VCU brings Unity to campus

Students and staff walking toward the VCU Commons probably interrupted their daily routine to stare at bright fluorescent pink yarn atop a large circular enclosure made of multiple poles in the field in front of James Branch Cabell Library last week.

Photo by Julie Tripp
Photo by Julie Tripp

From Thursday, Nov. 17 to Sunday, Nov. 20 VCU’s Department of Psychology and Division for Inclusive Excellence teamed up with the Unity Project for an interactive public arts installation. The Unity Project was started in Northern Virginia in June 2016 in order to counter the pessimistic and decisive rhetoric of American politics during the 2016 Presidential Election Cycle.

Mary Beth Heller, Director of VCU’s Center for Psychological Services and Development, said she got the idea to bring Unity to VCU after she saw the installation being done in Northern Virginia.

“We hadn’t gone out looking for an interactive tangible project,” Heller said. “When we saw this, we knew it was VCU needed.”

In a few short months the Unity Project has been replicated across America, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand United Arab Emirates  and parts of Europe.

Participants connect the yarn around each pole which they identify with and in turn, the public arts project symbolizes the shared similarities among people despite the current political tension.

The 32 polls each have an identifying label. Among them are “I’m a survivor,” “I identify as LGBTQIA,” “I work more than one job,” “I don’t identify with a political party right now.” One of the identifiers remains blank for participants to fill in an aspect of their own identity which hasn’t already been listed.

Heller said she was encouraged by friends and it was approved within a few days by Stacey Maples, the Psychology Department’s Director of Operations.

Heller and Maples alongside Jennifer Elswick, Special Projects and Communications Coordinator of the Psychology Department and Deana Buck, the Principal Investigator of VCU’s Integrated Training Collaborative, spearheaded the Unity Project at VCU.

In keeping with the theme of Unity’s message, the project soon became an inclusive effort with nearly 70 volunteers, as well as support from Vice President of Student Affairs Charles Klink, VCU President Michael Rao and VCU Police Chief John Venuti, who offered a police presence around the instillation overnight to ensure it isn’t vandalized in anyway.

“We originally tried to have this earlier, but it didn’t work out.” Heller said. “In hindsight, because of how increasingly uglier the election got and increasingly more decisive things got, this just ended up being the perfect time.”

Students like Molly Blemker said they appreciated the installation.

“I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and this promotes diversity and inclusion,” Blemker said. “In light of what’s happening in the world right now, I just think this is really important.”

VCU student Jon Eugenio said this was an efficient and important project because of it’s simplicity.

“Life is so fragile, and we’re all connected in some way,” Eugenio said. “This makes you think about who you are.”

Ultimately, the team who put Unity Project together hopes to help VCU move forward as America navigates the next few months of political transitions.

“We need a place to heal.” Heller said, “People are disoriented and this is helping reorient everyone, including myself.”



Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. [email protected]

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