Now that the semester has started and launched into the unceasing “midterms season” that many of us are in right now, and with all the work we’re trying to keep up with, it can be difficult to find the time and space to relax, reflect, and create something just for fun. Sometimes, getting caught up in our commitments and involvements as Penn students also means not slowing down to get to know those around us and in Philadelphia. 

The students running the “I Am” Collective want to offer an opportunity for people at Penn and in Philadelphia of all backgrounds and regardless of Penn affiliation to take a step back from their careers or daily lives to express themselves, reflect on their experiences, and learn from others’ experiences. As its submission form explains, this storytelling platform is “dedicated to showcasing the diversity of social identities that exist within Penn and the broader Philadelphia community.”

Minnie Jung, a first year graduate student in the Social Policy program, developed the idea for the project over the summer. The exacerbation of racial tensions and traumas this summer highlighted the need to learn from and connect with people from different backgrounds and to address issues such as racial injustice. During the summer, Minnie was also getting ready to start school at Penn, and had previously heard people at Penn and in Philadelphia, including her sister who went to Penn, talk about the history of Penn’s expansion into West Philadelphia and the separation they felt between the Penn community and the Philadelphia community.

Minnie says, “I thought that the ‘I Am’ Collective could help folks from all different communities in Philadelphia to learn from each other and to be willing to listen to each other. ‘Cause I’m sure that there are going to be areas where people can educate each other regardless of educational background because I think that storytelling is a really powerful form of educating and a really powerful form of community building.”

Minnie Jung

Minnie hopes that those who view the gallery when it launches will reflect on who they are as well as listen to those with experiences they may not be familiar with. She says, “We want people to learn from each other in the form of storytelling.”

In order to establish the project, Minnie Jung proposed the project to the A Book A Day Program, a West Philadelphia based nonprofit community organization led by Penn staff member and GSE student Sibylla Shekerdjiska–Benatova. The program donates books to children in schools in West Philadelphia. Minnie says that the “I Am” Collective was inspired by the mission of A Book A Day to share diverse stories, but expands upon it to involve people of all ages. 

After agreeing to have the A Book A Day Program support the project, Sibylla reached out to other organizations to partner on the project. The Penn LGBT Center agreed to co–sponsor the project, and formed a team of work–study students—Minnie Jung, Elle Kirsch (C’22), and Kelsey Padilla (C’21)—to run the “I Am” Collective.

Minnie sums up the aim of the “I Am” Collective as “breaking down barriers and celebrating all voices.” The "I Am" Collective aims to connect people from different backgrounds and uplift minority voices in Philadelphia and at Penn through storytelling. Sharing these diverse stories facilitates the representation of people from marginalized communities in creative spaces and validates one’s expertise of lived experience. 

"Be The Light" by Shana Ahemode (2019, Mix Media (watercolor, acrylics, oil pastels, gel pens, glitter, and newspaper)) (Artwork submitted to the "I Am" Collective)

The project aims to celebrate people’s identities through “whatever they think is the best way to express themselves.” Submissions to the project can be in “any way and style of storytelling”—including but not limited to writing, visual art, music, or dance—and, as Elle and Minnie tell me, don’t need to necessarily be “creative” or “art.” Minnie says, “People think that they have to be creative in order to submit something, that’s totally untrue, submit something that represents yourself, something that you want to tell other people about yourself that you normally wouldn’t in just a regular conversation.”

The “I Am” Collective is currently collecting submissions from members of the Penn and Philadelphia communities. Elle explains that the stories will be shared on a digital platform to reach a wide audience. While the “I Am” Collective will stay online for now due to the pandemic, they are considering eventually holding an in–person showcase at the LGBT Center.

Minnie says, “We want to make sure that we are encouraging folks who have been left out of certain creative spaces to be able to reclaim some of that space back, and also encourage folks who may have never engaged in certain creative spaces to dip their toes into the water.”