Photo album: A love letter to the human body

At Idealist, the sporting world is not our usual beat. The Olympic Games, however, hit us where we live as an inspiring, international gathering of outstanding individuals and teams. So we’re taking this opportunity to pay homage to excellent athletes, winter beauty, fun games, and a host of other concepts we could tie (even tenuously) to Sochi. Welcome to Olympics Week on Idealists in Action.

For many, the Winter Games are a celebration of national pride and the triumphs of the human spirit. But this Valentine’s Day, we’re also thinking of the Olympics as a love letter to the human body.

How flawlessly can we twist on skates mid-air? How fast can we propel ourselves across a stretch of snow? What’s physically possible for us to achieve, and what form does this perfection take?

New York-based photographer Howard Schatz took on the latter question in his 2002 photography book Athlete, a collaboration with his creative partner and wife Beverly Ornstein. By photographing 125 Olympic athletes, they revealed an incredible diversity of shapes and sizes among our world’s champions.

Juxtaposing wiry with stocky, tall with short, male with female, the series lovingly disproves the notion that an “athletic” body should look one particular way.


Photography by Howard Schatz


Photography by Howard Schatz


Photography by Howard Schatz

And all together…


Photography by Howard Schatz

[photography by Howard Schatz, enlargements via reddit]

Whether it’s for Valentine’s Day, the Olympics, or another occasion altogether, how did you show love this week?


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The Art Shanty Project creates a dreamy village on a frozen lake


Not your typical ice fishing hut.
[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

When winter comes to Minnesota and encases the lakes with a thick layer of ice, you start to see little shacks popping up. Just one or two at first, and then by the dozen, the small wooden or fiberglass houses line up in tidy rows out on the lakes.

“Ice fishing shanties are really like this whole other kind of village. They’re created to be temporary and unstructured, but together they really become a whole community,” explains Melinda Childs, Executive Director of The Art Shanty Project.

“We wondered what would happen if we applied an artistic lens to this kind of temporary public space.”

A far cry from the walleye jigging and beer sipping typically associated with ice houses, The Art Shanty Project, a nonprofit organization, commissions local artists to build mini art shacks and interactive gallery spaces out on the ice.

Designed to bring people together and get them thinking about art, the shanties are a one-of-a-kind artist-driven community that’s different each year—adding a little bit of Burning Man to what is usually just Grumpy Old Men.


The Art Shanty dance troupe spells it out!
[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

In operation since 2006, The Art Shanty Project sets up camp on the surface of one frozen lake in the Twin Cities metro area and is free and open to the public every weekend in February until the 23rd.

This year it’s on White Bear Lake, a northern suburb of Saint Paul, and features 20 unique structures each with a different theme.

The lineup includes an elevator shanty that simulates the sensory experience of riding in an elevator, a sunrise shanty where dawn breaks every 30 minutes, a dance shanty heated completely from bodies in motion, a shanty where people can brush up on their curling techniques, and a gallery where people can encase small treasures like keys and rings in tiny blocks of ice.

There’s also a giant bicycle-powered polar bear puppet that leads a ‘sparkle parade.’


[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

“We encourage the artists in each of the shanties to have an interactive element. There are also performances out on the lake. In the case of the sparkle parade, led by the polar bear bicycle, they’ve been encouraging people in the community to make costumes and there will be a participant parade through the village,” Melinda says.

With temperatures dropping well below zero for a good portion of the winter, the public is primed for a little pick-me-up. This year, Art Shanties is expecting over 20,000 visitors.

“Art Shanties is a creative way that winter can be fun because you can build community, you can participate in the arts, you can be physically active,” Melinda says. “It’s really about embracing winter.”

See more images of this year’s Art Shanties here or make a donation to help keep them on the ice.

What’s your favorite community-building way to “embrace winter”?


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All-male, gender-bending, Deep South dance troupe prances right into our hearts

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.
As Prancing Elites‘ captain Kentrell Collins says, “It’s OK for a woman to put on tights and play football, but when a man wants to put on a leotard and tights, it’s a problem.”

So what’s an all-male, gender-bending dance troupe from Mobile, Alabama to do?



Prancing to glory!
(photo via

Prancing Elites have worked super hard in the almost 10 years since their founding: bringing their life-affirming art to new audiences; helping people rethink stereotypes about men, the South, and Spandex; and bringing back J-Setting just in time for Beyoncé to make the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video.

Along the way, they’ve garnered a lot of Idealist-approved street cred. Highlights include:

  • Getting tweeted about by fan Shaquille O’Neal, who sent 200,000 people to a YouTube video of theirs in 48 hours.

Today, we celebrate Prancing Elites’ continuing dedication to their ideals, art, and individuality—whether the reception they face is happy or hostile. Go, guys!

Has your self-expression ever caused a stir? Tell us about it in the comments.


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Awesome photographer shoots grandmas in band t-shirts; blows the doors off his own stereotypes

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.


Photography by Jay Hynes

Jay Hynes didn’t set out to prove that grannies rock, but he definitely did.

By photographing grandmas in their homes wearing punk and metal t-shirts in a photo series called “Grandmas Rock,” the Melbourne-based photographer aimed to contrast the rebelliousness represented by rock n’ roll with the more prim and proper lifestyles he expected from his subjects.

A former advertising art director, Jay recently switched career paths to become a full-time music and portrait photographer. He wanted a photo series in his portfolio that would combine his interests in portraits, domestic spaces, and bands—and look really awesome.

As he went out to meet the women he’d be photographing, his assumptions and opinions about what “normal” grandmas do and how they live started to unravel. For starters, their interest in participating in such a conceptual art project was a delightful surprise.


Photography by Jay Hynes

“I think this part is almost cooler than the actual photos—the fact that all of them said, sure, I’ll do that!” he says. “It showed me that they were trusting and supportive, but more than anything that they were interested in doing something out of the ordinary.”

Before the shoot, Jay sat down with each of the women—strangers that he’d connected to through friends—over a cup of tea to get a sense of their personalities.

“That time spent with them made me realize how much I miss my own grandma,” he says.

Although his project started out as a way to contrast rock n’ roll with the straight-laced exterior of grandmas, he came away from the project inspired by how rad these golden girls really are.

“They don’t take life as seriously as people assume they would. I think if I had asked a bunch of 40-to-50 year old women to do the same thing, the answer would have been no.”

Right on, Jay! We think grandmas are pretty punk rock, too.


Photography by Jay Hynes

See the complete photo series here.

Have you ever started a project and ended up surprised by how it changed your perspective? Tell us about it in the comments below.



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TAPIN: Through self-reflection, a broader definition of ‘social good’

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

When my co-editor Celeste told me in November that she heard about a cool new art project we might want to blog about, I was psyched to learn more. As an aspiring creative and an Idealist interested in how individuals can beat obstacles and connect with each other to live the best possible lives, the language on TAPIN‘s homepage spoke to me:

TAPIN seeks to make the world a more emotionally connected place. Our community connects through interactive art installations that explore the broad spectrum of human emotions. We believe true freedom comes through exposing our most intense emotions and finding new power to remove the barriers around our dreams.

I attended TAPIN’s first public event in New York last month—titled “OUT FEAR. TAP IN: An Installation on Beating Fear to the Punch”—and founder Anne Koller agreed to let us feature the project on the Idealists in Action blog.

Kathryn for TAPIN3

TAPIN’s first exhibition focused on bringing fear out of the shadows.
(photo courtesy Kathryn Weill for TAPIN)

Before our phone interview, also joined by TAPIN’s head storyteller Becky Burton, I wrote out some questions to get us started: “What would you say to members of the Idealist community about how to ‘unearth the clues of what drives their emotions and harness them for good,’ as you say on TAPIN’s website?” and “What challenges have you faced since you started TAPIN, and what have you tried doing to overcome those challenges?”

But our conversation wound up taking a different turn. Here’s Anne:

After working in social good for some time—in favelas in Brazil, in coffee fields in Rwanda, at Davos [the World Economic Forum annual meeting] with some of the world’s most powerful leaders—I thought I would have become a diplomat by now, or work in the foreign service. I speak four languages, I have a Masters degree in public administration from Columbia… Sometimes I have guilt and ask myself why I’m not still out there.

But what I’ve learned is that we are unable to create true social good if our service is inauthentic, if it feels responsibility-driven and not in line with our true purpose. Social good is about aligning with what makes us truly unique and then magnifying that to serve others. Someone else might feel that working in an orphanage is their purpose—in fact, I know lots of people do, and that’s a wonderful thing—but it’s not mine.

All the world needs from you is to be a lot of what you are. Capitalize on that, drive it forward. The more you can work with your own alignment, the more powerful your contribution can be.

A friend recently said to me, ‘With TAPIN, you’re allowing people the opportunity to feel free and be themselves.’ I don’t know what else social good is, or what else I could be doing.

And this strikes me as a perfect time to redefine social impact. We—all the people who are shaping the world today—can redefine it for ourselves.

Becky then broadened the scope in the other direction, pointing out that social good is not just about rethinking what roles we should fill as individuals, but also about rethinking who we should try to serve:

For people who want to take action, there’s an expectation for social good that it only serves disadvantaged communities, but we think social good is for everyone. Social good is everyone finding their purpose and living their passion—it’s not only about helping people in a state of crisis. It can take the form of a very simple action that just brings a smile.

So how can each of us find our purpose? In Becky’s words, how can we “get down to what excites us, what we’re good at, and share that with the world”?

TAPIN thinks exploring your emotions is a good place to start.

“Examining your happiness or fear can help illuminate the root of what actually makes you happy or fearful,” Becky says. “It might be different than you think.”

Read more about TAPIN’s approach to facing emotions and making creative experiences around them on their website, watch this video about their founding, or support their goal to create four installations in 2014 on Indiegogo. If you want to start a project like TAPIN and would like some advice, feel free to get in touch with Anne at And read more about loving the bliss of everyday on Becky’s website, Gus McAllibaster.

What does social good mean to you? Tell us in the comments.




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T-Rex doesn’t give up. Neither should you.

Happy Friday! Whatever dream or project you’re working on this weekend, make like T-Rex and keep at it.




[image via T-Rex Trying]

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Fiscal sponsorship might be the richest thing you can do

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

This week we present: money.


Mason and his crew on location in Georgetown, Guyana. The entire film was shot with locals who’d never acted. (photo courtesy of Jeremy Habig.)

Mason Richards left his homeland of Guyana when he was seven years old.

He grew up in New York, but memories of the Caribbean nation lingered in his mind as an adult. He could taste the abundant and diverse fresh fruit like mangoes and gunips. He could hear the coconut man come down the street with fresh coconuts to sell. He could recall the Sunday lime at the seawall in Georgetown, where he’d people-watch and relax with family and friends as the Atlantic Ocean hummed nearby.

The nostalgia never left him. In 2010, for his Cal Arts thesis, Mason made a nine-minute film that was his tribute to the place he couldn’t forget. The Seawall follows the story of Marjorie and her ten-year-old grandson Malachi, and the emotions they wrestle with as he prepares to move to America.

“There are more Guyanese living outside of the country than in it. I wanted to made a film for them, for all us, who’ve moved,” Mason says. “The film is about immigration, abandonment both personally and nationally, and going home. I hope that at the end of the feature, Guyanese in Toronto, London, and New York are going to feel something about giving back to this place that we all come from.”

The film made it as far as Cannes, but Mason wants to extend The Seawall‘s impact beyond the exclusive film festival. He’s now working on making it into a feature-length to further showcase the beauty of Guyana’s landscape and people, which he ultimately hopes will lead to more development in the country.

“I want to change the world. And I believe I can change the world by connecting to the things that affect me, and finding other people who feel the same way,” he says.

Money, money, money

But as we all know, changing the world takes time, hard work, and money. And for an independent filmmaker, finding funds can pose an extra challenge—some might even say a nightmare.


The amount of support Mason has received has kept him going. Mason is a Sony Pictures grant recipient and is currently working on a series of public service announcements in Guyana. (photo courtesy Hal Horowitz.)

Fiscal sponsorship—where a nonprofit lends you their tax-exempt status so you can apply for grants and accept donations without hassle—is one way to go. Mason wanted to find a fiscal sponsor whose passions aligned with his, and ideally also use the relationship as a means of connecting with prominent Guyanese both at home and abroad.

He searched the Internet for days until he finally found Friends & RPCVs of Guyana (FROG), a D.C.-based nonprofit founded by former Peace Corps volunteers.

He was swayed by its mission of continuing to support his homeland, and got in touch. Scott Stadum, then president, wrote him back immediately.

“Scott, a non-Guyanese American, really loved the place. It was almost like he loved it more than I did, because I was so disconnected from it. It really inspired me,” Mason says. “FROG is promoting Guyana in a way I respect.”

FROG became Mason’s fiscal sponsor, and together they hosted fundraising events in both N.Y. and D.C. so he could go back to Guyana and shoot the film.

More than that, though, they formed a relationship that has only gotten stronger since they met five years ago. (Scott is now one of the feature film’s producers.)

So fiscal sponsorship can be more than a dry task—it can be a source of new connections and supporters.

Mason’s biggest piece of advice? Make it personal.

There are probably a lot of organizations out there that share your philosophy and whose help you can apply for with the click of a button. But it’s when you connect on a deeper level with its members that you’ll have the most success.

“I think a mistake people make is thinking that you need money right away to make everything happen. I disagree,” Mason says. “I think that if you have a strong alliance of the right people who are passionate about what you’re doing and who believe in your goal, then money will come.”

Have you ever had a fiscal sponsor? How did it go?

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The Reconstructionists: A yearlong celebration of amazing women

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days. 

Portrait of Maya Angelou by Lisa Congdon

The portrait of Maya Angelou was the hardest.

Illustrator Lisa Congdon says that it was partially her struggle to capture the poet’s essence that made the finished product turn out so well.

“I was able to capture her decently in the end because in the beginning I was ready to rip it up,” she says.

But most of her portraits come out a little easier than that. Lisa paints a different one every week as part of The Reconstructionists, a yearlong collaborative art/writing/history project she started with Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova.

Every Monday in 2013, an inspiring woman has been featured on their website with a hand-painted portrait and a micro-essay about her life and work.

Named for twentieth-century novelist Anaïs Nin’s idea for “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world,” The Reconstructionists celebrates women who have reconstructed “our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”

It’s featured some well-known feminist figures of the past like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but many subjects—like Patty Smith, Diana Nyad, Janette Sadik-Khan, Joan Didion, and (of course) Maya Angelou—are still alive and well (and changing the world) today.

Lisa and Maria decide who they’d like to feature on a week-to-week basis depending on what’s going on in the news or in history or what’s been on their minds. With only 52 weeks in the year, they can’t pay homage to all the women they’d like to, so they focus on picking someone whose story is important to them.

“In that way it’s a personal project for us,” Lisa says.

While this is Lisa’s first time working on a collaborative project, this isn’t her first rodeo when it comes to yearlong projects. In 2010, she shared her collections through A Collection A Day, which is now a book. In 2012, she featured more of her artwork in 365 Days of Hand Lettering.

All of her yearlong art projects have been started through blogs. Lisa says she’s liked sharing The Reconstructionists this way because it’s “educational for people and low-pressure for us.”

“When you do a blog, there’s an expectation that you’re going to post every week,” she says. “It puts a self-imposed deadline and structure on personal work that might not exist otherwise.”

When asked if Lisa has a project in the works for 2014, she’s a little noncommittal.

“There are a few things stewing in my head,” she says, laughing.

What women inspire you?

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TypeFace: How public art is helping Milwaukee residents find their voice

The value of art reaches beyond traditional museums and formal exhibitions. I have seen the arts galvanize communities, unite diverse groups of people, and provide a starting point for dialogue around difficult and important social issues. Art is a unique and powerful tool we can use to understand our communities.

There are important conversations people living in marginalized neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin want to have, and art could be the perfect catalyst, but their voices are absent or muted in art’s more traditional settings. The museum is no longer sufficient.

Enter the TypeFace public art project, which unveiled a couple of weeks ago on some of the city’s vacant and foreclosed spaces.


Milwaukee’s Sherman/Washington Park neighborhood.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation, the project provides a different forum, one that is accessible to everyone—no opening hours, admission fees, or shushing. Public art, after all,  is a community conversation held in the open where you can talk as loud as you want.

But what makes this project different from other public art installations? I admit that even as a borderline-obsessive lover of public art, I am wary of “feel good” mural projects. As an ethnographer, I am wary of those attempting to come from outside a community and play savior.


Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood.

But TypeFace avoids these pitfalls by making conversation its centerpiece, not an afterthought. Featured artist Reginald Baylor’s installations result directly from the year Milwaukee documentarian Adam Carr spent with residents of four of Milwaukee’s roughest neighborhoods, talking with them about their lives and communities.

These are neighborhoods with high rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment; areas where people live but others rarely visit.

“People will come to areas for art, food, and entertainment,” explains Jeremy Fojut, ART Milwaukee president and my TypeFace tour guide when I visited. Giving people a reason to come into these areas is one of TypeFace’s goals.



Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood.

Each installation is covered with words and phrases from Adam’s interviews in each community that evoke a variety of emotions: good, bad, angry, brash, hopeful, reflective, realistic.

Quotations range from the serious—“How can I turn the fight into something positive?”and “Challenge them to act” at the Puzzled and Amazed site in the neighborhood of Harambee—to the silly and abstract: “They had my name carved in an ice cream cone” at the Panel Discussion installation in Sherman/Washington Park.


Milwaukee’s Burnham Park neighborhood.

A perfect example of how public art can engage a community, TypeFace is more than inspirational. For cities with dead spaces, these conversation-centric installations can motivate residents to use public art as a way to talk with their own communities. TypeFace does not suffer from “savior syndrome,” but is a creation of the communities it’s in, made with residents very literally writing the script.

The year of conversations, workshops, and meetings is apparent in looking at the installations, and it’s exhilarating. By acknowledging the struggles and frustrations as well as the hopes and aspirations of the neighborhoods, TypeFace encourages us to begin knowing these communities and to continue the conversation.

To learn more about TypeFace and how you might bring something similar to your community, contact

Linkedin #1-1Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?

Rural communities are often portrayed in the media as unfortunate starting places—restrictive, provincial hometowns that promising individuals must escape in order to reach their full potential.

But possibility and wealth of different kinds can be found outside big, prosperous cities. Read how one Guyanese woman saw great potential in a tiny community in eastern Ethiopia.

This post written by Grace Aneiza Ali originally appeared on OF NOTE, an online magazine focused on global artists who use the arts as catalysts for social change. 


School girl from Harrare, Ethiopia.
(photo courtesy Grace Aneiza Ali)

There are no paved roads directly to Chaffe Jenetta—a small Muslim coffee farming community nestled in the remote terrains of Harrar in eastern Ethiopia. Telephone lines and electric wires are rare in these parts. Women are immersed in their day—fetching water, gathering wood and sticks to stoke fires, and cooking for their families.

Among their company, lush mountains and endless blue sky, I felt at home.

It was 2010 and my first time in Ethiopia, in fact my first trip to Africa. I had learned from growing up in Guyana and from a year traveling throughout India that there was no preparing for the rural countryside. You simply show up and let the land lead. So, I embraced Ethiopia with the same deference.

The journey to Harrar had started in New York City where I live. I was invited to travel with the staff and board members of The Abyssinian Fund, an NGO with a home-base in Harlem, New York, that works with coffee planters in Ethiopia’s rural villages like Chaffe Jenetta, helping them to grow better coffee, earn higher incomes, and improve social services with clinics, schools, and access to clean water.

While members of our group toured the village, I spent most of my time with the school children. One little girl in particular, about nine or ten years old, caught my attention—simply because of the way she clutched her notebooks. I asked for her name, but either she was too shy to tell me or didn’t understand my question. I pointed to her books and asked if I could look at them.

Her notes, written in Oromo, the local language of Chaffe Jenetta, filled up every usable blank space. Her handwriting was in the margins, on the inside and outside of the covers, written horizontally and vertically.

I recalled my own primary school days in Guyana when notebooks and paper were a luxury. Instead, we had hand-held chalkboards and little bits of chalk. It was cheaper, but it meant everything that was written had to be erased. So I would gather sheets of paper wherever I could find them and glue or sew them together to make books.

It was within those pages that I could invent the life I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

Like that little girl at my side in Chaffe Jenetta, I left no free space unmarked in my hand-made books. I too wrote in the margins, within the covers, and sideways. As I turned the pages of her book, I wondered if this was where the stories of Chaffe Jenetta were being kept. Were they scribbled within the margins? Were they tucked in between the covers?

One of the Ethiopian guides that accompanied our group had remarked, “These are the forgotten people.” He had never been this deep into the mountains of Harrar and was visibly moved by the agrarian way of life in Chaffe Jenetta.

Perhaps what he was witnessing made him feel as a foreigner in his own land.

But as I stood there looking through this little girl’s notebooks, nothing about her seemed forgotten to me. There was a boldness about her. There was a joyfulness about her. What I saw was a young girl thriving amidst her circumstances.

I’ve found this to be universal from Harrar to Harlem—people thriving amidst contradictions, thriving in the messiness of life, thriving in the tragedies, thriving in the challenges, the hurts and the disappointments.

Notebooks may seem trivial when compared to the serious needs in Chaffe Jenetta like clean water, clinics, and paved roads. But they represent the freedom to dream, to create, and to imagine a future for oneself.

For that little girl, her future begins within the pages of her notebook—just like my dreams began for me. It was clear by the way she clung to her books, their pale blue covers tattered and torn, that what was written in them was of value. They were sacred to her.

Far too often the narratives about women and girls in rural communities whether they be in Asia, or Africa, or South America, are centered on an urgent call for them to look past the proverbial courtyard, to aim for a life beyond the confines of the village, to shed the veil. And we tell them that not doing so would render them invisible, marginalized, or trapped.

We’re wrong.

Chaffe Jenetta is not another nameless village in another ubiquitous story of poverty in Africa. It is a challenging but wealthy place—albeit not material wealth. It is not a place to flee from, but one to be nurtured and supported.

The little girl I met could one day turn out to be a powerful voice for Ethiopia. She might become a writer herself, sharing with the world its multiple stories. And to do so, perhaps she will find herself returning to those very notebooks.

GRACEGrace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of OF NOTE. She’s also an Adjunct Professor of Literature for the City University of New York, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and a Fulbright Scholar. She currently hosts the Visually Speaking series at the Schomburg Center, which examines the state of photojournalism through the lens of contemporary photographers and image-makers. Grace was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Guyana continues to inform and influence her worldview.

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