He returned to his seat at the Maxwell Student Union to discover his three friends had been talking about him.
In his absence, they’d learned something interesting. Each one befriended him the same way: At some point, early freshman year, they’d each been eating alone when the joyful stranger approached and invited them to sit with him.
That pretty much sums up Tavaris Johnson. It’s as if he wants to put his arms around every student on campus.
Now, the sociology major is stretching his arms even wider – to give all of Milledgeville a hug.
Johnson has created a Facebook page with more than 300 followers, called “Humans of Milledgeville,” that introduces students to people they pass by every day. He got the idea from a former student’s webpage, “Humans of Georgia College.” Both are modeled after the popular Facebook page by Brandon Stanton, “Humans of New York,” which catalogues the inhabitants of New York City.
For his senior capstone project, Johnson went a step further: logging the experiences of local educators. He videotaped and interviewed teachers this summer about changes they’ve witnessed in Baldwin County. Both endeavors – “Humans of Milledgeville” and “A Life in Education” – will be digitally preserved in Georgia College’s Special Collections at Ina Dillard Russell Library.
“I just like being around people. I’m extroverted. I thought, I can be the liaison between the community and campus,” Johnson said. “College students spend time downtown and on campus, and that’s it. We live here for at least four years, and we don’t know anything about the 30,000 people who live around us.”
“We live in this little bubble, and we make it seem it’s their responsibility to cater to us and to be aware of our presence when we’re downtown or in public spaces,” he said. “But we’re just here temporarily. These people reside here and have their own stories, and we don’t take the time to learn anything about them.”
Johnson became curious of his surroundings, after changing his major freshman year from economics to sociology. It was the perfect major for someone interested in so many things: consumption and distribution of goods, psychology, education and, mostly, people. Often, his sociology professors would urge students to see past their own environment.
So, Johnson thought about where he lived. Across from those apartments were more apartments for college students – with a public housing project sandwiched in-between.
“Some students are living right there and don’t think about the fact these people are between us and some other college students,” Johnson said. “And we just look right over them. They live right there next to us, and we don’t realize their existence.”
Johnson wanted to burst the bubble that kept him and fellow students from seeing citizens as real. He figured out how to do that last fall at a library “Times Talk.” Two archivists spoke about recording university and community events. They asked students for help, saying they especially needed images and written documents on the lives of minority communities in Milledgeville. Johnson approached archivist Holly Croft with his “Humans of Milledgeville” idea, and she loved it.
So, the budding sociologist made it his business to learn more about the people living around him. Now he posts stories of every-day residents in Milledgeville – like those of a street preacher, local barber and community gardener. They will be turned into pdfs and digitally saved at the library.
“Tavaris’ project finds people where they are and tells their stories succinctly in a sentence or two,” Croft said. “He photographs and talks to everyone, which is helpful for filling in notable gaps in our collections among under-represented groups.”
Sociology professor Dr. Stephanie McClure said it’s a “gift” to have Tavaris as a student. She worked with him on several projects and describes him as “incredibly patient, thoughtful and generous in his friendship and his intellectual work.”
“He’s interested in everything,” she said. “As is clear from the projects he has pursued, Tavaris is very interested in not just the social systems but the stories of the people impacted by those systems. He genuinely listens and seeks to understand all people’s experiences.”
A recent “Humans of Milledgeville” post recants Johnson’s encounter with a young boy, living a difficult life. He’d never seen a nearby river. He’d never sat in a hammock. He’d never played frisbee. At first, Johnson thought, “How can that be?” Then, he realized he shouldn’t be asking himself why this little boy didn’t have the same life experiences.
“That was the day I realized that I should have been asking myself why didn’t I know children like him were living in such close proximity to students like me,” Johnson wrote.
He began asking himself more questions. This curiosity led to Johnson doing his senior capstone project on local educators. Like “Humans of Milledgeville,” these interviews will be preserved at the library as part of the university’s “The Legacy Project.” It’s a collection of oral histories, documenting the lives of people at Georgia College and in Milledgeville.
Johnson talked to Dr. Bob Wilson, the university historian. He also gleaned ideas from a Facebook page called “Milledgeville Memories.” He chose older teachers to get a good perspective on education throughout the town’s history. He interviewed four women: three white and one African-American. Using a method of research called “Life Course” that relies on one-time interviews, not longitudinal studies, Johnson quizzed educators for about an hour each. He asked about their experiences growing up and teaching in Baldwin County.
He expected to find out more about desegregation but was surprised to find his educators hadn’t witnessed much racial tension. One retired phys-ed teacher talked about losing school prayer and how student behaviors changed over the years. Others talked about losing creative freedom once standardized tests became the norm.
Johnson hopes to wrap-up his capstone with a male educator in his 90s and another woman, who was among the first African-Americans at Georgia College. He also wants to get “Humans of Milledgeville” T-shirts made and recruit students to continue the Facebook page.
True to his tendency to think big at college – Johnson has great inspirations for the future. He’d like to work at PEW Research Center in Washington D.C. and someday become U.S. Secretary of Education. Johnson laughed, because he never thought he’d go to college in a small Middle Georgian town. But that’s exactly where he ended up. The boy from Grantville, Georgia, soon graduates a man who dared to think for himself and break the pattern of everyday college life.
By documenting the lives of the people in this ordinary small town, he’s given them an everlasting voice.
“I tell them these will go into the digital archives, and they’ll be there forever,” Johnson said. “I’m excited, because these people probably think they lived unremarkable lives, but they’re interesting to me and they’re going to be interesting to somebody else.”
You can see Tavaris’ “Humans of Milledgeville” page here: https://www.facebook.com/HumansofMilledgeville/.