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An electric company treasure hunt

May 24, 2022

3 ASU students curate 'extraordinary' SRP art collection

The offices were frozen in time.

A calendar from March 2020 highlighted St. Patrick’s Day. Balloons lay deflated in a cubicle. Half-filled water bottles and coffee cups remained on desks.

As James Burns, executive director of the Western Spirit Museum in Scottsdale, and three Arizona State University students – Jenna Bassett, Alex Fierro and Gabriel Santiago – began their treasure hunt this February at Salt River Project’s Papago Buttes Facility, they were stunned by the silence and barrenness.  

“It was like a ghost town, just completely empty,” Bassett said of the SRP Information Services Building. “It was strange to see all these empty cubicles, just like an ocean of empty cubicles in a building like that, where there’s a lot of life.”

The treasure was there, though. They just had to find it.

They opened every door and looked in every room. They were often alone, except for the occasional custodian making sure the building stayed clean, ready for its inhabitants to return, and the security guard who opened locked doors.

“It was a little creepy going into this six-story building that had not been occupied since March of 2020,” Burns said.

“I remember Gabriel pointing out that it’s almost like we were witnessing history itself, in its rawest form,” Fierro added.

The search took six days. A “scavenger hunt,” Fierro called it. Eventually, they found what they were looking for: SRP’s art collection, 115 pieces in all, including sculptures, paintings and photos, many of them from Indigenous, Latino and female artists.

“Who would have thought,” Bassett said, “an electric company would have been so forward-thinking when it came to art?”

Origins of the collection

Why does SRP have an art collection?

Ileen Snoddy, a senior representative in the SRP Research Archives and Heritage Department, said the collection was purchased in 1990 to inspire a dialogue among employees. SRP also planned to have public viewings of the art, but as security measures increased in the Information Services Building – where SRP’s computers are stored — the company realized that wasn’t possible.

SRP inventoried its collection in 2003. And that’s where this story might have ended if Snoddy didn’t run into Burns at an event late last year. SRP had decided it wanted to share its art collection with the community, curating exhibits and loaning them to local museums.

“The vision was that corporate art should not just hang in your corporation,” Snoddy said.

There was just one problem. Almost 19 years had passed since the inventory had been completed. SRP needed new condition reports on the art to find out if pieces could travel, how they needed to be packaged, what type of light was needed to display them, etc.

Burns immediately had an idea.

“What would be really great,” he told Snoddy, “is to give some students are who in different museum studies and education programs at ASU an opportunity to be able to come in and learn hands-on what it’s like to curate something.”

Partnering with ASU

Burns is a graduate of the ASU Public History Program and has taught an undergraduate capstone course titled History in the Wild: Inclusion in Museums and Public History.

When SRP agreed to the student internship idea, Burns got the word out at ASU, interviews were conducted and Bassett, a PhD student in history, Fierro, finishing up his master’s degree in history, and Santiago, who will be a senior this fall majoring in secondary education, were chosen.

Three students posing for photo in SRP Heritage Center

Alex Fierro, Gabriel Santiago and Jenna Bassett are working with SRP on organizing its art collection.

Each student brought a varied set of skills to the project, which made them, as Snoddy said, “a dream team.”

“Jenna is a strong writer and researcher,” Burns said. “Her insights and attention to detail were very helpful in maintaining precise, accurate records. Her concern for objects, the people associated with those objects and the historical record is palpable.

“(Alex) has strong reasoning and logistical skills, but also creativity and imagination – a combination not found in many people.

“Gabriel has well-honed critical thinking skills and a great imagination. He also impressed me with his passion for learning, his love of history education, and his ability to interface well with literally anyone.”

Their job was to locate and inventory the collection and conduct primary research on all the pieces.

“I think for all of us, we can all agree that studying history teaches you a certain set of skills of how to think critically, how to examine documents and translate that into solving issues,” Santiago said. “I think you could put a history person in charge of anything investigatively, and we’ll figure it out. So, I think it was a perfect match.”

Burns and the students began their quest by examining SRP’s 2003 inventory. Then the search began.

“The inventory report kind of told us which areas of the building we should expect the artwork to be in,” Fierro said. “Over time, the artwork kind of got moved around a little bit because some people would like a certain piece of art and they wanted it in front of their office, or maybe it fit better in a certain spot.

“So it was a little bit of a scavenger hunt as we went through. That’s what made it so fun.”

Highlighting diverse artists

SRP’s collection featured 80 artists, many of them from the Southwest, California and Mexico. Among them: Roberto Marquez, a Mexican-born painter whose works have been exhibited in numerous museums; Mark Klett, a photographer who is a Regents Professor in ASU’s School of Art and has his work in more than 80 museums worldwide; Emmi Whitehorse, a painter and member of the Navajo Nation; and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, a Native American artist known for her abstract paintings and prints.

“What’s extraordinary is how far ahead of the curve SRP was in terms of collecting art created by women and artists of color,” Burns said.

The students have moved on to the second phase of the project, which includes downloading the information they gathered into SRP’s software systems, photographing each piece of work, cataloging work in other SRP buildings and recommending any re-framing that needs to be done.

Today, SRP is no longer a ghost town. Calendars have been turned. Coffee cups have been cleaned. Bassett, Fierro and Santiago, after some initial questioning, are now a welcomed part of the daily routine.

“People actually stopped and asked us who we were,” Bassett said.

Just call them SRP’s treasure hunters.

Top image: "Sleep Bouquet" by Patricia Gonzalez. Courtesy SRP

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

Study: Black girls commonly have negative experiences related to their natural hair

Teasing, unwanted hair touching reported among young Black girls

May 24, 2022

Teasing and unwanted hair touching are just some of the negative experiences Black girls go through because of their hair, according to a new study.

Research from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology shows how prevalent it is for young Black girls to have negative experiences related to their hair. The study, which is the first to examine hair satisfaction in young Black girls, was published in the journal Body Image. woman brushing the natural hair of her child A study published in the journal Body Image has shown that when young Black girls wear their hair natural, they can experience verbal teasing and even unwanted physical touching of their hair. Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels Download Full Image

“Negative experiences related to hair are normative for young Black girls. Even girls as young as 10 years old reported negative experiences because of their hair,” said Marisol Perez, associate professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper. “These experiences are a form of stereotyping that can occur among youth related to hair, however, there is very little existing literature documenting the hair-related experiences of Black youth. We are trying to make sure their voices are heard.”

This study was motivated by recent examples of Black youth being suspended from school, threatened with punishment or not permitted to participate in extracurricular activities because of their hair. 

These situations and other examples of regulating people, including adults, based on the appearance of their hair has inspired advocacy from nongovernmental organizations and corporations alike to expand protection against discrimination in schools and the workplace to include hair differences.

Arizona cities are starting to take note, with Tempe recently joining Tucson in banning hair discrimination.

“Hair is such an integral part of who we are: it serves as an extension of our identities and how we present ourselves to the world. Being told that how you express yourself is wrong or having to fit that expression into limited standards of what is deemed appropriate can come with shame and can lead to internal conflicts such as depression or low self-esteem,” said Layla Ismael, an undergraduate student at ASU and a co-author on the paper. 

'Good hair'

The research team worked with community organizations to recruit participants. In total, the study included 105 girls aged 10–15 years old who identified as Black or African American. The girls answered a series of open-ended questions about satisfaction with their natural hair, social comparisons of hair, bullying or teasing because of their hair and pressure to wear their hair a certain way. 

When the girls were asked to define "good hair," the most common answers included descriptions like “long," "flowy," "wavy," "soft" and "straight.” "Bad hair" was described as “short," "nappy" and "hard to comb through.”

The most common response to the question about where the criteria for good or bad hair comes from was how the media portrays Black models and celebrities with hair that has been chemically altered to be straight or wavy. The second most common response was receiving negative feedback about natural Black hair at school.

“Employees in school settings play an important role in how Black girls perceive their hair. The girls were impacted both by negative comments and by the absence of positive statements. For example, if a girl chemically straightens her hair, she might get positive comments, but nothing is said when she wears her hair naturally,” Perez said. “The absence of positive statements contributed to the negative reinforcing messages.”

Verbal teasing, unwanted hair touching  

Between 14–54% of the girls reported verbal teasing or bullying because of their hair, starting in preschool or kindergarten. 

The prevalence of verbal teasing or bullying was dwarfed by touching girls’ hair without permission. Touching of hair without permission was reported by 78% of 10-year-olds, 50% of 11-year-olds, 81% of 12-year-olds, 65% of 13-year-olds and 70% of 14-year-olds. 

“Having an understanding of what Black kids go through is important, even for something that might seem trivial like hair,” said Mel Holman, an ASU graduate student and a co-author on the paper. “This study shows different types of discrimination and microaggressions that young kids might go through that are not recognized by others because people think it’s just hair.”

Time to do better

The research team also asked the girls what they do when they have a negative experience because of their hair. The answers included thinking positive thoughts, such as how they love themselves and their natural hair, and relying on their family for support.

“Parents can teach their children to love themselves for who they are and encourage them to wear their hair out naturally or in braids,” Holman said. “Parents can tell their kids it is not OK when other people want to touch your hair without your permission, it is not OK when people say things about your hair that makes you uncomfortable. Parents can tell their kids it is OK to say, ‘It makes me uncomfortable.’”

Perez added that parents can also role model wearing natural hair and complimenting it. Parents reinforcing natural hair in themselves and in their kids is a powerful message for youth that can increase their body confidence.

Though the girls demonstrated resilience with their answers about thinking positive thoughts after negative hair-related experiences, Perez said that is not enough.

“These girls should not have to be resilient. We all need to do a better job celebrating natural hair – in the media, in school settings and in the beauty industry, which financially benefits from girls and women thinking they need to alter their hair.” 

Connected by ENERGIZE

Holman and Ismael found their way to Perez and the Body Image Research and Health Disparities lab through the ENERGIZE program, which connects students from underrepresented populations with yearlong research opportunities.

“This entire experience has heightened my interest in research, and getting the chance to study groups that are often neglected by research was eye-opening,” said Ismael, who is in her junior year at ASU.

Now a graduate student in counseling psychology, Holman started working on this project as a senior at ASU. 

“I am interested in pursuing research in psychology because I have noticed that a lot of existing research and principles are based on white, cisgender college-educated men. The world consists of more than that, and we need to do more research on different types of people,” said Holman, who is currently working on their master’s thesis with ASU faculty members Em Matsuno and Cristalis Capielo Rosario.

This study was funded by the Dove Self Esteem Project. In addition to Perez, Ismael and Holman, the research team consisted of Taryn Henning and Kimberly Yu of ASU; Lesley Williams of Mayo Clinic Arizona; and Stacie June of Unilever Corporation.

Science writer, Psychology Department