Undergraduate Academic Affairs

March 6, 2020

UW Honors students use art to disrupt the narrative on homelessness 

Jenelle Birnbaum

Portrait of Addis Michael Jr.

Real Change vendor Addis Michael Junior’s inner light is beautifully captured by the halo surrounding him. The artist Derek Gundy donated his time and talent to create this portrait. This painting is on display as part of the Portraits for Change exhibit, currently in the Allen Library Atrium through March 12.

Students in the Interdisciplinary Honors class “Citizen Acts to Challenge Poverty” collaborated with Real Change to bring the exhibit Portraits for Change to the UW campus. The gallery features portraits and biographies of Real Change newspaper vendors, originally commissioned and curated by Real Change art director, Jon Williams. The idea of hosting this exhibit grew out of a long standing partnership between Real Change and Vicky Lawson and Sarah Elwood, UW geography professors and co-founders of the Relational Poverty Network. As Lawson designed an interdisciplinary seminar to engage UW Honors students in a learning experience that could amplify the work of activist organizations like Real Change, she saw an opportunity for students to make a positive impact by installing the existing portraits as a public exhibit on UW’s Seattle campus. 

Honors students worked with Real Change to figure out how to mount and promote the exhibit, create an opening event and lead small group tours. They also curated an accompanying exhibit called “Seattle Now and Then” to show that homelessness in Seattle is not a new issue for the city. A photo of the 1930s shantytown known as Hooverville is contrasted with a modern day photo of the same location. The historic picture shows a man standing on a ladder, repairing the roof of his makeshift home. In today’s photo, tents line the sidewalk along Alaskan Way. Smith Tower is prominent in both images, orienting the viewer within the city. Interdisciplinary Honors student and aeronautics major Danny Roberts led the curation and photography of this addition to the Portraits exhibit. Pairing these images with the portraits and stories of the vendors tells a more nuanced and complex story of the people living outside in our city. 

Artists donated their time to paint portraits of Real Change vendors to change the way we see these members of our community. For a population that is often ignored or avoided, this celebration of their beauty, joy and depth  is especially meaningful. These works invite the viewer to spend time looking at each person as precisely that — a person. The paintings are accompanied by biographies, which explain the unique set of circumstances that led the person to become unhomed. These stories aim to thwart the toxic stereotypes — that people living on the streets are all drug addicts, mentally ill, lazy and so on — and instead highlight the person’s humanity, dignity and resilience. Many vendors talked about how powerful and transformative selling the papers has been: from helping them create a community of vendors and clients to helping them regain a sense of dignity and employment. Being immortalized in a portrait — an artform historically reserved for nobles and royalty — further honors each person. 

Sam Fredman, a senior and peer educator in the Honors Program studying law, societies and justice and disability studies, underlined the importance of holding this exhibit in the University of Washington’s Allen Library, explaining that “libraries are spaces of public education” and that as a public university, it’s important to create a welcoming space for all of our community members. To further the impact of the exhibit, Lawson and Elwood, along with graduate student Isaac Rivera, also set up a research project to gauge the public’s understanding of Real Change and issues surrounding homelessness and poverty in our community. The last question of the survey asks people what actions they will take based on the exhibit. The intention is to inspire people to imagine making a difference, sparking everyday citizens into action. 

When asked how he feels about the experience of partnering with UW students and faculty on Portraits for Change, Williams was very positive. “It meant a lot to have students taking care of all the details to share these portraits and get the word out,” he explained. “Now a lot more people will see them.”

The exhibit is on display at the Allen Library Atrium through Thursday, March 12.

Read Real Change’s coverage of the gallery.

Video by Sovechea Sophanna.

About Honors

The University of Washington Honors program brings together students and faculty from all across campus to learn through cross-disciplinary curriculum, experiential learning, research and critical reflection. Honors’ curriculum offers a rigorous, interdisciplinary education, while Departmental Honors programs provide deep disciplinary education.

About Real Change

Real Change is an award-winning newspaper. It’s written by professional journalists and provides people experiencing homelessness or who are low income with immediate employment.