic minorities in the forefront of visibility and conversation.
 To deterritorialize means to sever the social, political, or cultural practices from their native places and populations. In context of Project: Token, the spatialized voices and faces of color will challenge Davidson College’s colonial legacies, visible in the plantation aesthetic, monuments and monikers of slaveholders, and lack of meaningful ethnic representation.
To decolonize refers to the process of destroying, subverting, or overcoming the grip of colonial legacies, not only on the campus’s physical aesthetic, but in the minds of ethnic minorities navigating inherently violent spaces. Defamiliarizing and deterritorializing compliment the decolonial process.
 Imposter syndrome takes place when students cannot internalize their own accomplishments and constantly worry about being exposed as frauds