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UMPI invites community members to take part in annual Unity Project

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Those who have driven by the University of Maine at Presque Isle during the past month might have noticed numerous poles standing on the lawn in front of South Hall, all with multi-colored strings of yarn converging in the middle and spreading across the entire circle. 

That circle is part of the university’s own Unity Project, aimed at bringing community members, students and campus officials of various backgrounds together and showing that regardless of their differences there are many more similarities, or “threads,” that connect them. The Unity Project is a global movement that Nancy Belmont, CEO and chief inspiration officer at Vessence Corporation, started in June 2016 as a public art project that served as “a response to the divisiveness and negative rhetoric in American politics,” according to the project’s website.

The UMPI structure consists of 32 poles that display an “identifier,” a sheet of paper that states a trait that an individual may claim as part of their identity. People are invited to grab some yarn, begin by wrapping the yarn around the middle pole, and then weave the string around each identifier that represents themselves.

The identifiers range from the personal to the political, with many of the statements serving as the opposite of the one next to it. An identifier that states “I identify as a Democrat,” is often placed next to ones that state “I identify as a Republican” and/or “I currently do not identify with a political party.” Other opposites might be “I am a dog person” or “I am a cat person” as well as “I own a home,” “I rent a home,” and “I don’t have a home.” There are identifiers for folks who have a love of art, science or sports, those who struggle with mental illness and those whose country of origin is not the United States.

Violet Washburn, UMPI coordinator of campus engagement and international student services, began the Unity Project last year when she first came to the university. She had helped coordinate the Unity Project while working at the State University of New York and thought that the project would be a great one to connect people from both on and off campus.

“It’s open to anyone in the community,” Washburn said, about the Unity Project. “Even though we’ve gotten a lot of student participation, UMPI is part of the larger community as well and so we wanted a project where people could come from anywhere and take part.”

As part of the project, a box of various colored yarn and instructions is available at the site during UMPI’s regular business hours from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from now until Oct. 1. The project’s themes of unity and acceptance are ones that many UMPI faculty members, including Associate Professor of Social Work Shirley Rush, have incorporated into their coursework.

“I brought students in my ethnicity and multiculturalism class last year and plan to again this year,” Rush said. “It’s an opportunity for them to realize that no matter where people come from or what their experiences are, there is a common thread that connects all of us.”

Many UMPI students got together to take part in the Unity Project on Wednesday, Sept. 12, noting that the experience was a great chance for students and adults alike to meet people they might never have met or thought of talking to before.

“I think it’s awesome that people have a more creative way to get to know each other and figure out what they have in common,” said Yvonne Hartridge, an UMPI junior from New York City. who participated in the Unity Project for the first time.

Tiffany Smith of Bradford, also a junior, said the Unity Project is one of many things that contribute to the warm environment both on campus and in the surrounding communities.

“I participated last year and it’s great that people are able to come together and realize how much we can learn from each other,” Smith said.

Although many of the people who have contributed to the Unity Project thus far have been students, campus officials hope to see more individuals from the community stop by before the structure is taken down at the end of the month.

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