Meet Kayla Batalha ’22 from Chicopee, MA. Kayla believes in the power of art and stories— their ability to bring us together, to share new ideas and to challenge us to be better. It’s a belief that’s informed her life and her four years at Bryant University. “Challenging ourselves and each other to be our best selves is, I think, the cornerstone of a what a university should be,” she states. “Not just academically, but as people and as a community.”
A Literary and Cultural Studies major concentrating in Political Science, Kayla is drawn to the intersection of art, society and culture and how each informs and affects the others. “One of the reasons I came to Bryant is that I liked the curriculum’s focus on interdisciplinary work that allowed me to combine things that initially seem to be separate but are actually intertwined in unique and fascinating ways,” she says.
Her combination of studies has also helped her grow as a person. “Learning about culture and learning about politics has helped me to build a greater sense of empathy and understanding of the places people come from and the experiences that they’ve had. It’s helped me to be a better storyteller and a better ally,” Kayla says.
Breaking Bias, Building Belonging
Through her Honors Thesis project, Kayla has used those connections to create the interactive art exhibition “Breaking Bias, Building Belonging,” which will be on display in Bryant University’s Art Barn March 21-25. The exhibition encourages the University to reflect on diversity, equity and inclusion and the role they— as both individuals and as a members of a larger community—can play to support others and affect positive change.
By mixing the personal stories of members of the community with an examination of bias incidents and other societal issues of discrimination, Kayla aims to elevate the voices of underrepresented groups and prompt attendees to reexamine their own viewpoints. By engaging them through thoughtful, research-based art, she is striving to reach people in a new way.
“The exhibit isn’t focused on calling people out. It’s about inviting people into the discussion in a way that brings visibility to serious issues.”
“I hope when people walk out of the exhibit, they consider their assumptions and experiences as members of the Bryant community through a different lens, one of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Kayla says. “My ultimate hope is to provide them with some basic tools to start, or continue, their journeys as allies.”
“The exhibit isn’t focused on calling people out,” she notes. “It’s about inviting people into the discussion in a way that brings visibility to serious issues.”
The exhibition is the culmination of more than two years of work, which included an intensive literature review and interviews with a wide range of Bryant community members. Kayla then translated that information into an installation that inspires reflection and dialogue.
“My project has been about taking research methods and using them to fuel art,” she says. “It can be really difficult to relate to raw data but using that data to tell a story that shares someone's personal experience is so much more impactful and so much more meaningful.”
“I found a place that fits my skillset and my values. The people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made have been incredible.”
In many ways, Kayla says, her thesis is more than the endcap of her studies. It’s an encapsulation of who she is as a person. “Being able to work on a long-term project like this allows students to make their voices heard and to study and share the things that are important to them.”
Professor of Anthropology Alex Perullo, Ph.D. has been her thesis advisor throughout the process. “He’s helped me to visualize things that I can do that I didn’t even imagine were possible,” says Kayla. “He never has dissuaded me from a big idea, just helped me to understand the logistics involved in making it happen. And he’s always encouraged me to keep following my passion.”
That level of support, Kayla says, is one of the things that makes Bryant’s Literary and Cultural Studies program so special. “I found a place that fits my skillset and my values,” she states. “The people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made have been incredible.”
Her LCS coursework has also made her a better storyteller. “It’s allowed me to see the range of ways and mediums in which stories can be told and given me a larger toolkit to tell those stories,” Kayla says. “Having that greater range of possibilities has allowed me to be a lot more bold in my choices.”
She hopes that others use her exhibition as inspiration to create their own inventive and meaningful projects. “Part of my goal is to let future students know that they can do something like this as well,” she says. “You can do something meaningful in a nontraditional way if that’s what you’re passionate about.”