When award-winning photographer Angélica Dass decided to write her first children’s book, she knew it had to be more than just a book. He needed to teach important lessons. And above all, it had to be fun.
For years, Dass has educated the world through his critically acclaimed Humanæ project – a collection of portraits designed to showcase the beauty of humanity’s diversity. The series attempts to document each person’s true colors rather than relying on labels such as “black”, “white”, “red” or “yellow”. The background for each portrait is then created by matching the color tone of the subject to the Pantone color palette.
“I started thinking about this job when I was six,” Dass said. “That’s exactly when I was questioning the pink pencil I was using, thinking of black and white as a color.”
Dass’ work has traveled the world, appearing everywhere from museums to the pages of National Geographic. And now even the smallest of humans can learn through their eyes, with the photographer’s new book, The colors we share. Created for young readers aged six and up, the story challenges our concepts of race and the limited words we use to describe our skin.
The book serves as a kind of time capsule to Dass’ younger self.
“I don’t think I can create a time machine to go back to my childhood and give me this book when I was young,” Dass said, “But I think I can create a book that can trigger the conversation for young people.”
For Dass, sparking this conversation meant the book had to be more than words and pictures on a page. She knew that The colors we share must include a strong educational component, ready to work alongside educators in the classroom.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for teachers to tackle these complex issues,” Dass said. “I want to prepare the material to be easy for them, to facilitate the explanation of such a complex problem and, at the same time, to be something fun for children.”
To complete her vision, Dass turned to an old friend from the University of St. Thomas – Professor AnnMarie Thomas – a friend who knows a thing or two about playful learning.
Thomas is the founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab (PLL). The interdisciplinary research group specializes in creating hands-on experiences for students, with an emphasis on play. They have created videos and projects for a variety of clients, from Grammy-winning rock band OK Go to Metro Deaf School.
Thomas met Dass posing as a photo subject for the Humanæ project in 2016. After years of admiring each other from afar, they finally had an excuse to work together.
“I was so impressed with Angélica’s work,” Thomas said. “And now we suddenly had the perfect opportunity for us to do something together.”
With the Playful Learning Lab on board, it was time to assemble a team of students and faculty experts in a wide range of fields.
“A project like this involves so much collaboration and design skills,” Thomas said. “One of my favorite things about running the Playful Learning Lab is seeing our students work with and befriend students from different backgrounds and backgrounds than their own.”
Working closely with Dass and his editing team at Aperture, the students went to work last year, putting together several lessons to accompany The colors we share. Education majors and their advisors in the School of Education managed curriculum development, while emerging media majors in the College of Arts and Sciences worked on video content production.
Strategic communications major Maggie Stout ’22 directed the filming for the project. An adopted child and member of the BIPOC community, Stout understood the message and purpose of the project.
“I had always defined myself by color, but with Angelica’s program, I hope it teaches young children, that race doesn’t define you,” Stout said. “It’s all these other aspects, like your culture, your hobbies, your family — there’s so much more to people than the color of their skin.”
As Stout graduates from St. Thomas and begins working at a Twin Cities media agency, she hopes to continue using her skills for the greater good.
“Every project I’ve done, big or small, has been something that I believe creates real change in the world,” Stout said. “I want to have an impact, and with Angélica’s lab and videos, I was able to have that impact on people.”
For Professor Thomas, preparing students for successful careers in the real world is one of the greatest achievements of this level of collaboration.
“Working on a project that will be seen and hopefully used by educators around the world provides our team with skills and experiences that they can bring to their future work,” Thomas said.
For the photographer and author, Dass is proud of the program she created with the Playful Learning Lab, and she’s excited to let educators get their hands on it.
“We’re really giving them the tools to make that change that we’re asking for, to have that conversation that we’re generating,” Dass said. “It’s just one of the tools that can bring about that positive change.”
With every conversation that passes, Dass hopes we learn to celebrate just how colorful humans truly are.
“It’s just one step – it’s a very important step, but I will keep moving forward every day until I feel that I will never be dehumanized by who I am,” Dass said.
The colors we share by Angélica Dass is now available online. Educational materials produced by the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas are expected to be released by Aperture later this year.