Rowland Hall Senior Recognized with Excellence in Education Award for Work with Navajo Nation
Oliver Jin '18 can't pass up a good filming opportunity. His sophomore year at Rowland Hall, he signed up for the Highway Hiking 12 Interim trip, but a week before their scheduled departure, his good friend Knox Heslop '17 approached him with a request: come help film their cultural exchange on the Navajo reservation.
The Navajo Project is currently a yearlong civic engagement program for Rowland Hall juniors—often regarded as the advanced version of Project 11—focused on building relationships with members of the Navajo Nation, which culminates in a weeklong trip each May to work with students at Montezuma Creek Elementary School, Bluff Elementary School, and White Horse High School. When Oliver accepted Knox's invitation in the spring of 2016, the project was still evolving, and Oliver didn't know what to expect. As an international student from China who moved to the United States to attend Rowland Hall beginning in ninth grade, he simply wasn't familiar with Native American history and traditions, nor the typical stereotypes about their population. Looking back, he believes that lack of awareness benefited him.
"If I were to tell you every single statistic about the Native American population that is bad, you might want to do something about it, but you're terrified," He understands how paralyzing it can be to acknowledge the suffering of the Native American population—especially given how the United States is mostly at fault. Because Oliver didn't have those preconceptions or fears, he found his first-year trip to the reservation eye opening rather than paralyzing. He focused on working with Knox, setting up their cameras and listening to people's stories, eventually producing a documentary called The Common Ground.
"I think the documentary became a central focus because of what documentary filmmaking, at least for me, does to power relationships," Oliver said. Instead of showing up in a new community to help with a project, which suggests inferiority in the recipients, the documentary allowed Oliver to provide a platform to share others' stories. It made him feel like he and the Rowland Hall community could empower people by embracing their stories, Oliver said. And the sharing and cherishing of personal narratives matters deeply to him—he believes it's the way to form the human connections that eventually lead to positive change on substantive issues.
The first year was so powerful that Oliver committed to the program for his junior year, even though he technically completed his Project 11 requirement as a sophomore. Motivated to build stronger connections and help promote the longevity of the program, he produced a second documentary: A Film About Why There Isn't a Film. Oliver described the second film as a reflection on the difficulty of storytelling and service and said the title gestures toward the nuance and complexity of the project. Oliver hopes the two films can serve as a better starting point for future Rowland Hall students who might want to participate in community-building work.
"I can only hope that, as I graduate, ninth graders and tenth graders and eighth graders can see the work that we've done—through my lens—and having that awareness, want to go there," he said. As a senior, he spent many hours collaborating with the juniors who participated in this year's trip to the Navajo Nation, and he plans to maintain his connections with the people at the Navajo reservation for years to come. Additionally, he still has "hundreds, if not thousands" of stories in his notebook or on his computer's hard drive. He just hasn't found the right occasion or composition yet to share them. Currently at work on a portraiture project similarly focused on finding the human element at the center of every situation, he said, "I'm pretty far away from ever calling it done."
Oliver's success in building relationships with members of the Navajo Nation was the primary reason Rowland Hall faculty members Ryan Hoglund and Sofia Gorder nominated him for the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs' Excellence in Education Award earlier this year. The award recognizes high school students and educators who facilitate change, embrace intercultural awareness, and advance civic engagement in their communities.
In their nomination letter, Ms. Gorder and Mr. Hoglund also lauded Oliver's work with Rowland Hall's Inclusion and Equity Committee, his contributions to the school's arts department, and his graceful transition to our community as an international student. "Such a rich and evolving cultural identity role modeled openly by Oliver liberates other students to explore conflicting identities and engage with many parts of themselves," they wrote.
When Oliver won the award in March—presented as part of Utah Multicultural Youth Leadership Day—he was unsurprisingly humble about the recognition. Instead, he took great pleasure in the mere existence of the award and the people who coordinate it. "Institutionalizing these celebrations is really valuable in that it shows you a fundamental level of respect for this type of work," he said. "I don't have to win the award to feel empowered."
Oliver wasn't always engaged with initiatives for equity and inclusion. In fact, he credited a conversation with his sister, Jin, an alumna from the class of 2015, with spurring him to action. After she asked him why he didn't participate in a social media trend celebrating the passage of gay marriage legislation in Utah—she is a gay woman—Oliver recognized that his answer wasn't satisfactory. "I told her, 'You know I love you and support you, but I just didn't feel like it,'" he recalled. "I came to realize it's not enough to ideologically align with a tradition or liberal ideal of inclusivity and equality. I really need to do things instead of staying silent, quietly knowing I am a good person."
Over the past three years, Oliver emerged as a leader on the Lincoln Street Campus, frequently advocating for marginalized or underprivileged members of the school community. He recently initiated a dialogue with Upper School leaders about making sure the flag hallway represents the home nations of all students. He also adamantly supported the creation of an all-gender bathroom and regards it as a critical space, even though he identifies as a gender-conforming male. "Having that space to be used by everyone makes those who actually need it more comfortable to use it," he said. "Going to it shouldn't be sending out any message other than that's a convenient bathroom to use when in certain classrooms."
Oliver will continue to seek out stories to share among people he'll encounter at Sarah Lawrence College next year, where he plans to major in film with a continued focus in philosophy, ethics, and sociology. Regardless of which degree path he chooses, film will remain an essential part of his life and work. At a time when the film industry is embracing stories of inclusion and making blockbuster movies about them—Oliver cited the recent success of Call Me By Your Name and Black Panther—he is optimistic about what he and others can accomplish.
"It's a beautiful thing in our society, where these concepts are becoming accepted, and there's financial incentive to make these films," Oliver said. "And then that reinforces society to be more embracing of these concepts. There's a circle of positive feedback in mainstream culture."