Sanford, Florida was in the midst of reinventing itself. Then the calamity of Trayvon Martin’s violent death turned this sleepy Florida town into a poster child for everything that’s wrong with the state. Now that the media frenzy has moved on to other troughs, the residents must sweep up the mess. As is often the case, compassion and healing have been working quietly in the background. Two years after the tragedy, this healing process is being highlighted through a grant by Ashoka University to document the lives and faces of the people of this small, historical town. The Sanford Project , was begun by a group of students and artists to capture the unique culture and character of the city, and to turn around perceptions of Sanford.
Led by Olivia Zuk, a recent graduate of nearby Rollins College, The Sanford Project recently exhibited its results at the Gallery on First in Sanford, and before that, at Say It Loud, a pop-up gallery space in nearby Orlando. “The media willfully misinterpreted Sanford,” she said, “and we decided that it was critical to overcome the passing controversy and focus on the true nature of this Central Florida town”. During an internship last summer in New York City, total strangers, Europeans as well as Americans, approached her about its lurid reputation. Ms. Zuk’s eyes flashed as she added, “I had had enough. This is my backyard and it needs to be properly defined, and this ugliness put behind us.” When she returned from New York, she received a grant to create a media circus, this time of her own design.
The Sanford Project quickly attracted eight other students. A startling photographic odyssey captured humanistic portraits of the town’s residents, overcoming its caricature status and reminding viewers of Sanford’s real people. Seeking to go out of their comfort zone, the collaborators accepted invitations into churches homes, businesses and communities, gathering intimate stories and the personal reflections of Sanford’s residents, including memories of the celery-farming days of the 1940s and before.
While the individual stories and images are remarkable, what is more remarkable is that these students, on their own, chose to reach out to collaborate with Sanford’s residents. And even more remarkable than this gesture is the fact that they were most often greeted with pride and acceptance. “We did not force it,” explained participant Destiny Deming, “but as the project progressed we all felt more at home in a city that several of us aren’t even natives of.”
Lauren Cooper, another participant, said, “I didn’t get turned down to speak with a single person, or hear any outcry to critique our cause. That silence, ironically, speaks.” The quality of this small town is probably not unique, and belies the illusion that our big cities are our greatest triumph. Olivia Zuk and her students found, instead, a triumph in the humanity that came out of this effort to re-connect with the small town.
The project’s images, video, and documentary aired recently at an Orlando venue, and will be coming home to Sanford later this spring. Building solidarity built between the city and the small, peripheral town must be done to rebuild a state of compassion and shared ownership out of the ashes of our greed-driven, cynical culture. The Sanford Project takes the necessary first step, and although the pathway is long, the first step is the hardest.
Participant Aaron Harriss described The Sanford Project as “suburban white kids from Orlando interested in historic African American communities”. The sardonic, self-deprecating comment belies his generation’s interest in localized connectivity over and above the “official” storyline of a community. Rocked by charges of racism, and guilty by association, Central Floridians were stung by the Trayvon Martin publicity. Few rose to speak, or set the story straight, however, until Olivia Zuk and her Sanford Project team stepped in.
“Being from the “Millennial” generation, most of us working on the project learned about the segregation of white people and black people pretty early on,” reflected Ms. Zuk after interviewing a Sanford resident. Segregation was a story told like a history lesson, at arm’s length, and for many suburban white kids this might be close enough. But Zuk took with her a multiracial team of Lauren Cooper, Destiny Deming, Christopher Garcia, Leila Gray, Aaron Harriss, Angelica Milan, Victor Rollins and Lauren Silvestri. They sat with African-Americans, heard stories of racism, participated in the African-American culture of Sanford, and supported the local Martin Luther King Day parade. They learned more about the city than many of the region’s occupants knew: Sanford’s history, like that of many small towns, conceals some darker episodes, such as the story of Goldsboro , an African-American town that was forcibly incorporated into the larger town of Sanford in 1911. But it has many joyful tales also, stories of beating the odds, when the surrounding celery and orange fields were eclipsed by the theme parks, and yet Sanford sustains itself as a desirable quality of life in Central Florida.
Lingering in the twilight of its agricultural boom, Sanford today is off Central Florida’s beaten path; it’s about a 40 minute ride from downtown Orlando. Its historic downtown and surrounding residential community is beautiful, but its population has struggled to grow.
A reinvention was long overdue. Then in stepped the media, reinventing Sanford in the wake of young Martin’s tragic death: small southern town, fill in the rest of the blank. This condemnation, inevitable in today’s city-worshipping culture seems all too pat. Caught off guard, perhaps, Sanford was unable to push back at the media framework, where you are either a darling or a pariah, but never anything in between.
The millennial generation’s nonhierarchical view of society, symbolized by The Sanford Project, is a pathway out of the good-or-evil, red-and-blue polarization that we continually encounter. Increasingly, however, these black-and-white cartoons ring hollow and empty, unable to withstand scrutiny.
Is this cycle unbreakable? The students and artists who have captured Sanford’s character through images and stories have started the hard work to do just that. Millennials, like the generations that preceded them, may someday come to accept this either/or view of the world. For now, however, efforts like the Sanford Project — efforts that are not profit-driven, but rather socially driven — are rebuilding our squandered moral capital.
This story originally appeared in The New Geography