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If you aren’t already familiar with The Memory Project, this episode will be the perfect introduction. The founder of The Memory Project, Ben Schumaker, joins Tim to discuss how art students and artists are making portraits for children in need all around the world. Listen as they discuss the history of the project, how two donors are making big things happen, and what you can do to get your students involved. Full episode transcript below.
Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
As art teachers, we often pay lip service to the fact that art has the power to change lives. But I want you to ask yourself, like when do you show your students, I mean like really show them, exactly what that means. Now, today’s episode is going to be all about The Memory Project. If you’re not familiar with The Memory Project, it is something that gives students the opportunity to create art that goes far beyond the classroom walls. And it really does affect lives all over the world. And like I said, if you haven’t heard about it, now is the time to learn.
And this episode came about because the founder of The Memory Project, Ben Schumaker, presented at the Winter Art Ed Now Conference. And it was powerful. It was a meaningful presentation. People loved what he had to say, and a ton of people really wanted to learn more about it. You know, and I’d just talked to Ben a couple days ago, and he’s got some awesome news to share about getting more teachers and more students involved in The Memory Project. And you know, let me just tell you, he can tell you about it way better than I can. So I’m going to dive right into it and let him do that. Let me bring him on right now.
All right, and Ben Schumaker is with me now. Ben, how are you?
Ben: Doing well, Tim. How are you?
Tim: I am doing really well. I am excited that we get to do a podcast on The Memory Project. It’s something, you know, I’ve loved for a lot of years now. I know I wrote an article about it for AOE, I want to say it was like four years ago now. But it’s something that I think is really important. But to begin with, can I just ask you to tell us a little bit about The Memory Project, about what you do, and how you got started with everything?
Ben: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I started this in 2004, when I had just graduated from college. And I went to spend some time volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala. And I was taking photos of the kids. And while I was there, a Guatemalan man who had grown up in an orphanage himself saw me taking those photos and said, “You know, I grew up in an orphanage. I don’t have, I’ve never even seen a photo of myself as a child. And I don’t have any other keepsakes from my childhood. So when you go home, you should have prints of those photos developed, and send them here so the kids can have some printed photos of themselves.”
And to me, that was such a powerful revelation, because I had been so focused on the basic needs for the kids as my role as a general volunteer. And I hadn’t been thinking about the, you know, those higher needs, of identity, and the emotional needs, and knowing that somebody was helping you keep track of your life story. And as an amateur portrait artist, you know, just in high school art class, I loved doing portraits for friends, or you know, for my high school girlfriend, or whoever it may be. I knew that that was a very powerful way to connect with someone. So I thought, “Well, you know, in addition to giving the kids printed photos, what if we had talented art students study the kids’ photos, and create a handmade portrait as a really special gift, and take this to the next level?”
So that was the basic idea. And since then, in the last 14 years, I’ve pretty much just spent my days reaching out to art teachers around the country, and now around the world, and reaching out to orphanages, refugee camps, and similar types of locations, where kids have hardly any photos of themselves and are really going through tough times; and pretty much just bringing people together through art, to exchange portraits as special gifts.
Tim: Yeah. And that’s awesome. And you mentioned, you know, just kind of how powerful it is. And I think a lot of art teachers, when they hear about The Memory Project for the first time, they see the potential. They see the power there. And I know a lot of teachers reacted really well to your presentation at the Art Ed Now conference. They really responded to that. Can you tell us about kind of the reaction from art teachers to what you had to say there? Like have you had a lot of people signing up to participate since then?
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Everyone, the teachers who attended your online Conference have been great, just in emailing with comments, and questions, and saying, “We want to do this,” and laying out a plan. So that really helped bring a lot of new teachers to us, and it was a lot of fun to do. So that’s a very cool event you guys have. I was really proud to be part of it. It was a lot of fun.
Tim: Well, thanks. I appreciate the compliment there. And yeah, I’m glad you were a big part of that. And you know, I also want to ask, I know last time we talked, you’d said you had a couple new things happening. You were telling me about a donor that is trying to encourage more teachers and more students to participate. Can you just kind of share with everybody like how that came about, and more importantly, the opportunity that’s out there because of this donor?
Ben: Definitely. So first, I should begin by explaining a little bit about how we fund this entire operation, because there are a lot of costs involved in coordinating this around the world and getting these portraits to the kids around the world. So basically, we take all of the costs we have for any given year, and we divide them up by everybody who’s involved in creating the portraits. We sort of are sharing the costs equally among everybody who wants to do this, or to help us with this. And so ever since 2006, that has stayed steady at a request of $15, that’s 1-5, $15 for every art student who creates a portrait. They create the portrait, and we also ask for $15 to help with the coordination and delivery to the children.
So that is, you know, has worked very well for us in terms of, if there’s people who are willing to help us make these portraits, there is money to help pay for it. But one big problem I have with it is that it has made our … You know, it’s really steered our participants towards middle-income and upper-income schools, where there is a, you know, where the school has some money, or the students can just go home and ask, you know, mom and dad for $15. And I really don’t like that balance, so we really want to have more students from lower-income schools doing this. And so we actually have two donors right now who are funding slightly different things. One donor is really focused on trying to get more low-income students involved, and to help us with that balance that we have, or I should say the imbalance of low-income, middle-income, and upper-income students.
So thanks to that donor, we basically have now been able to tell teachers at low-income schools, you know, “Forget about the $15. Just tell us how much your group can contribute,” because we do like the idea of everybody who’s involved in this helping to contribute or share in the costs of getting the portrait to the kids in some way, even if it’s a small, almost symbolic contribution; I mean, of $10, $5. But even if it’s as little as $2 or $3 per student at a school with very few resources, you know, that we’re able to now say, “Yeah, absolutely.” You know, $2 or $3 per student, we can handle that thanks to this one donor.
The other donor is mostly focused on trying to help us spread this to more and more schools. He, in particular, is really drawn to the project in the way that it connects youth around the world. Given that we have so much tension in our world right now between people in different cultures, he’s really coming at this in terms of a peace-building initiative. And his interests are in trying to connect kids from different cultures; and you know, try to prevent some of just the racism and bigotry that we end up seeing in the world nowadays. So anyway, he wants to get more schools involved. And his way of doing that is to say, you know, for any teacher out there who is interested in trying this, but maybe is a little unsure of how it’s going to fit into the curriculum, or how much the students will buy into it, and really put their best effort into it, this donor is saying, “Okay. Well, if you’re kind of interested but a little unsure, just let me cover your contribution so that you can give it a try.”
So this donor is saying, “If you want to do this with anywhere from one to five students, just to see how it goes, I can cover that $15 per-student contribution for this year, so that you can not have any worries about any financial aspect whatsoever.” So that’s what we’re trying to get the word out, about both of these opportunities, to as many teachers as we can.
Tim: I love that there are so many more opportunities now for people to do this. So you know, and we’ll definitely encourage people to get on that, and to sign up if they’re curious. We’ll talk about that in a second. But I also wanted to ask you, you mentioned, you know, creating these connections between cultures, between people in different parts of the world, which I think is one of the most powerful things that happens in The Memory Project. And I know you also just released a new list of children for whom you’re going to be creating portraits this year. And I always find that really interesting. So can you kind of highlight some of those for us?
Ben: Absolutely. I’m really excited about our list of countries and the kids this year. Yeah. Every year, we grow. So every year, we can add more and more locations. And we’re starting this year, actually, with kids in Puerto Rico who were affected by Hurricane Maria. We don’t have a huge number of kids involved there. Mainly, we delivered portraits to kids in Puerto Rico in May, and there were a good number of kids who weren’t involved in the first round, and said, “Hey, can we get those portraits?” So we said, “Sure. You know, we’ll do that.”
And so then, after that, we are focusing on really young children, three to five-year-olds in Columbia, who live in slum areas. I visited there two years ago, and these kids are living on the side of hills in makeshift little, like tin roof, sort of corrugated wall, huts; dirt floors, no plumbing. You know, and basically, they are mostly with single parents and just are living in abject poverty. And they come to these feeding centers for nutrition. So we’re working with these feeding centers to create these gifts for the kids, which, you know, for them, is like something they’ve never … They don’t have anything like this. They don’t even have printed photos of their childhood. So for them and for their parents, this is a really special gift.
But after that, we have an arrangement I’m really, really excited about. And that is for the Rohingya children in Bangladesh, who are from Myanmar, and were forced out of Myanmar, escaping a genocide last year, when 700,000 Rohingya people who are part of this, who are an ethnic minority, a Muslim, ethnic minority. They’re not recognized as citizens of Bangladesh. They’re not recognized as citizens of Myanmar. They don’t really have a homeland. And so for that reason, they’re sometimes called the world’s most unwanted people. And we really want to show those kids that they are wanted in our humanity, and we’re thinking about them as they live in this refugee camp now on the border of Bangladesh. So we’re partnered with UNICEF for that, and it’s really exciting, really powerful.
And then we’ve got kids in the Philippines. We have Syrian children who are living in refugee camps, who have been living there for many years, growing up in refugee camps; children in Afghanistan who are living just among violence, as the Taliban reasserts itself in Afghanistan. For the first time ever, this year, I’m also very excited and a little bit sad that we have the USA on the list, because you know, it’s just sad to think of all the kids, who are in our own country, who are facing just as many challenges as kids elsewhere in the world. So for the first time ever, we’re partnering with a couple organizations around the country, in some of the most challenged neighborhoods and communities in our country, where kids are under the constant threat of gang violence, gun violence, rarely getting enough to eat. We’re going to be making portraits for them.
And then finally, towards the end of the school year … By the way, in the order that I’ve mentioned these different countries, that’s kind of the order in which we’re going through them in the school year, month by month … So finally, in the second semester, finishing up the school year, we’ll be making portraits for kids in Peru, and in Pakistan, and in Russia. So it’s quite a list.
Tim: I think it’s important that you’re doing this all throughout the world. And I think that, again, lends some of the power to what this project can do. But I want to talk logistics a little bit. Like you know, I know a lot of people listening to this, or people who saw your presentation but haven’t signed up yet, still want to participate. So can you maybe talk us through the process for signing up to do this if people do want to participate?
Ben: Sure, yeah. We try to make it as easy as possible. Basically, anybody listening can just, first, go to our website; MemoryProject.org, or just Google The Memory Project. And then on our website, there’s a link for art teachers. You can click on that. And it basically just outlines this five-step process from beginning to end. And the first step is simply to send us an email. Just email Portraits at MemoryProject.org. And then my team member, Ryan, is the person who usually is in charge of that inbox, and he’ll get back to you right away.
So basically, you just have to email and introduce yourself. And then, you know, he will, Ryan will ask you, “When do you want to do this? How many students are you thinking of having involved? How much time do you want to create the portraits?” And he’ll take it from there. So what we do then is, let’s say you sign up for 12 portraits for the kids in Columbia. We would then send you 12 digital photos of the kids’ faces. And we would also mail you large printed copies of those same photos, so you don’t have to print anything yourselves. So you have these large printed copies that your students can use to actually create the portraits.
We’ll also send you plastic sleeves for protecting the finished portraits when you mail them back to us. And then you’ll have, you know, a couple months, several months, to do the portraits. If you want more time, we can match you with a country with a very late due date in the second semester, around May, or June, or July. And the money that I mentioned before, the financial contribution, that is very flexible. Most teachers will send that to us at the end of the process, along with their finished portraits; gives them plenty of time for students to collect the $15, or however much they are contributing.
And then, yeah, once we receive all the portraits for the due date, for any particular country, we package them all up together in these special bags, and we fly them on an airplane over to that particular country. And we deliver them, and we always try to take a nice video of all the hundreds and hundreds of kids in that country receiving the portraits. We then create kind of a montage of highlights, just mainly to show the excitement of these hundreds of children; not really focusing on any particular portraits, but more just showing the excitement of all of them. And then you can share that video with your students, so that they know that they were part of creating that joy and that excitement for the kids.
Tim: Yeah. And those videos are just incredible to watch. So I would encourage everybody, there are some that are on The Memory Project website that you can check out. And you can see just what an impact it has. But I just have one last question for you. Do you have any words of encouragement for teachers who are maybe on the fence, thinking about doing it; but then also thinking, you know, “My kids are too young to make good portraits,” or, “My students can’t do realistic portraits well enough?” And I know sometimes, that will stop them from participating. So what would you say, or what advice would you have for those teachers?
Ben: Well, so for one, that’s an incredibly common issue. I mean, in every single time we receive a package of portraits, and we receive almost 2,000 packages of portraits from schools all over the country, all over the world, every year; every single one we open, there is quite a variety in the portraits inside. You know, art students have different skill levels and different amounts of experience. And some art students, you know, maybe they’re terrific at landscapes or at ceramics, but they’re just not super strong in portraiture.
So there’s a huge amount of variety. And when the project started … This is actually something many people don’t know about the project, unless they’ve read, thoroughly, all the information on our website … When the project started, we were only having one portrait made for every child. And that, in that first year, but as soon as we started delivering the portraits, it was clear how unfair that was for the kids, because you know, some of the portraits that the kids received looked like they had been done by professionals, others by beginners. And you know, there was always some students who just don’t finish the project, so some kids didn’t get any portraits at all.
So we talked to the partners, the orphanages, and the caretakers, caring for those kids, and we decided that it would be much better to, instead of just having one portrait made for every kid, to do more of a small collection; kind of like having a little baby book that’s not just one photo, but a little collection of images. So what we actually do is, we photograph, we get several different photographs of each child in different poses. And then we have different art students, throughout the year, make a different portrait for that child; a drawing, a painting, mixed media, whatever it may be. And then finally, so when we deliver portraits, we’re not delivering just one portrait to each child. We’re actually delivering a little packet of several portraits and printed photographs. So the child gets this packet of portraits of themselves.
And so basically, to answer your question, to any teacher who’s worried about quality, I would say that having that, having the little collection, really spreads out the quality issue. And every child, since these are kids who really don’t have much experience or exposure, even, to artwork in any form, when they get just one portrait, they say, “Oh, this is me? This is supposed to be me?” They compare it to the photograph. And they’re like, “Ah, this doesn’t quite look like me.”
But when they get several like this in their collection, and even if the portraits are amazing, or if they’ve been done by beginners, it then clicks for them. And they think, “Oh, I get it. You know, this is a handmade, this is artwork that, it’s not supposed to be a photograph of me. This is someone’s artistic representation of me. This is a gift that they made for me.”
So, and they are just as interested … We ask all of our art students to put a photo of themselves on the back of the portrait. And the kids are just as interested in turning over the portraits and looking at the photo of the art student who created it for them. And that’s where the human-to-human connection comes in. And they think, “Wow. You know, this person on the other side of the world cared enough to make this for me.” So I guess, to make a long story short in answering your question, I would say that while we do want the kids to all get really nice portraits that they feel proud of, mostly, it’s about the human-to-human connection. And you know, if you have a couple of your students that are just at a different level than others, or if your whole class is just young students, beginning students, in this little collection, their contribution, their portrait can still be part of the little collection that the child receives. And they’ll have that record of somebody creating that special gift for them. And I think ultimately, that’s what matters the most.
Tim: Really well said. And I hope that just kind of sharing behind the scenes, you know, exactly what’s going on and what kids are receiving will help encourage people to definitely sign up and get going on that. So, all right, Ben, we’ll wrap it up there. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on, tell us about The Memory Project, and try and get more people involved. We really appreciate it.
Ben: Oh, thank you, Tim. And yeah, thanks to your whole network. And yeah, we’d love to hear from anybody who’s listening.
Tim: I am glad that Ben was able to give you a rundown of The Memory Project and share all of the new things that are going on. And I think you’ve heard everything that you need from him, so I will just end the episode by saying this, okay? The Memory Project is honestly a project that every art program should be a part of. You know, and I hope the last couple of things that Ben said will put your mind at ease about working with The Memory Project. No matter what hurdles you might see, the fees, or the timing, or the logistics, Ben will work with you to figure out a solution. They have everything they need to support you, to support your kids, and help them be a part of this project. And it is an incredible chance for students to be involved with a powerful, meaningful project that goes far beyond the classroom walls.
Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening, as always. And as I said earlier in the show, this episode about The Memory Project came about because of Ben’s presentation at the Art Ed Now Conference. It was simply amazing, and to be honest, we have one of those presentations at every single conference, it seems like. And I have a feeling I already know which one it’s going to be in February, but sometimes, I even get surprised. But long story short, I want you to make sure that you don’t miss out on these amazing types of presentations, as well as everything else that you can get from the Art Ed Now Conference. So go check it. Sign up at ArtEdNow.com, and we will talk to you next week.