CHICAGO -- Savannah Flowers' imagery of herself shows the myriad emotions and growth that she's made during her three years in A Long Walk Home's Girl/Friends Leadership Institute. A black and white photo captures her working on the edges of her hair. Another colorful piece shows Flowers in a green dress crouched down amid green grass, at one point facing the viewer and another facing away from the camera, showing the viewer the marks on her back, the results of treatment after her 2020 diagnosis with stage three Hodgkin's lymphoma. Her last photo is another self portrait, that has her middle finger front and center for the viewer.
Her work was displayed with dozens of other art pieces in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's recent exhibit "Exploring Black Girlhood: Through the Artist's Eyes."
Flowers, a Kenwood Academy student, said that all her photographs were in dialogue with one another. The first taken her first year in A Long Walk Home (ALWH) was a commentary on how Black girls are set to a higher standard, putting more emphasis on who they should be like, instead of who they represent. At the time, she was in a predominantly white middle school, struggling with self esteem, accommodating others over herself in her appearance. The green picture was acknowledging the fact that she had cancer and was fighting for her life, acknowledging the feelings that she had while going through that experience. The last image was reminiscent of the first photo, but this one is in color, with Flowers looking at herself in the mirror not focused on her hair, but instead focused on who she is now, refusing to let other people's perception paint her self image.
"This one is basically rejecting what other people were saying ... that's why I'm sticking up my middle finger," said the 16-year-old. "I definitely think I've grown. I didn't really know how it was gonna be depicted fully as an entire project. It just came along by itself and I just let it be what it was gonna be."
Flowers has been a part of ALWH's Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, a yearlong program that empowers Black girls from Chicago, since she was in middle school. She has been exposed to a variety of artistic mediums and workshops during that time, pushing her and other Black youth's comfort zone to create and be in conversation about issues that impacts them. The concept is the creation the Tillet sisters - 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner Salamishah Tillet, feminist activist, scholar, and writer and Scheherazade Tillet, a 2022 recipient of the Field Foundation's Leaders for a New Chicago award.
A Long Walk Home is a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago that melds art, activism and healing justice to train Black girls to become artists and activists against violence to women and girls. This summer, members were taken to Newark, New Jersey to experience three floors of artwork at Express Newark at Rutgers University-Newark's international exhibition "Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility." Scheherazade Tillet co-curated the show that centers Black girls as subjects, artists, and agents of their own lives in more than 180 works by some 72 Black women, girls, and genderqueer artists, ranging in age from 8 to 94.
The SAIC exhibition was in response to the Newark space.
Flowers and other girls from around Chicagoland partake in the institute's weeks-long art and activism training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for which the girls earn college credit, and an after school program in which the girls launch campaigns and lead public programs in their schools and community, and throughout the country. Girl/Friends has graduated over 17 cohorts (or classes) and 450 youth leaders, according to ALWH's website. Flowers recalls participating in group therapy with other girls her age, partaking in events with Breonna Taylor and Rekia Boyd's relatives, families that lost their daughters to police violence.
"It's really exciting to do because every year there's a different theme," Flowers said. "This year it's picturing Black girlhood, the last time it was police brutality. There's a different conversation every year."
"Some of these photos are haunting," said Scheherazade Tillet. "For someone who studies Black girlhood every year ... doing this kind of mentorship and working with young girls is such a gift. It's about healing, it's about honoring. We depend on Black girls so much and it's also giving them the space to care for them and the resources to do and lead in a holistic way. We went to Millennium Park and with all that has been going on with young Black and brown people and allowed them the chance to play. We jumped double Dutch, we danced, we picnicked, and that was part of our curriculum. They later chalked these things like: 'I'm here' or 'Black Girls Matter.' They talked about wanting to leave their mark and also reclaim that space. As much as we balance our mission to end violence against women and girls, play and joy is part of our sustainability in this movement, part of the lesson."
Danielle Nolen has been with ALWH since 2015. Serving as the summer assistant to Scheherazade Tillet, the DePaul University senior hopes to graduate in 2024 with a degree in early childhood education. She said her dream is to open a social-justice based day care and to incorporate the things that she has learned in the institute into her educational environment.
"Young people make a difference in the world, it's not just older people," said the West Side resident. "Future generations will be there to save the day."
One of those people is Catlyn Savado, the Percy L. Julian High School student that helped coordinate a CPS walkout to protest a lack of classroom safety measures amid the pandemic. This is the first year of the Girl/Friends programs for the sophomore. Her artwork shows her in an empty green lot where the Robert Taylor homes used to be, the former home of women in her life including her grandmother. Savado said she wanted to capture "everything within a space of nothing or perceived nothing."
"It has such a rich history and culture that folks don't really talk about anymore," she said. "This was bringing it back home, which really felt near and dear to me."
Since the walkout, Savado said she feels like things have gotten worse when it comes to visibility of the issues.
"I feel like folks do a lot of finger pointing at institutions, but we don't do a lot of building within community," she said. "So when we have all this communal violence, we're pointing at these institutions and asking for things and calling out our wants and needs, but it's hard because they weren't built to accommodate our needs. I've been frustrated and exhausted trying to figure out how do I do that myself without calling out an institution, but also going to my community and saying, 'Hey, these are the things that need to be done and we have to do that for each other because we keep us safe, and we keep us nourished and loved and fed and not these institutions."
Serenity White, a St. Ignatius student and Englewood resident, is also a first year participant at 16 years of age. Having gone to schools outside of her neighborhood her entire life, White said she's always felt like an outsider. But with this program, she could write what she wanted to write, say the things that she wanted to say without being scared of being judged.
"It wasn't until I came here that I realized my experiences weren't as unique as I thought they were," White said. "All Black girls go through the same things and we've been able to pinpoint where some of those issues come from and how we can start working to combat them and being able to have conversations about these things and talk about the hard things. What I've learned is not everything you go through, you have to go through alone."