When award-winning photographer Angelica Dass decided to write her first children’s book, she knew it needed to be much more than a book. It needed to teach important lessons. And above all, it needed to be playful.
For years Dass has educated the world through her critically acclaimed Humanae 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 subject's color tone to the Pantone color scheme.
“I started thinking about this work when I was six years old,” Dass said. “It’s exactly that moment that I was questioning the pink crayon that I was using, that I was thinking about 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 her eyes, with the photographer’s new book, The Colors We Share. Created for young readers six and up, the story questions our concepts of race and the limited words we use to describe our skin.
“The main goal of this book, and even about my work, is trying to create a middle ground that we are able to see ourselves in the other person,” Dass said. “Being able to find that we are all made from the same material, even if each one of us is unique and different.”
The book serves as a sort of time capsule to Dass’ younger self.
“I don’t think that I can create a time machine to go back to my childhood and give this book to myself when I was young,” Dass said, “But I do think that I can create a book that can spark the conversation for young people.”
For Dass, sparking that conversation meant the book needed to be more than words and pictures on a page. She knew that The Colors We Share must include a strong educational component, poised 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 so that it is easy for them, make it easy to explain such a complex issue, and at the same time, be something playful for the kids.”
To complete her vision, Dass turned to an old friend at 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 a focus on play. They’ve created videos and projects for a variety of clients, from the Grammy-winning rock band OK Go to the Metro Deaf School.
Thomas met Dass while posing as a photo subject for the Humanae project in 2016. After years of admiring each other’s work from afar, they finally had an excuse to work together.
“I was just so utterly impressed by 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 crew of students and faculty experts from a wide range of fields.
“A project like this involves so many collaboration and design skills,” Thomas said. “One of my favorite things about directing the Playful Learning Lab is seeing our students work with, and befriend, students from majors and backgrounds that differ from their own.”
Working closely with Dass and her publishing team at Aperture, students went to work last year, pulling together multiple lessons to accompany The Colors We Share. Education majors and their advisors at the School of Education handled curriculum development, while emerging media majors from the College of Arts and Sciences worked on producing video content.
Strategic communication major Maggie Stout ’22 directed filming for the project. An adopted child and member of the BIPOC community, Stout connected with the project’s message and purpose.
“I had always defined myself by color, but with Angélica’s curriculum, I hope that it teaches young kids, that it’s not race that defines you,” Stout said. “It’s all these other aspects, like your culture, your hobbies, your family – there’s just so much more to people than the color of their skin.”
As Stout graduates from St. Thomas and begins work at a Twin Cities media agency, she hopes to continue using her skills for the common good.
“Every project that I've done, big and small, it's been something that I feel creates actual change in the world,” Stout said. “I want to make an impact, and with the lab and Angélica’s videos, I've been able to have that impact on people.”
For Professor Thomas, preparing students for successful careers in the real world is one of the biggest accomplishments of this level of collaboration.
“Working on a project that will be seen, and hopefully used, by educators around the world allows our team to gain skills and experiences that they can bring to their future work,” Thomas said.
For the photographer and author, Dass is proud of the curriculum she’s 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 this change that we are asking, to have this conversation that we’re generating,” Dass said. “It’s just one of the tools that can provoke this positive change.”
With each passing conversation Dass hopes we learn to celebrate how uniquely colorful humans really are.
“This is just one step – it’s a very important one, but one that I will continue moving forward every day until I feel that I will never be dehumanized by who I am,” Dass said.