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At Yale SOM, Using Art To Bolster Community

ESPEJISMO: A Festival of Borrowed Reflections. All images ©2017 Mara Lavitt

For the past week, an art exhibit has been on display at the Yale School of Management that encourages members of the SOM community to learn more about each other: 200 mirrors lining the floor outside Dean Ted Snyder’s office.

It’s the second exhibit in what may become a yearly tradition. Last year, a Yale SOM class hosted a panel discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement, and a group of 10 students was inspired to display pictures in the school courtyard of people who had been shot by police. “I don’t even think we got permission to do it. But we wanted to try something new, and working as a community made us feel empowered,” says Gayla Burks, organizer of the exhibit who was a first-year MBA student at the time.

“We were fortunate that it was successful, and we learned through it that our community can, and does, engage with art.”

But, Burks says, they’re business school students, not art students. “While our intention was good, the art execution was not,” she says.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

In her second year, Burks became the Equity and Inclusion Chair for SOM’s student government. She and classmate Elaine Dang decided the school would respond to another exhibit. This time around, it was created in collaboration between the school, Colombian-American artist Yazmany Arboleda, and limeSHIFT, a creative agency.

The goal, Burks says, was to make it easier for the community to share backgrounds and opinions, and to think about what the school’s mission — to educate leaders for business and society — really means.

“We found that our community didn’t really know each other,” Dang says. “Art is an avenue for people to share more about themselves, and we wanted to have another option here at the school for people to express themselves and to connect.”

SHARED REFLECTIONS

Gayla Burks, Elaine Dang, Yazmany Arboleda, and Liz Thys, CEO of limeSHIFT.

Though both insist it was a group effort, Burks and Dang co-led the project, leading workshops and interviews with other students, faculty, and staff at the school, and pulling common themes from the conversations to brainstorm ideas for the display.

Ultimately, Burks and Dang presented Dean Snyder with several proposals, and he approved the mirror display, called ESPEJISMO: A Festival of Borrowed Reflections, which encourages viewers to figure out what their community values are and how they want to see themselves in the world.

Community members were asked to go to the ESPEJISMO website and share their “reflection” with everyone else. This meant answering the question: When people see you, what do you want them to know?

‘BREAK DOWN THE BARRIERS, BUILD BRIDGES’

Burks says the project is a response to an increasingly divisive and polarizing cultural climate, and they hope it will help reduce some of the noise. “We want to break down the barriers and use this to build bridges for people to learn about each other,” she says. “We’re asking people to be vulnerable with us. Vulnerability in business school, and in business, is not always valued.”

But Dang says they were very happy with the results. “Something about art made it different, and in this case, different means it allowed people to come to the conversation less guarded,” she says. “They were able to express their opinions about the art, which would lead to deeper conversations. We could see our classmates in a different light.”

They had nearly 300 responses on the website, with participants talking about coming out as gay, being a refugee, even what it’s like to be a conservative man. Some responses were more lighthearted: One 80-year-old man wrote that he wants people to know that he’s still breathing.