Students and organizations came together to share their identities and experiences through the third annual “We Wear the Mask” event.
The event, hosted in Russell House Ballroom Thursday night, was a joint effort between BlackSpace, Individuals Respecting Identities and Sexualities (IRIS), Collegiate Curls, Student Health Services and the Association of African American Students (AAAS).
The “We Wear the Mask” event gets its name from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem. It's a poetry workshop and open-mic night that seeks to help students take their experiences with certain identities and translate them into poetry or other art forms.
Jessica Terrell, a third-year exercise science student and AAAS president, spoke about the purpose of the event.
“I think this really gives people another outlet to kind of handle their emotions and the different issues that we face every day and just kind of gives them a fun way to take that negative energy and put it into something positive,” Terrell said.
The night began with a collective reading of the Dunbar poem by some of the event’s student organizers. Soon after, students who prepared poems beforehand took the stage to recite. The workshop began when professional visiting poets Six and MJ explained the importance of poetry and guided students through the process of understanding their emotions and translating them into art.
Terrell also spoke to the importance of poetry and art.
“Some people don’t enjoy talking to others. Some people don’t want to go to a therapist or whatever the different outlets may be. So writing and poetry and art is just a more personal outlet for you to let your feelings out,” Terrell said. "I think that’s necessary sometimes.”
After speaking about identity and healing, Six and MJ challenged audience members to express themselves by writing a personal statement beginning with “If you really knew me, you’d know," and filling in the rest.
Following a few minutes of preparation, students shared their answers on stage. Responses varied, ranging from, “If you really knew me, you’d know I’m vulnerable,” to, “If you really knew me, you’d know you can’t.” Some answers spoke more towards the general emotions and characteristics of the students, while others shared more intimate stories about their pasts.
Cooper DeStefano, a fourth-year computer science student who serves as president of IRIS and was a student organizer for the event, spoke about the power of hearing others’ stories.
“It’s also just important to hear the experiences of people who are different from you because there’s just aspects of life that people of certain identities are going to experience differently,” DeStefano said. “So, the only way that I can ever come close is by listening to them talk about their experience.”
Following the structured workshop, the event turned to an open-mic portion during which any student was welcome to share their work.
April Scott, associate director of mental health initiatives at Student Health Services and co-facilitator of BlackSpace, served as a key organizer for the event. Scott spoke about the impact she hoped it would have on students in the community.
“Hopefully they can take this with them,” Scott said. “Because they can write anywhere, right? They can do this at home.”
As someone who focuses on mental health in Student Health Services, Scott said she thought “We Wear the Mask” was an important way of helping people understand and express their experiences without the stigma or intimidation that she believes can come with counseling or therapy.
“Everyone was able to speak about things, and that’s essentially what group therapy is,” Scott said.
Youstina Rezkalla, a fourth-year social work student who serves as the president of Collegiate Curls, shared the sentiment of telling stories as a way of healing and helping others.
“You never know, what you say can become someone else’s saving grace,” Rezkalla said. “Just be comfortable with being uncomfortable because there’s truly beauty in growing.”