Matt Adams: the art of connection

Senior Matt Adams has the gift of “woo.”

That’s according to his “Strengths Finder” personality profile — but his conversational charisma, combined with a distinct chuckle, do seem to naturally win others over. “It’s that laugh!” Eva Ortiz, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), told me. His friends say that if there’s one word to describe Adams, it’s “personable.”

Yet unlike the Matt Adams that Ortiz described — who you might find chatting with people around the OMD or performing with the Gospel Ensemble — Adams used to be an introvert with few friends until middle school. “I was a brat,” he recounted bluntly. “People didn’t like me. And I was shy.”

During seventh grade, that began to change: Adams enlisted in theater and started forming more friendships. Yet it was joining policy debate as a high school freshman that cultivated his confidence in conversation. Policy debate is like “a card game with words,” he explained. Learning to analyze and quickly respond to arguments strengthened his courage as a communicator.

Recognized as the fastest-speaking form of debate, policy debate requires participants to race through 12 pages of information in eight minutes, rattling off research as the judges’ pens sprint to keep pace. The first time Adams attended a policy debate, the oral overload gave him a headache. He apparently grew accustomed to it. “You may have noticed, but I talk pretty fast,” he acknowledged.

Pursuing policy debate sent Adams off to a four-week institute hosted at Northwestern University near Chicago, his first time away from home. There, he encountered people from Texas, California, New York and all over: a colorful cross-section of the country. Exploring Chicago with the other students during designated days of “mandatory fun” gave Adams “the skills I needed to have fun, to talk to people,” he explained. “I got a love for communicating with people.”

Although he wouldn’t land on pursuing a degree in Communications until years later — after switching his major four times — Adams carried this passion for people to Wheaton. “He has a sincere interest in getting to know people,” Ortiz told me, “really taking time to sit down and talk.”

Home and Heritage

An only child, Adams was raised in his mother’s Jamaican household in Ft. Lauderdale; his father, who is African-American, left the family while Adams was still young. He proudly describes his mom as a “#Boss”— she raised him while working three jobs and was recently named the number eight RE/MAX real estate agent in Florida. When she remarried in 2005, Adams’ stepfather — who he calls ‘Dad’ — became an important source of stability for Adams.

Adams grew up in a tight-knit family — his grandparents lived only five minutes away and his “little cousins” were practically his siblings. Sunday afternoons held fond memories of “after church dinners, everyone being together laughing, taking off their shoes … Grandpa sitting on the couch, Grandma cooking.”

Yet his childhood brings back unpleasant memories, too: of racist remarks and insults from his peers. Adams remembered being called an ‘oreo’ because he “talked white,” enjoyed classical music and other activities that were not “deemed black.”

Because of his Jamaican roots, Adams experienced blackness in the U.S. as a sort of “outsider.” Since Jamaica’s population is primarily black, black people there did not endure the same kinds of oppression — like segregation, Jim Crow laws and racism — that continue to affect black people in the United States. “First and foremost, I am black American, but I have a unique middle ground because of my Jamaican heritage,” he explained.

Attending a predominately black school the first two years of high school, Adams naturally acquired a better understanding of the African-American experience. During the next two years, after transferring to a private Christian school, he traveled on several international mission trips, including visits to Uganda, Mexico and Amsterdam. Today, he credits these high school experiences with developing his ability to communicate with friends of many cultural backgrounds.

Though Wheaton’s demographics culturally resemble that of his Ft. Lauderdale home, it’s far more homogenous. In South Florida, people are accustomed to Caribbean and South American culture. “In the Midwest, a lot of times people are surrounded by their like,” he said. Arriving at college, he felt the racial stereotypes “pushed on me again” when friends would try to consult him on rap music or certain black celebrities. “That’s just not what I’m into.”

At Passage, Wheaton’s freshman transition program, one student asked “Do you even know how to swim?”

Yet as time unfolded, Adams found friends who came from diverse backgrounds themselves, who understood him and what it felt like to be burdened by racial stereotypes. Though acclimating to Wheaton’s culture was challenging at times, “I feel like I did ,” Adams said. “And I’ve been able to make some great connections with people of all races here and all cultures.”

People and Photography

Capturing the true essence of people — and dismantling racial stereotypes — is at the heart of one of Adams’ newer creative pursuits: photography.

As you walk the halls of Lower Beamer, you’ll spot his latest project, “Defining Me” stretched across the wall, a collaboration with junior Caleb Mayer in honor of Black History Month. Featuring ten portraits of black students and staff against colorful backgrounds, the gallery serves as a visual antithesis to racial stereotyping, giving each person a chance to display six words they use to describe themselves. Meanwhile, six negative words or assumptions others have used to define them have been crossed out.

The original photo behind the project arose out of Adams’ interest in fashion. His eyes are always searching out style — perhaps not surprising, given the sleek tortoise eyeglasses that frame them. Two weeks ago, a friend’s bright orange headscarf and yellow sweater instantly caught his gaze, inspiring an impromptu photoshoot. Looking through the images later with Mayer, the two hatched the concept for “Defining Me,” designing the project to combat racial stereotypes through self-representation.

Another series featured senior Donny Lee, tugging at a black turtleneck, dramatically illuminated against a cinderblock wall. The images focused on Lee’s sense of style, the medium through which he seeks to dismantle popular media’s portrayal of Asian men as awkward or undesirable. After a conversation with Lee, Adams suggested, “Let’s change this narrative together.”

Adams gives careful thought to the environment and expression for each portrait, Ortiz said. “When he’s taking pictures, he’s very much an artist,” she explained, “he’s creating a moment.”

The image responsible for igniting Adams’ interest in photography remains one of his favorites: a photograph of his friend, junior Whitney Hedlund, sitting along the edge of the Quad fountain, her hair fanned around her, water droplets suspended mid-air. “It’s capturing photos like this that show the fierceness of my friends, of human beings,” he told me, gesturing his arms with gusto. Another recent photo Adams took of Hedlund, this time wearing a “My Black Is Iconic” T-shirt, found its way onto Ebony magazine’s Instagram.

If you scroll through Adams’ own Instagram feed, you’ll notice that most of his photography portrays his friends of color. “I believe that there’s an oversaturation of white bodies in media and not a good representation of black and brown bodies,” he explained. He decided to use social media as a stage for stories to “contribute to the media stream of black and brown bodies being portrayed as beautiful.”  

Connection in Action

One summer morning after his sophomore year, Adams awoke to find a special email waiting in his inbox. While working as communications director for Tru-Colour Bandages, a start-up company that manufactures bandages for all skin tones, he had reached out to the director of Oprah’s O! Magazine on Instagram for a feature. And it worked overnight.

Within a month, the product appeared in Oprah’s “Favorite Things.”

“Dang it, I love this!” Adams remembers thinking. “So I changed my major from political science to communications and was like ‘this is where I’m supposed to be,’” he laughed, as if still in disbelief.

These “little moments” energize Adams as a communicator and fuel his interest in marketing. This January, he attended New York Design Week where he interacted with other startups tailored towards minority experiences. Through cultivating a relationship with “Blavity,” a media cohort geared towards black millennials, Adams received another invite to an NYC conference, where he heard from speakers including a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, and connected with the Editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.

While talking about the business world, the already-animated Adams grew more excited, describing how he aspires to help businesses connect with minority groups, particularly the black community. By the sound of it, he’s already practiced the pitch. Like many other students this spring, he’s in the process applying for internships, hoping to work in public relations.

Despite an ever-expanding list of LinkedIn connections, Adams, scheduled to graduate next December, feels burdened by the weight of impending decisions and opportunities. He let out a sigh. “There’s just so much” — so much to do, so much he could do — “I’m struggling with trying to find that focus.”

Perhaps Adams will find himself in New York City. A self-proclaimed “city person,” Adams loves to visit his relatives in Brooklyn, revel in the city’s art and food scenes, and enjoy — ironically — the “isolation” of metropolitan life. It’s a place where he is free to be “just walking and not paying attention to people — because there’s millions of other people to pay attention to,” he mused. For a second, I thought I saw a flicker of former introvert.

He continued, “Then when you do pay attention to the fact that you are around millions of people there’s this beauty and this color that’s just indescribable.”

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