Read Me, Thank You: A project for social change

Imagine setting your books down by a table on campus, winded from the hustle-and-bustle of the day. After a moment you notice a sealed envelope with the note “read me” inscribed on it. Puzzled, you open it and find a thank-you card inside. “I am often homesick,” the card begins. You continue reading it, drawn to this person’s hardship because you know the feeling of loneliness as well. You’re given instructions to respond to the person. Would you do it?

The “Read Me, Thank You” project, initiated recently by a group of UCR students, seeks to form solidarity between people on campus and beyond. Group members hand out “Thank You” cards to willing participants. Participants are then invited to write about a personal hardship or burden. Each card is then sealed in an envelope, complete with guidelines inside for the person who discovers it and etched with a welcoming “read me” note. Then the sealed burden is returned to a a group member, who will place it in a random place on campus. If a passerby finds and reads the sealed burden, they may follow the directions given and respond to the burden they found on the project’s Tumblr page. The process preserves anonymity of both parties, allowing for each person to share their burdens or respond to them with ease.

One of the founding members, fourth-year creative writing major Michelle Lin, began to build on the idea after realizing that writing about her own life experiences helped her process her emotions. But she noted that there were limitations to the benefits of expressing oneself through words because it did not quite connect with her readers in a more visceral way.

While enrolled in the Theatre for Social Change class with Professor Tiffany Lopez, Lin studied various forms of performance art pieces based on personal experiences. After learning about award-winning performance artist Denise Uyehara and her work surrounding cultural identity, Lin became drawn to Uyehara’s integration of her personal experiences into her creative process. Inspired, Lin believed that it was indeed possible to use her own personal experiences to promote social good.

But it was Uyehara’s “Lost and Found” project that really resonated with Lin.  The “Lost and Found” project involved collecting valuable objects from people, which were to be left in public spaces for a passersby to find. Each object was tagged with a note of something that the individual lost. All of the found objects would later fill the shelves of a central location, which participants had the opportunity to view. Lin also cites poet Nicelle Davis and her “Living Poetry” project as another inspiration based on the same idea as the “Lost and Found” project, only with poetry. As a result, Lin’s own project, “Read Me, Thank You” integrates a compilation of Davis and Uyehara’s concepts.

For her final project, Lin gathered a group of students from her Theatre for Social Change class to build from her idea of collecting burdens. Lin says, “It was great because everyone was so enthusiastic. We were bouncing ideas off of each other and everything just slowly came together.” From the group’s collaborative efforts they combined the fine details of the project, using Veronica Alley’s idea of utilizing Tumblr as their platform and Christopher Ourth’s idea of writing the burdens on thank-you cards. When Ourth came up with his concept, Lin describes, “I thought it was the most genius idea. Originally, we were thinking of using pieces of paper, but the aesthetics of the card just adds to the mystery of the letter.”

Within a few months the group visited classes and distributed thank-you cards for students to fill out. They collected dozens of burdens and placed them at random places. Since setting up the Tumblr page for the project in early March, the group has started achieving its three objectives: to give people a safe space where they can share their burdens with ease, to promote a sense of community and to bring awareness to the suffering of others. Lin explains, “I don’t believe that one person’s pain is comparable to that of another because in the reality of their own world and experience, their greatest pain is their greatest pain,” Lin explains.

“We want to open people up to the knowledge that everyone is guilty of passing judgments based on first impressions. We hope that people become aware that everyone carries some sort of pain and to be more sensitive before judging others,” Lin says.

The Tumblr page currently shows six responses to discovered burdens. Just as the group members had hoped, the responses reveal mutual intimacy and empathy that show people’s true capacity to care for others. Carrying titles such as “I Am Often Homesick,” “Missed Mother’s Funeral,” and “Coming Out,” the notes leave a heart-wrenching effect on the reader.

In “Missed Mother’s Funeral,” the writer responds to the person’s burden of missing their mother’s funeral and the pain of not being able to say goodbye. By seeking to understand the person’s possible circumstances around missing the funeral, the writer consoles them, assuring them that they are not at fault. At the end of the response, the writer makes a personal connection to show the reader what it was like for her mother to constantly say goodbye when her own mother passed away. Saying goodbye “is a constant process,” the writer writes. “You do get to say goodbye. Every time you think about her, you can say goodbye.”

While no experiences are exactly alike, the notes convey the universality of loss, homesickness and solitude. Each note gives a person the opportunity to share the weight of their burden with readers rather than carrying it alone. In turn, by considering their own experiences, readers gain a greater awareness of solidarity with others. The “Read Me, Thank You” project thus abounds with opportunities for personal growth, serving as a bridge between the participants and readers.

Students who are interested in participating and writing their own burdens are welcome to attend the “Read Me, Thank You” event on May 9 in Rivera Library, room 206, 1-5 p.m.. One can also visit the group’s website, readmethankyou.tumblr.com to browse through the archive of discovered burdens.

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