Tehya Jenae Faulk wants to collect stories—a lot of them—from what she says are “people on the edge of society.”
To do this Faulk created Orphan We, an online platform that collects and shares stories from those who have experienced marginalization, including people of color, queer people, and immigrants. Faulk is particularly focused on engaging Generation Z and young millennials who are at the intersection of two or more oppressed identities.
Faulk wants to help people tell their authentic, honest stories and preserve those stories so that future generations can learn from them. “These stories are a way to give people an entry into exploring something that’s different in a way that’s also safe,” Faulk says. “I think that will help people to get outside of their own heads and their own experiences and learn more about someone else.”
As a student at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md. and the Baltimore School for the Arts, Faulk found her lessons on Black and queer history to be lacking or skipped entirely. The primary source documents were whitewashed and limited in perspective, says Faulk. She wanted to see more diverse stories.
As a student at UCLA, Faulk worked on the newspaper The Daily Bruin, which planted the seeds for how she would eventually begin to address this issue. She struggled to relate to the stories the paper was publishing and knew other non-white readers felt the same way. Faulk decided to interview the people she was most interested in hearing from—people who were gay and Black, Punjabi and queer, Asian and female—people whose stories were not being told in the paper. Faulk learned how to talk to people in a way that drew out their authentic stories and found her own voice in the process. Readers responded strongly to her stories and they were selected for the front page and for prestigious awards.
Faulk sees that many people live in a bubble, talking only to others who look like them and not exploring outside the familiar. She believes these bubbles are created out of fear. “Fear is understandable,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s a reason not to explore.” Faulk hopes that Orphan We will help people move past fear by providing a safe online space where people can learn about people who are not like them without going anywhere.
The project’s name reflects the idea of a shift from isolation to connection. In 2019, Faulk moved to Ghana. “I felt like I was fleeing, almost,” she says. She began referring to herself as “Orphan Tee,” the Tee standing for her first name, Tehya. As Faulk began this story collection project, she realized that she wanted to use that name but expand it to include others who felt similarly. From that, Orphan We was born.
With the OSI Community Fellowship, Faulk seeks to build out the Orphan We platform. The platform will have community feedback tools, such as a virtual suggestion box and a forum and member portfolios, where storytellers can share video story diaries. Faulk, the daughter of 2016 OSI Community Fellow J.C. Faulk, also plans to hire more staff and develop more local partnerships to connect with more storytellers (she already partners with Bmore Community Food). In five years, she plans to work on Orphan We full time and establish an international presence.
“I feel like what I spend a lot of time doing is trying to get obstacles out of the way so I can focus on creating,” Faulk says. “That’s what the Fellowship allows me to do—take a breath and keep building this thing.”