On Thursday afternoon, UT students, faculty and staff gathered in Hodges Library for a celebration of mattering, belonging and inclusion.

The event was UT’s most recent incorporation of the Dear World campaign, an initiative that began at UT last semester.

Originally started in New Orleans in 2009 when residents began posting “love notes” to their city, Dear World is a now global initiative that aims to celebrate each and every person, while simultaneously encouraging inclusion.

Dear World was brought to UT as a part of the Office of the Dean of Student’s Vol is a Verb campaign, which includes the Mattering and Belonging initiative started in fall 2019.

Last semester, Dear World held a photoshoot at UT, during which all members of the UT community were encouraged to attend. At the photoshoot, Vols created a phrase that represented who they are. The phrase was then written on the subjects’ bodies in marker, and photographers captured portraits of 500 different faculty, staff and students with each of their unique phrases displayed.

UT held an event in the Student Union last semester to display the photos, and now, dozens of them are on display once more, this time on the second floor of Hodges. The current display was created via collaboration between the Office of the Dean of Students and UT Libraries.

Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze explained why the two entities chose to collaborate for this extension of the initiative.

“In talking with the libraries, we’re thinking about, how do we take this to next level so that Dear World wasn’t just a moment in time, but something that lasts throughout the length of the [Vol is a Verb] campaign,” Kidd Houze said.

Librarian and Head of the Learning Commons Ingrid Ruffin explained that UT Libraries jumped on the chance to work on Dear World, a campaign that greatly aligns with UT Libraries’ views.

“Mattering and belonging is extremely important and core to the mission of the libraries, and Dr. Kidd Houze came to us and really wanted to partner and put on a great kind of exhibit and experience, and since it’s part of our mission and is very important to us in how we interact with students, we were like sure, awesome,” Ruffin said.

At Thursday’s event, a display of stacked cardboard boxes, printed with Dear World photographs of various Vols and their phrases— such as “change is a friend of mine” and “show love be kind”—was set up near the second floor entrance to the library.

One such picture depicted Kidd Houze. In the photograph, Kidd Houze is holding a section of her hair and the phrase “kinky curls and all” is written across her arms.

Kidd Houze explained that as an African American woman growing up in Mississippi, race and gender have always played a large role in her life and been at the forefront of her experiences in the world. She explained that from the time she was 13 to just a few years ago, she naturally straightened her curly hair with chemicals.

Kidd Houze chose to focus on this recently adjusted element of her life for her Dear World photograph and explained the meaning behind the image.

“I got to a place where I was really just questioning who I am and my own identities and thinking of those in a positive light and not having to apologize for who I am, because I have a unique place in the world, a unique story to share, and so it was at that point that I felt like I could be myself, kinky curls and all, and so that was what I wrote on my arm, just to show that natural hair is beautiful, and it’s a way to embrace my own race and the texture that I was born with,” Kidd Houze said.

Kidd Houze added that Dear World has worked to demonstrate that everyone with various identities and characteristics, such as Kidd Houze and her kinky hair, deserves to be recognized and belong; in fact, this diversity should be embraced, she explained.

“It’s been a great way just to show whoever we are — our hair texture, our body types, our race, whatever identities are salient to us — that there’s not a need to apologize for that,” Kidd Houze said. “It actually makes our communities richer when we’re different.”

By printing out these photos and putting them on display, Kidd Houze explained, the messages in the images are more tangible and accessible, aiming to inspire the UT community to begin discussions around the ideas in the portraits.

“Printing the photos really allows that to last … each photo tells its own story, and it’s meant to be a little bit obscure just so that it desires for people to say, ‘Well, tell me more about that,’ and that’s really what Mattering and Belonging is about—that key question, ‘Tell me more about that,’” Kidd Houze said.

The cardboard box display was equipped with post-it notes from the Office of the Dean of Students, along with Sharpies and pens.

The notes were printed with the prompt “Mattering at Tennessee Means...” Passerby students and those attending the event, including Chancellor Donde Plowman, grabbed post-it notes, wrote down their answers to the prompt and stuck the notes to the cardboard display.

The boxes were quickly covered with dozens of post-it notes representing various thoughts and ideas, such as “you have a voice,” “Southern hospitality” and “valuing all difference.”

Also at the event, the Office of the Dean of Students and UT Libraries gave away pizza, soda, candy and more. The two offices additionally came equipped with many types of free UT swag, from t-shirts to sunglasses to phone pockets.

Excited Vols quickly embraced the opportunity to obtain a free lunch and t-shirt; the multiple pizzas were eaten in the first 45 minutes of the event, while t-shirts were gone in the first half an hour.

Ruffin stood by the cardboard box display with a roll of tape, prepared to save any post-it notes that weren’t properly adhered to the display.

She hopes the Dear World campaign will encourage students to reach out to UT Libraries or the Office of the Dean of Students if they feel that they don’t belong on campus.

“We want to make sure that you feel like you belong, and we hope that that’s what students do, and if you don’t let us know, and we’ll help make it better,” Ruffin said.

Ultimately, Kidd Houze emphasized that Vol is a Verb and Dear World are iniatives that belong to all Vols, and she hopes that the UT community will embrace them as such.

“My hope is that it’s just a collaborative opportunity for anybody who wants to join it,” Kidd Houze said. “This campaign belongs to all of us as a university, and so as people see opportunities to think about this call to action and how they might apply it to their daily lives, to programs, to initiatives, I hope that people will be a part of that.”

Kidd Houze added that the gallery of Dear World photographs will most likely be up in the library through the end of the semester. Additionally, the Office of the Dean of Students is already beginning discussions about how to incorporate Dear World into UT’s fall 2020 semester.

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