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U-M students scale up the fight against lack of media representation

By Fernanda Pires

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

The University of Michigan student duo wrote the first pages of their print zine—a mini, self-published magazine—aiming for the middle of a target: to enhance the shift toward the representation of underserved demographics in the media.

Students Rachel Kennelly of the College of Engineering and Isaac Coenca of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, created Ur Internet Friends, a cross-media platform that seeks to highlight the art and voices of young and marginalized creatives and underrepresented artists.

The network, which started as a 40-mini-page zine, now has a website, podcast and social media channels to spotlight these young artists and prioritize their voices.

Isaac Coenca

“People are really trying to diversify their media consumption and to be intentional about what they consume, aware of the diverse creators,” said Coenca, who is majoring in international studies. “The heart behind our products is internet friendships and relationships that are created and maintained outside of physical space. Through this time of distance and upheaval, we’ve been able to create something that is grounding, unifying and hopeful.”

Coenca is a Black, nonbinary artist who is interested in social innovation, art, gender identity and entrepreneurship. Kennelly, who defines herself as “a very strong, gay Jewish woman,” is a computer science student, with a love of art and design. Both, they say, are part of and passionate about representation media.

Rachel Kennelly

“This passion has kept us united and going and it is our north star,” Kennelly said. “Our platform is about the importance of representation in the media. Minorities often really fall victim to appearing in disparaging roles or just not even appearing at all. We felt larger media companies and magazines haven’t been meeting our needs, or telling our stories.”

Last May, the Ur Friends founders were selected as one of the 37 teams that received funding from optiMize, after participating in their last Social Innovation Challenge. They received about $11,000 from the U-M student-led organization that offers mentorship and funding for students to create projects that make a positive impact.

“Part of our mission was to inspire artists to ask, ‘Why not me?’ in the same way optiMize asked us,” said Coenca, who is now a peer mentor for the organization. “Don’t limit yourself, your project or your vision of what it can be. Go into the challenge wholeheartedly and give it your best.”

Through this school year, Coenca and Kennelly have used the funding mostly to pay for the printing of their three zine editions, the web platform, work of some of the artists, launch of a t-shirt line and for their relatively new podcast, which now consists of 13 episodes about 30 minutes long.

“The podcast is becoming really important and a great way for us to directly talk to these artists that we’re trying to highlight and give them a direct platform to share their voice and to talk about the art that they’re creating,” said Coenca, who hosts the talks.

New episodes and a fourth zine edition are in the works and should be released during the winter and spring terms.

“I would love to continue building our community,” Kennelly said. “I have such a passion for art and design, as well as computers and technology, so I would really love to work at the intersection between usability and aesthetic. We believe we have a lot of people’s stories to help tell and share. Still lots of work to do.”

UR Internet Friend Podcast