Heart Of Our Community

“Our installation is something that represents the life of our community, and honors the joy that Mikey brought us all in doing so.”

Natalie, a student in Washington DC is co-leading her Group Action Heart of Our Community with her teacher Lely. This case study is a touching account of how their Action was born, the work that they put into it, and what it means to their community.

By Natalie Wise

Heart of Our Community

The week before the world shut down, I sat in my photography classroom, unimpressed that we were going to be watching a documentary instead of taking photos and processing film. But within the first two minutes of JR’s Inside Out documentary, my negative thoughts had vanished, and my classmates and I knew that we were witnessing something incredible.

Over the course of the week, I remember rushing to the photo studio every day, eagerly choosing a seat near the front so that I could watch the film uninterrupted. I wasn’t the only student with this sentiment; I could sense the excitement from the whole class, sophomores through seniors alike, every time the bell rang that week. As a Quaker school, JR’s message of representation and inclusivity held a special importance for us. Growing up in an environment with a strong commitment to values such as community and equality, we were able to deeply connect with and internalize JR’s work and beliefs.

When our amazing photo teacher, Lely Constantinople, told us that we’d be doing an Inside Out installation of our own, I remember the room erupting in cheers. We were ecstatic and eager to get to work; we printed out the classic polka-dot backgrounds, walked around campus debating where we’d put our installation, and pleaded with the administration to let us carry out our emulation of JR’s work. Everything went according to plan, and we even had a list of participants and shooting dates scheduled when the loudspeaker crackled to life on March 13th and our Principal announced that we would be having an “extended Spring break.” I remember classmates and friends being excited, claiming that they needed the break and couldn’t wait for their two weeks off from school, but all I felt was disappointment that we’d have to postpone our project any second longer.

Returning to in-person learning this Fall, I had every intention of finishing the work that we had started nearly a year and a half before. When Ms. C announced that we would start the semester by doing exactly that, I remember looking over to the one other senior in the class, both of us thrilled that we would get to share this wonderful project with the younger students. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t possible to simply pick up where we left off, both with the project and with life. So much had changed from March 2020 to September 2021; all but four of the original group had graduated and we’d missed a good portion of our high school years, but we were determined to make our senior year photo class experience meaningful and memorable.  On one of those early planning days, another senior leader and I were reviewing our signup sheet from March 2020. I remember laughing as we reviewed our colossal original list of participants-- only six people-- shortly followed by surprise and sadness as we read through the names: three graduated students, two teachers, and Mikey Wood. 

The pandemic wasn’t the only major change that had hit our community by the time we returned to campus this Fall. In early September, our community was devastated by the loss of Mikey Wood, a kind, goofy junior with a huge heart who we all knew and loved. Due to the small size of our student body, Mikey’s passing affected all of us deeply. During those few weeks, I saw solidarity and strength in our community that I had never quite noticed before. As we supported each other through that period, I thought back to how JR often uses his art to both make a statement and heal communities.

Mikey’s energy was contagious. While I only had scarce interactions with him, I always remember laughter and smiles following him wherever he went. Seeing Mikey’s name on that sign-up sheet filled me with incredible sadness that time had prevented him from participating in this project. At the same time, those two words on a computer screen entirely redefined the meaning of the project and expanded on my determination to not only spark joy on our campus but to emulate and remind each other of the joy Mikey brought us.

The goal of this project is to remind us that we’re not alone and allow us to remember our joyful moments even when things feel hard. Our Inside Out installation, entitled “Heart of Our Community” in honor of Mikey, will be the centerpiece of an otherwise somber and traditional campus; you’ll see it when you glance out the window during a particularly stressful math class, or you’ll sit by it while doing homework, or you’ll turn to it when you feel down and just need a little pick-me-up. Regardless, our installation is something that represents the life of our community and honors the joy that Mikey brought us all in doing so.