Ask Liz Wuerffel and Allison Schuette to summarize the Welcome Project in a brief statement, and they’ll do it in one sentence: How do we live with difference?
Of course, the multimedia venture is much more than that. But the statement gets to the heart and soul of the Welcome Project, which is a collection of stories from Valparaiso University students, faculty, and staff, as well as Valparaiso community members, that sheds light on the complex state of relationships on campus and in the surrounding community while helping others discover commonalities.
Wuerffel, adjunct assistant professor of art, and Schuette, associate professor of English, serve as co-directors of the Welcome Project. And for their work on the project, the two have been named recipients of the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Award. Wuerffel and Schuette join Moninder “Holly” Singh, director of international students and scholars, as this year’s MLK Award recipients and will be honored at the convocation for the University’s 24th annual MLK Celebration on Monday, Jan. 21, at the Chapel of the Resurrection.
“Receiving the MLK Award is such a privilege,” said Schuette, a 1993 Valpo graduate. “The people who have received the award before present models that I’ve always wanted to aspire to; people that go out of their way to make our community a better place in terms of its commitment to social justice and inclusiveness and diversity. So to be counted among their numbers is a great honor and I feel not quite deserving of it in certain ways.”
Wuerffel, a 2000 Valpo graduate, began the Welcome Project more than three years ago as a way to tell stories through the written word. A couple instances of different cultures colliding gave her cause for concern. So she came up with an idea that included collecting people’s stories about diversity within the community. As the project grew, it became apparent video and audio were an even more engaging way to tell the stories, and they should be shared on the Web. The Welcome Project and its collection of stories now lives at welcomeproject.valpo.edu.
Along the way, Schuette became heavily involved. Other faculty members have since become involved, including Phillip Powell, assistant professor of communication, Aimee Tomasek, associate professor of art, and Dena Hein, adjunct professor in Valpo Core. Wuerffel said about 30 to 40 students have taken part by collecting stories through interviews, noting that the students’ efforts have been integral to the project’s success.
“I think the goal of the Welcome Project is both narrow and broad,” Wuerffel said. “The narrow part is that we want to collect stories to assess the climate of Valparaiso right now in regards to diversity. More broadly, we want to affect social change and social justice in this community so stories that might not be typically heard are heard and stories that are heard a lot are heard, but in a new light.”
Schuette said the project has been successful in taking conversations about diversity and turning them into something productive.
“There’s an enthusiasm and excitement because we’re working with stories, people’s stories, and there’s an intimacy that comes with that and a kind of connection,” Schuette said. “And stories refuse to simplify the complexity, which is so important when you are working and talking about contentious areas.
“Diversity and difference don’t always have to be contentious, but they often bring us into conflict. I think people tend to have a negative view of conflict, as destructive rather than productive. But stories, actually, can be the way that conflict can become productive. So people have been excited about that.”