BRATTLEBORO—Dissolving the multilayered societal and economic causes behind homelessness can feel daunting.
But photographer Liz LaVorgna and a creative team have turned to a simple, perhaps mundane, first step to foster social change: sharing a cup of coffee.
“If you’re able to have a conversation, if you’re able to connect with somebody, all these preconceived ideas of somebody that you have or had can kind of fall away and you can actually get to know somebody — and I think both people are richer from that experience,” said LaVorgna about her upcoming multimedia exhibit, “Coffee & Conversation.”
The exhibit, which opens Dec. 5 and will be on display throughout next month at the River Garden at 157 Main St., combines photography, video, and audio — all aimed at reversing the stigma around homelessness.
In addition, local artists and members of the homeless community donated pieces for a community art wall that encompasses part of the exhibit. Proceeds from the sale of the artwork will go to local efforts seeking to end homelessness or directly to the artists who are (or have been) homeless.
For the exhibit, LaVorgna photographed 30-minute conversations between a person who has housing and a person who is homeless.
At each of the conversations, LaVorgna provided the coffee and a small conversation starter or ice breaker.
“Homelessness” and “housed” people often exist side by side within neighboring but distinct cultures, each with its own rules, expectations, and traditions. This sense of “different” can create a feeling of awkwardness for people who wish to reach across the cultural divide.
“Many people do not know how to approach someone who is homeless, and the homeless have a difficult time approaching someone who is not homeless,” LaVorgna said. “Fear is on both sides of this situation.”
“Being homeless is a lonely, isolating place, and sometimes even the smallest interaction can make all the difference,” she added.
‘It’s as simple as that’
LaVorgna said “Coffee & Conversation” grew from the help of many.
A friend, Chad Simmons, invited LaVorgna to a community conversation on homelessness held at The Works Bakery Café last spring.
That night, LaVorgna said, Lawrence Wardlaw III told his story about being homeless and said: “All I want is a hot cup of coffee and a warm conversation.”
Wardlaw’s words rung in LaVorgna’s ears and heart, and she said a light bulb sparked to life.
“It’s as simple as that,” she thought.
“Coffee & Conversation” quickly came together as LaVorgna approached people, including Wardlaw, for the conversations and photo shoots.
A few people almost backed out of the project, she said. They worried they had nothing to say to their conversation partner.
Once the ice broke, however, something shifted between the speakers, and the conversation took flight, LaVorgna said.
The conversation partners found surprising common ground: both attended Catholic school, or both grew up in the same town, or both had visited similar places.
LaVorgna feels that the shift came less from a great revelation between the speakers and more from an art project that gave them permission and a venue in which to speak to each other and break down a preconceived barrier.
With “Coffee & Conversation,” LaVorgna has made a conscious decision to avoid “fixing” homelessness, as other efforts in town try to do. Instead, the project seeks to create connection.
“My gift is photography,” she said. “That’s what I can contribute to the world.”
Her photographs provide a visual for people that shows “it’s okay to connect,” she said.
People in our society who fall outside the preconceived “normal” category become “invisible,” she said. They become the ones it’s not okay to make eye contact with or speak to.
As a result, the “visible” people stay quiet. “They don’t really know what to say, so they don’t say anything,” LaVorgna said.
Part of LaVorgna’s work strives to show the community, “these are the invisible people.”
“And so I’m saying, here they [the invisible people] are; take a look. Because, can you really connect with this person if you look at their eyes? Can you connect and see what’s going on there? Can you have some compassion for this person?” LaVorgna asked.
“It’s almost like [the photographs] provide a visual for people that it’s okay to connect with other people, [that] other people are doing it, too.”
As an artist, photographer LaVorgna seeks projects that spur social change.
“What can I do that makes a difference that has a bigger impact than just me,” she said.
LaVorgna studied photography and digital media arts at Keene State College and does commercial photography work at Core Photo in Brattleboro. Last year, she collaborated with Brattleboro artist, writer, and performer Shanta L.E. Crowley on “Perfect Imperfection,” a project focused on the flaws that we all try to hide from the world. The project asked: Aren’t these perceived “flaws” part of our perfection?
“People always have a story — what is it?” she said.
“Coffee & Conversation” has spurred LaVorgna to think, “If you just act like the barrier is not there, then it’s not there.”
Perhaps because housed people don’t want to admit they might live one step from homelessness, many won’t look a homeless person in the eye, LaVorgna noted.
“There’s a sadness in people’s eyes that I did notice. It’s almost like a defeated kind of thing.” she said. “It’s been so hard; [homelessness has] taken a lot out of them,” she said.
That sadness in those eyes reinforced LaVorgna’s belief in the power of kindness and treating people with dignity.
Sometimes, people just need someone to believe in them, she added.
“Everyone has their challenges,” she said. “It’s hard out there. It doesn’t hurt to be kind,” she said.
LaVorgna has noticed a transition period for those who have recently found housing. Much of their energy went into looking for their next place to sit, finding their next meal, or getting a place to sleep.
LaVorgna remembers a conversation she had with a man in the Harmony Parking Lot.
He asked her for some change. She had only $2, but she offered to buy him breakfast with her debit card. He answered that he really just wanted a beer.
According to LaVorgna, the man told her he’d just found housing, and she didn’t understand what he was really doing by still drinking.
“[Getting the housing] is not what it’s all about,” she said.
Support from the community
Wardlaw and Simmons helped with the project, as have Wyatt Andrews, Maggie Strassman, Effie Mayhew, and Nicole LoPresti, LaVorgna said.
“In hearing the stories of people who were recently homeless, they had wonderful things to say about Effie Mayhew [a case manager at the Drop In Center, now part of Groundworks Collaborative],” LaVorgna noted.
“Many have said they would not be where they are today without her,” she added, noting their new housing and a sense of well being. “Her help, kindness and understanding has changed their lives. She is a light in the darkness.”
Community members’ willingness to step forward and support the project has delighted LaVorgna.
Groundworks Collaborative supports this project, LaVorgna said. Local businesses and organizations that have donated to the project include the River Gallery School, Mocha Joe’s Roasting Company, The Works Bakery Café, The Vermont Country Deli, Zephyr Designs, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and The Restless Rooster.
River Gallery Art School hosted two free art classes for members of the homeless community. LaVorgna said that the school has offered the three people who attended scholarships for additional classes.
“So many good things are coming from this, it’s amazing,” LaVorgna said of the project.
People hear of the project and immediately start looking for ways they can help.
“It’s like this huge flower or something,” she added of how the art exhibit has grown in scope and support.
The show opens on Gallery Walk, Friday, Dec. 4, with a coffee hour from 9-10 a.m., and Gallery Walk from 5:30-8 p.m.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, an opening night from 7-10 p.m. will include a “Coffee & Conversation” story slam. The exhibit will also host a weekly coffee hour for people to have — not surprisingly — coffee and conversation. Coffee will be provided on Dec. 11, 18, 22, and 29, from noon to 1 p.m.
Meanwhile, LaVorgna hopes the show will facilitate connections and kindness between community members who might believe they are too far apart to find common ground.
“It’s putting [the photograph] up there to say, ‘You can look now,’” she said — and then, “maybe next time” you will connect with a stranger.
“If we can help to change people’s attitudes and to approach people with kindness and compassion, that is the main mission of this project,” said LaVorgna. “Everything else that comes out of it is just bonus.”