Schweitzer Fellow Ruth Smith is employing fine art photography to raise awareness and build community among Somali refugees and immigrants. Working with the Somali Women & Children’s Alliance and the Somali Culture & Research Institute, the Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences student is creating a documentary photography exhibit and website of young Somali women that will “challenge some of the stereotypes and assumptions made about Somali women.”
ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
RS: I have been working with the Somali Women and Children’s Alliance for several years, which had been housed at the Global Mall, a Somali Mall in Columbus. For a while, I was a tutor and art teacher at the afterschool program and I often had the kids doing activities that took them out of their classroom and into the stores. I noticed that most of the businesses were owned by women, which surprised me. It really challenged engrained assumptions about Somali culture and Muslim culture and the community in general. I thought it was a really remarkable thing, and yet so many people I knew had little awareness of the community in general, let alone the ways that women were contributing. So I started talking to the director of SWCA, a woman, and some artists I knew who do documentary photography of the Somali diaspora (The Somali Documentary Project) and thought, why not ask women about their role in the community? The project grew from there and ended up focusing on young Somali women, about my age. The women who have participated are really phenomenal young women. They’ve helped to shape the project and have given so much! We are getting ready to exhibit a collection of stories and photographs at local libraries that will hopefully challenge some of the stereotypes and assumptions made about Somali women and their role in the community. I’ll also be leading photography workshops with youth and adults that teaches the process of participatory photography, which was used to create this exhibit. This process is a great way for people to engage with community issues through artmaking, giving people a voice and the power to make change.
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
RS: One of the great things about working collaboratively with so many different people is that you’re able to collect a lot of different ideas. The girls I’ve been working with have contributed so many awesome ideas and suggested ways to expand this project beyond Columbus. They’ve connected me with women in other cities with large Somali populations and we have plans to take this project to those locations. I’m also in the process of constructing a website to house the exhibit and to build an interactive platform for individuals to contribute their own stories and pictures. Making these connections between cities and local communities is important and compiling these collections of experiences will offer a great resource for non-Somalis to learn about and engage with the Somali culture.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
RS: I really think that cultural health is an issue that is often overlooked. Relationships between people, especially groups of people, determine so much of overall well-being. I may be biased, but the arts offer opportunities for people to learn how to express themselves and can create spaces for people to engage with each other in healthy ways, whether it is simply getting to know one another, asking difficult questions, or having an opportunity to express something important and meaningful. I think that building relationships across boundaries, increasing understanding and awareness, and working to take down those boundaries, is really important in an increasingly globalized society.
ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
RS: This shouldn’t be surprising, but I’ve developed some really amazing friendships with the women I have been working with on the photography project. I was nervous asking women to participate, because I was starting this project from the awkward place of asking those “left handed” questions – the ones that you’re not really supposed to ask because they are not politically correct. We started talking about the stereotypes that people, including me, have about Islam and Somali culture, and went from there. I had to ask those questions in every interview, to each woman. And I think that allowed us to get beyond some of the cultural barriers and form a deep respect for each other. And I learned a ton about photography. I’m a trained painter, and not technologically inclined, but I’ve been doing a lot of digital artmaking through this project and with the website, which has been fun.
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
RS: I think the thing about being a Schweitzer Fellow that means the most is being connected with so many different types of projects, people, and disciplines. Coming from the arts, we think about things much differently than people in health sciences or even the social sciences. So getting a chance to see how others approach community-based work, addressing important community issues, has been pretty impactful. It makes my project more meaningful, because it’s connected to something bigger than itself.
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