Aliyah Young has learned to blend art with activism as she moves forward in her career. (Image provided)

Before introducing, “I Am Why” and the book Reclaiming the Lens, I must start off by introducing myself. I am a Black woman and a Chicago-based activist who lives in Oak Park. I began my activism at the age of 14 at Oak Park and River Forest High School where I was president of the club called Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE). We changed the dress code to make it culturally inclusive and gender expansive. During my last year, I drafted an application to create the current Racial Equity class at OPRF. I modeled it after the Self Defense and Step Back courses. After I graduated, my classmates continued my mission and helped the class become a reality. 

This period of my life was incredibly important because I experienced an awakening of sorts. It wasn’t one single moment but several laced together, each one disarticulating things I thought I knew and replacing them with a desire to learn and grow. 

During this time, I was introduced to “A Long Walk Home,” an organization dedicated to ending the racial oppression and gender-based violence against Black women and girls. This organization helped me branch out my work from my small high school arena to the city of Chicago. This is where I first learned about art-based activism and began to appreciate the works of so many activists before me. 

I initially began my work with I Am Why through its partnership with A Long Walk Home. I Am Why’s mission is to bring young women and gender-expansive activists together with researchers and other partners to increase young activists’ individual and collective power. I participated in their art-intensive workshop in Chicago in August 2018. 

During this workshop, we spent time learning more about prominent art activists and their role in several movements, as well as creating our own art pieces. These pieces were meant to convey who we were and what we stood for. Then we each created an I Am Why statement, explaining our pieces. My piece is about generational trauma and healing; I felt it to be the reason why I became an activist and remain one to this day. 

There were several other workshops in different cities with different organizations. The art that appears in Reclaiming the Lens was created in these workshops.

The book was a small idea, stowed away for another day, but COVID-19 took everyone by surprise. Our organization is currently national, but we probably would have met in person at least with the people in the cities and states nearby. Instead, nearly everything became virtual. So the founder of I Am Why, Francine Sherman, and other I Am Why consultants, decided to create Reclaiming the Lens. I was invited to participate in this process and I eagerly accepted. 

Every part of the book was meticulously planned, every art piece, every word. We spent months analyzing each art piece and organizing them all into chapters. After dividing the book into chapters, we each took a chapter to focus on. I heavily curated the “Origins” chapter and I also wrote the chapter introduction, book dedication and introduction. I chose “Origins” not only because my piece was included in this chapter, but because I feel a special connection to the role history and culture play in activism. 

This is why I have chosen to study Anthropology, African and Black Diaspora, and Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University. Perhaps it is because I have felt so stripped of it in the past, that I am celebrating it today. I am grounded in my present, joyous and expectant of my future, but my life is dedicated to the past. These words came to me during a moment of reflection when creating this book and will remain with me for the rest of my life. 

The book is just the starting point. I now work with I Am Why as a research consultant and Racial Justice team lead. We are continuing the work, fighting for policy change and working with young people across the country to create an intergenerational, non-hierarchical organization and world. 

To order “Reclaiming the Lens” and learn more about I am Why, go to: Join the “Reclaiming Our Power by Reclaiming the Lens” webinar Tuesday, Aug. 3, 5 to 6:30 p.m. to hear the process of how the I am Why workshops led to a book, how the book led to an exhibit, and what was learned about power, voice and community during the global pandemic. Register:

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