The Identity Project

What if the most essential tool for survival is a profound sense of self-worth?

Photo of Alesandra Zsiba
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

The Identity Project’s heart beats in service. This work was born during a pivotal year in AmeriCorps, when I found myself serving in a high-poverty, Rhode Island middle school. Because my students were facing severe poverty-related barriers to learning, finding a way of cultivating engagement and investment in them was imperative. Over the course of our year together it became clear that they were hungry for an awakening of voice, a need to become empowered by their capacity for originality.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

Russian, Jewish.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • District of Columbia

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Washington D.C.

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • District of Columbia

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Washington D.C.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

America is facing a national crisis in education, and serious poverty-related barriers to learning are impeding children's identity development and readiness to learn. These barriers to learning are effecting underserved youth profoundly and viscerally. Disruptive classroom function paired with unstable school cultures ill-equipped to deal with issues stemming from poverty are derailing readiness to learn in our most high need young people.

The Identity Project is an innovative program that utilizes documentary arts to address poverty-related barriers to identity development in underserved youth. At the heart of this work lies the belief that in order to walk out into the world and create something of value, a young person must first value who it is they are. Through a specialized curriculum in documentary storytelling and performance, The Identity Project empowers marginalized young people with an invaluable opportunity for self-actualization, improving readiness to learn on the most fundamental level. 

Grounded in a pedagogical framework that is, at it’s core, an asset pedagogy, The Identity Project is built on two innovative pillars of inquiry, documentary storytelling and critically reflective identity work. Over the course of an implementation, The Identity Project guides students through three learning phases in documentary arts -- including poetry, photography and performance -- in order to explore and enrich students’ sense of voice, narrative, and identity, and ultimately deepen their feelings of self-worth and educational empowerment. The program culminates in three outputs: a student published book of poetry, an interdisciplinary performance piece, and a series of multi-media portrait projects. These unique program outputs showcase students’ newly acquired documentary storytelling skills and celebrate their mastery of critical of 21st century competencies, ranging from creative problem solving and collaborative investigation, to a growth mindset and social emotional learning. Students also develop core cognitive skills, that enable them to heal through the expression of personal narrative and begin the invaluable process of learning to value themselves. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

One early implementation of this program was in a severely underserved school within a Dominican American community. My 8th graders produced three final products that celebrated their bicultural, bilingual identities including a spoken word performance, a book of poetry, and a final exhibition of portrait projects. The school performance was so well received that we were invited to perform at City Hall. Many of these students had never performed before, let alone travelled across town. This was a huge hurdle for them and for their families who came to support them. It proved to be an essential opportunity for my students to celebrate where they came from, and experience a kind of pride that is rare and glistening with self-worth.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

To date, The Identity Project has implemented in 11 high-poverty schools, reaching over 350+ students. The impact of this work is best reveled by student self-reporting, and pre/post implementation evaluations by teachers and principals at site schools. The Identity Project is currently working to develop a metric for success based on social and emotional learning competencies and skill sets with Columbia University’s The Workplace Center. Beginning in 2013, The Identity Project was incubated by The Young Playwrights Theater in D.C. With YPT The Identity Project built key relationships with principals of Title 1, turnaround elementary schools. From 2013-2015, The Literacy Lab, an early learning literacy intervention program, enthusiastically hosted The Identity Project in three of its site schools. We are eager to expand our educational partnerships in 2016 to national school networks.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $50k - $100k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The Identity Project is at a critical threshold. At this time we are deciding between two avenues. The first, is to secure 501c3 status and apply for arts education and mental health grant funding from the national government, small family foundations, in addition to securing the interest and support of private funders. The second is to identify and approach similarly aligned organizations in need of programming and incubate or become absorbed.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Amidst the multitude of strong education reform models, few recognize that a student’s readiness to learn must change before meaningful academic success is possible. Even fewer stress social and emotional learning, and even fewer engage the arts as a catalyst for holistic, student-centered change. The Identity Project is unique in that it incorporates all three of these reform strategies. Equipping itself with a pedagogical framework tested in over ten high-poverty schools, our program employs documentary storytelling techniques bringing students back into the classroom motivated and engaged.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Within education reform, a new light is being shed on poverty-related barriers to learning. A 2010 TurnAround for Children paper illuminates this notion stating, “Children do not leave the problems of high-poverty communities at the school-yard gate. The effects of poverty serve as barriers to learning, as children living in poverty and exposed to trauma all too often come to school sad, distracted, disruptive and disengaged.” Understanding that social and emotional learning is an essential precursor to academic success has the potential to completely transform the way we educate.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email


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Photo of Fred Cardenas

Forgot to add that perhaps consider use of outcomes that go back to impacting academic success. This will increase potential funding from the business community and school funding.  Kids who feel good about themselves and actively participate in activities  that highlight those strengths will inevitably reflect improved school outcomes/success.

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