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Monumental Moments, Part 1
Episode 29th June 2022 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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In Richmond, Virginia, ExchangeAlumni Julia Beabout and Grady Hart teamed up to create Monumental Conversations, an augmented reality project that centers on the undertold stories of Black resilience and excellence in Richmond. Little did they know how the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd would transform their project.

In this second of three episodes on the power of AR on Voices of Exchange, we hear how Julia got a deeper look at racism and its effect on a community, how her international exchange experience in China through the Critical Language Scholarship led her to the Monumental Conversations project with Grady, and more.

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Transcription:

holarship, uh, which I did in:

t was December, yes, December:

And, uh, so we were in a breakout session and I heard him mention a project that he had in mind, and I just loved the idea and our eyes met across the room (laughs) and, and it was a, a magical, magical project moment. So, um, after that we started, um, talking about, uh, you know, what the project could be, and he was interested in AR, what, what I was had been talking about.

So the project, um, can, it's, it's an augmented reality tour, um, kind of slash, experience. It's a little bit more of a tour, but conceptually it's a traditional kind of audio visual walking tour, but many of those visuals are actually augmented reality elements, 3D elements that you can, um, interact with. So it kind of, if you interact with the 3D content, um, it takes you kind of to deeper levels of story, um, additional stories, additional visual content, such as historic photographs, um, that kind of thing. And, uh, yeah, I would say the, the most exciting part to me was, a, working with the community.

Uh, obviously COVID slowed things down and everything, but even regardless of that, you know, we really worked with the community for a good year and a half to kind of understand what, what stories they felt should be told. Um, and so really the, the content that is in there, the histories that are in there are just so exciting.

ng that was happening, um, in:

tarted coming down in June of:

And, we, everybody that was involved decided, no, it's actually a more important project now to kind of contextualize why these have been so contentious, why they've come down and, and all that.

So it ended up, we kind of had to re conceptualize stories, the whole idea of what we were trying to achieve. Um, but it ended up being a much, much, much better project.

And, uh, to me the most, um, interesting example of that is actually the first stop on the tour, which is at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Um, I'm sorry, Virginia Museum of Art, excuse me. Um, Virginia Museum of Art on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, where there is an amazing statue, um, uh, by Kahinde Wiley of a young black man in dreadlocks on a horse. And that, uh, statue was inspired by the JEB Stuart Statue that used to stand at the far end, the other end of Monument Avenue.

And it was really meant to be kind of a, a replica in a sense, but changing out, uh, JEB Stuart with this young black man in dreadlocks and Nike sneakers and the hoodie and the whole bit. And, um, and so once the JEB Stuart Statue was gone, it kind of lost that visual conversation that it was intended to be in.And so in AR we are able to... Uh, and we actually recreated the JEB Stuart Statue in AR and the user, um, doing the tour is able to place that next to the Rumors of War Statue and actually see it in the visual conversation that it's intended to be.

So I think that's, to me, the most exciting part is like AR and that this tour enables us to really bring things together that there's no other way to, to do that, so.

I would say, you know, the lessons learned were really about, you know, bend and flex with what the world gives you, right? There's, um, really, it sounds trite, but you know, just whatever challenges kind of come your way, like just transform them into an opportunity.

And I, I would say every project I've had, um, even my, even the hackathon project, um, back that we did, um, a few years ago, uh, in the Tenderloin as well, just again like our, our, we lost our venue, we thought we'd have unexpectedly, um, you know, same kind of thing with the Blackhawk project.

Uh, we were working on a component and it just COVID blew that apart and (laughs) we couldn't do that anymore. And so, you know, both, both those instance- instances and just like I was talking with Monumental Conversations, the statues went away. I mean, like literally the baseline of our project disappeared literally.

And so really thinking like, you know, looking at those and being like, "Okay, is that forcing you to, um, come up with a different solution?" And every single time that has happened on each of these projects, it has led to a better project.

I think what I've learned is that, um, and that I have applied to both of those projects, is anytime that happens, it becomes a wonderful opportunity to engage additional stakeholders in your project. Which then builds more relationships and strengthens the community.

Um, so I think... And that really, um, for me what, what we do in AR and I think Grady, you know, as outreach coordinator that is really at the core of what we're trying to do. This is project based learning. In this case, augmented reality was the, was the medium.

Um, but it's really, you know, project based learning, project based, um, community building. And so as long as you keep that goal front and center is how do we center the people? How do we help them get to know each other and wrestle with this content and, and develop bonds that'll outlast the project. Um, I think there's many ways to, to meet that goal. And, um, yeah, so I'd say those are kind of the lessons learned, um, between the two, you know, or three really projects.

One of the first things I really was surprised by was the level of distrust actually between the black community and the white community. I certainly expected that.

But, um, yeah, and that's... Like it's not universal, like it doesn't, it doesn't filter down to the individual level. Like people, everybody's very respectful and people get along. And, but, but at, you know, when you kind of back up like, and we start to see these stories like that, that depth of mistrust. And I think what I really gained, um, from the stories, because a lot of those... Obviously the stories weren't stories I knew, and I thought I knew what systemic racism was going into this.

And, oh my gosh, like the rabbit hole goes so deep, you know? And so it was really a real education for me. And I began to really understand that, um, you know, lack of trust within that context. And I think what was interesting too, is that people don't... What we found is that it, you know, most people didn't know these stories, right? They knew how they felt, they knew, they knew, uh... Like we had, we had one.

So we worked with, uh, had some focus groups with students and parents and all of that. And, um, you know, the level of hurt was really eye opening for me. It's kind of one of those things, like, you know, in, in, in, um, the abstract, but when you're talking to somebody and you see it operationalized in their life, you know, that's just so much more impactful.

And so we had, um, one mom mentioned that, um, you know, she wasn't sure that she would want her son to go on this tour because she didn't... This was at the beginning, right? So, but even though she's like, "I will not make him go." Because that space along Monument Avenue was so hurtful for her. She just knew it just rocked her to her core and she didn't want her son exposed to that, right? Or forced him to be exposed to, to do that.

And, um, and so you know, I don't know if he, he has or will be going on personally, but, but, um, you know, I... Like to me that really told me volumes of how deeply hurtful, um, you know, personal it can be for folks. Now other- others, uh, you know, in the community didn't feel that way. So just again, understanding those different perspectives of how it hits people differently, um, you know, was really eye opening.

The other thing, again, this kind of, you know, in the abstract that seen operationally is that, uh, you know, a number of the, uh, black parents understandably were concerned about their, their black children, particularly young black men walking in a traditionally white space, you know, just for their safety, you know?

And, um, so we had to really think about those things because, um, the, initially we were thinking that the way this would be implemented within the students 'cause the, uh, the students curriculum in a sense or part in this is that they would just kind of go to that space on their own at their, on their own time and do the tour, um, on their own. And, um, what we kind of learned through that in particular was a factor that, that is probably not the best plan. It is not unfortunately a safe plan for young black men.

And, um, and so then we moved to, okay, it probably needs to be a field trip situation or some sort of chaperoned situation where there's, you know, it's, it's, we know that it's safe for them and we need to let the police know that, you know, there'll be people, uh, uh, uh, young people walking along as well as the public. But, um, so, you know, just, you know, discovering and thinking about those things, which, you know, me as in Seattle, as a white woman, um, you know, not, not usually having to think, um, that deeply about those things.

And so, yeah, I think, uh, it was really, you know, e- eye opening and learning, um, a lot of learnings that way and seeing how these things play out.

The significance of AR and place-making can be distilled into two parts: it can be used to connect residents to their heritage and it can showcase the city to those outside so they can begin to understand and get to know it in a new way. But how do you reconcile histories that conflict with one another, are painful, or involve the subjugation of one group under another?

One of the main things we, we do in that tour is, um, monumental, Monument Avenue has been a, was an exclusively Whites Only space for over 100 years, pretty much 75 years. Um, and it was intentionally designed to be that way. Um, those statues were, um, intentionally put there and intended to be billboards at that time of oppression. Um, the, they were also just part of... That's, that's kind of one string.

They were also part of just developing that area, right? Like the, um, the commercialization of the buil- building a new development and how do I appeal to, to people that I want to live there? And that's really what started the Lee statue, right? So, um, and then how, how, how that what's called the Lost Cause narrative that developed around this really drove and shaped that, shaped that, and that kind of gets to the, the, the, the core of why I feel, why I love these things.

I think they're just so fascinating how we conceptualize and imagine our environment and overlay our culture onto the physical landscape.

To me there's kind of the, um, imagined space and the physical space. So our imagined environment and our physical environment are not necessarily the same. And, you know, I've actually just run into that on a project we're working on right now and talking with the client on that and trying to help them th- th- this lack of alignment between the physical environment, the historical env- environment, and the cultural environment, or landscapes. And those are three different things. The boundaries of those are different.

And so to me, that's really like, that's, I just, you know, I, I don't know why (laughs). I just love that, those kinds of conversations about how our imagined world, our pers, our worldview is overlaid onto the physical landscape.

(laughs), um, uh, in the late:

that story as well, the late:

And that story, um, I think that was the part of that, the history that I did not know is the intentionality of the politics behind it. And just like literally the Virginia State constitution was rewritten and not put to vote (laughs). And that constitution, um, they just instituted it in 19, whatever 07. I can't remember the date right now. Uh, instituted. And it literally circum- circumscribed blacks from voting for the next 7- 75 years.

And to give an example, in Jackson Ward, where the historically black neighborhood, um, was and has been in Virginia, um, there was, uh... I'll get the num, exact numbers wrong, but there was, um, over almost 3,000 people registered to vote in Jackson Ward, um, before the constitution. Um, after the constitution was put in a place, there was only 98 eligible voters left that met the criteria.

So, you know, you have these kind of things coming together of this re-imagining of, or, or trying to reconcile their losses, coming together with these political intentions and that literally being engraved into the landscape there, um, through the statues, through the zoning, and then ultimately in mid century through the urban renewal process of putting I-95 in.

You know, in this situation, what we were trying to do is kind of come at and uncover like this meaning, this history and, and, um, help bring another narrative a more truthful, inclusive narrative to that space.

what ended up happening with:

photographs that you saw from:

So many people kind of coming in and just being together in that space and redefining, reclaiming that space for, um, for black Americans, as well as white Americans. Um,

And so, you know, it's a very, um, powerful, potent process, I would say, that we all do naturally and what... Um, and it influences all of our lives and we are not necessarily very conscious of it.

And so, you know, what you try to bring through AR place making is a more conscious effort, um, on that or conscious understanding, um, that you could look at the Monumental Conversations Project as one as kind of a deconstruction project, but what we've done in the Tenderloin is kind of the other direction is a construction project. So, uh, with that, um, the Tenderloin, as an example, um, has, you know, was a very underappreciated area.

Like all of the challenges we have in America are on full display there. Um, but the, but... And so it's, has a very, it's a problem. Like that's the way it's thought of in, in San Francisco. And it is. There are many, many deep, um, pro- complex problems going on there. But it's also an incredible neighborhood. Um, I always say there's two Tenderloins there, there's the Tenderloin you see on the street, which is what most people think of. Um, and then there's the Tenderloin behind closed doors, which is a wonderful community.

I imagine in some ways like a:

And, um, but what... So, what we wanted to show with that project is that, that there is this other side to the Tenderloin, but also that there's this incredible history in the Tenderloin, um, of... You know, Te- Tenderloin has been very much like, uh, you know, engine of radical inclusion from day one that San Francisco is now known for.

Um, and so there was kind of a two-pronged goal with, with that project, again, kind of using the, the, the construction side of place making of reconnecting the residents with this rich history, um, of their neighborhood, and then also showcasing that to people outside so they begin to understand the nei, the neighborhood, um, and see it in a different way.

Um, so that's kind of what's behind place making, is that, um, understanding, um, you know, how people relate to the places around them and understand themselves in light of that. And then we overlay kind of the collective memory theory on top of that, of bringing in the historical stories and helping people to kind of, um, uh, you know, meld those together, um, in a, in an intentional way.