Why I launched the “Who Are You?” project

Why I launched the “Who Are You?” project

Who is your “other”— someone very different than you in belief or life experience? Here are a few of mine.

Last year I had the opportunity to talk with someone who spent years in a tiny cell in solitary confinement. He was an outwardly gentle man, speaking with a soft voice that belied his passionate dedication to end the use of solitary confinement, a practice that many consider tantamount to torture. He spoke of the physical and emotional trials of being locked in a small cell by himself, the pains he still suffers and the loneliness that torments him even today.

I can’t think of anything in my experience that came remotely close to that. Even if I shut myself up in my apartment sometimes, I could always leave. Times when I felt the most lonesome, I could always call a friend or go out and try to make a new one. When I felt most trapped by the flaws in my own character, at least it wasn’t an actual prison.

Not long after that, I went to a weekend training for law enforcement officers to control outbreaks of prison violence. It took place at a decommissioned prison in West Virginia. One of the people I met there was a sharpshooter whom the state would bring in when there was a riot or a hostage situation or some other circumstance where he’d be needed.

My beliefs about guns, wars and immigration couldn’t be further from his, but I could appreciate that he saw himself as a protector of his family and country. When he asked me if, in the event I got caught up in a terrorist attack, I’d want to have someone like him around, I truthfully had to answer yes.

Or what of the streetcorner evangelist I had a polite conversation with, even as she told me she thought the gravest sin today was homosexuality? Or the Guatemalan man with no arms who was soliciting money in a subway station to help pay for prosthetic limbs? Or the elderly Chinese woman I could only bow to but not speak with during the Chinese New Year parade? Or the fear-mongering politicians I see on television? Or any of so many other people I encounter in person or in the media?

What of the people whose life experience and values are so very different than my own? Like many people, my life is arranged so that I don’t really have to encounter such people in any deep way. Though I can if I want. My question when I meet them is, in short: What on earth is it like to be you? Or, alternatively, how the heck could you possibly believe that? (Or the sincere question behind it—why do you believe what you believe?)

It is questions and encounters like these that prompted me to launch this project. I’m interested not only in people different from me, but people different from each other. Who do they consider their “other”—someone vastly different from them in experience or perspective—and why? And what happens when they get past superficial conversation? Is change even possible or desirable?

It’s a cliché to say that we’re all the same deep down. That may be true, but it glosses over the substantive differences that divide us, not least of all the different kinds of power that people have.

You, dear reader, have your own “others,” people whose experience or values provoke you to ask your own questions—about them and about yourself.

“Who Are You?” is an experiment, testing the limits and possibilities of human communication.

I hope you’ll join in.

Paul VanDeCarr
Project director