Navigating the streets of Philadelphia, chances are you pass by a number of people soliciting support from passersby, frequently with a sign in hand. But, what comes next? More often than not, we ignore the plea for food and spare change and continue on our way. However, for artist Willie Baronet, this uncomfortable exchange sparked an idea.
“That’s really how this all began,” said Baronet, founder of the We Are All Homeless project. “I didn’t like the fact that I was walking by people and ignoring them.”
The next person he passed on the street, rather than ignore, he decided to sit down, ask them about their lives and buy their sign.
“If you would have told me 25 years ago that I would still be buying signs, I would have called you crazy,” Baronet said. “Now, I couldn’t imagine ever stopping.”
Since then, Baronet has traveled the country purchasing signs and talking to people on the streets. He has turned these signs into art exhibits, posing the question to his viewers, “What does home mean to you?”
Students, faculty, researchers and staff at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University) had the opportunity to reflect on this question thanks to the work of Rosie Frasso, PhD, CPH, public health program director of the College of Population Health. Dr. Frasso and her team of Jefferson public health and medical students added a research component to Baronet’s work, turning informal conversations into opportunities to learn more in a systematic way.
Together, Baronet and Dr. Frasso led the group of nine researchers collecting signs and conducting interviews with 41 people on the streets of Philadelphia over the course of a week. The nearly 100 signs purchased by Baronet, as well as a selection of quotes from the participant interviews, went on display for the Jefferson community and public last week at the “Signs of Humanity” exhibit.
“Being acknowledged is what these people are lacking, which is something I never would have thought of without having heard it from almost every person I interviewed,” said student researcher Kaela Edwards, an MPH candidate in the College of Population Health. “We always asked at the end of the interview is there anything you would want to share with passersby. Almost every time it was, ‘Yeah, just remember I’m here and I’m human and that we want the same things out of life that you do.’”
While usually focused on his art, Baronet said he enjoyed looking at his work from a research perspective.
“On a surface level, I teach creative advertising, and I’m used to students that are creative by nature and their brains work a certain way,” he said. “So for me, it was cool to be working with students who are so analytical and research driven. They were amazing and had a huge level of compassion and empathy. I love the way they interacted with the folks on the street.”
Overall, Baronet hopes the Jefferson community takes away a broader message from the exhibit.
“We all can make eye contact and smile, wave and say a kind word,” he said. “I think it’s the connecting, them letting them see the humanity in me and me seeing the humanity in them. That’s the big shift.”
Visit here to learn more about Baronet’s work.