THE BUZZ: Profoundly aware

By on September 8, 2015

Project exposes the quiet battles being fought by valley residents

A teen mom, featured in The Awareness Project Jackson Hole, allows viewers into her home to see how motherhood has sharply altered her life. (Credit: Anne Muller)

A teen mom, featured in The Awareness Project Jackson Hole, allows viewers into her home to see how motherhood has sharply altered her life. (Photo: Anne Muller)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The disquieting image of a little boy sprawled facedown on a Turkish beach stunned the world last week, spiking global cognizance of the trajectories Syrians are risking to escape war. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned when a dinghy wrestling the Mediterranean Sea capsized. The 15-foot vessel was en route to the Greek island of Kos. NPR reported that the boy’s mother and 5-year-old brother also perished.

As four million Syrians flee a war-torn land, European countries are closing borders while politicos, such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy likened the number of refugees seeking asylum to “a pipe bursting in your house.”

But heartrending images, like that of little Aylan, have the ability to soften icy perceptions by stirring empathy and compelling people to action. The Guardian reported Thursday that in Britain, where only 216 refugees have been accepted, Prime Minister David Cameron now promises, “We will do more.”

At the core of The Awareness Project Jackson Hole is this understanding: that images and stories farm compassion among people, particularly those walking divergent paths.

Conceived by valley advocate Nancy Hoffman and photographer Anne Muller, The Awareness Project illuminates the sometimes-hushed struggles facing people in the valley through photographs, video and written word found at the project’s website – and at an upcoming exhibit and symposium at the library in November.

Stories not statistics

“My childhood ended because I am not a little girl anymore, I am a mother,” admits a 14-year-old whose struggles are steered into the spotlight through The Awareness Project. “I’m really happy with my baby girl but to be an adult is difficult because I can’t do most things other people can. It feels right… but wrong,” the young mother says as a montage depicts her now reclusive life at home caring for her daughter.

Peppered among images of the teen mom and her baby are startling facts: “Two-thirds of families begun by young, single mothers have incomes below the poverty line,” one snippet reads.

Another tale narrates a man whose debilitating back injury nearly dismantled his life. “What would you do if you owned your home, were getting tidily by, thought yourself lucky to live and work in a place as beautiful as Jackson Hole, and a sudden change in circumstances threatened to take everything away?” reads the story about Danny and Diana Walker. “It was nothing you did wrong: an illness, an accident. It left you unable to work, to pay the bills, to live the life that you might have taken for granted.”

The story explains how Danny’s condition ultimately affected his ability to use his legs, forcing him to quit his job. So Diana took on a second job, but with mounting medical bills, the Walkers found themselves slipping deeper into debt. Finally they summoned the courage to ask for help, leaning on the Community Resource Center (CRC), which rescued them from a perilous financial storm. Hoffman, a board member of CRC, said through The Awareness Project, she and executive director Mary Erickson also wanted to shed light on CRC’s work in the community. “A large number of those helped by CRC, 63 percent, encountered a situation like the Walkers faced – a medical crisis that turned into a financial crisis,” the Walkers’ story goes on to explain.

For the inaugural installment of The Awareness Project, Muller photographed a family who had called Jackson Hole home for 14 years before they were evicted from their trailer to make way for a Marriott. “My eyes were so opened at that time,” Muller said. “There was such desperation and a feeling of being lost on the part of these people. How brave they were really struck me. That was the end of a community.”

By narrating local stories, with the help of filmmakers, photographers, poets and writers who volunteer their time and become emotionally invested in narratives, Hoffman and Muller say they want to dispel prejudice while inciting dialogue that will lead to solutions for Teton County’s underrepresented populations. As part of the project, poet Matt Daly just launched the children’s workshop, “Know Me By My Voice,” encouraging young people to tell their stories through poetry. Meanwhile filmmaker Raul Gutierrez is busy laboring over a documentary on the valley’s housing crisis, a venture also under The Awareness Project’s umbrella.

Unveiling the anguish

“I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where there was hidden racial tension,” Muller said. “Black people came over the mountain to work where the white people lived and then they went back over the mountain to get home.  As a child, I could not understand this. Their families and stories were hidden and I think it is deep in me to put light on what is hidden and to put that light into the community.”

A concerning parallel can be drawn between the Birmingham of yesterday and the Teton County of today as more and more people are finding themselves unable to live in the same place they work. For those grappling to stay in Teton County, Hoffman noted there are many who quietly suffer. “One of the organizations we work with is Jackson Hole Cupboard,” Hoffman explained, “and the interesting thing about that organization … is your next door neighbor could be going to the cupboard for help and you might not have any idea.”

In order to address the deleterious issues plaguing members of this community, whether it is poverty, racism, hunger or housing, Hoffman and Muller believe an individual story must be told. “That’s how we know each other is through our stories, and through art we can tell these stories in many ways,” Muller said. “There are positive ways to look at the undercurrents of what is happening here.”

Before parting ways with this reporter on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, Muller paused to rummage through her purse.

“Oh yes,” Hoffman remembered. “We have something for you.”

Muller produced a small piece of paper.

“Art must show the world as changeable,” the paper read. “And help to change it.” PJH

Learn more about The Awareness Project and ways to get involved by visiting

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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