It’s hard to believe that it was just a year ago that I was graduating from college and stepping into a whole new adventure. While I had secure plans for the summer, I was in the thick of searching for a job and still very unsure of how I would use my degree in public relations and my minor in leadership studies beyond July. It would have been easy for me to feel panicked by the unknown, but to the contrary, I was excited to step into the summer and see what doors might open.
Following graduation, I spent the summer photographing the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (YALI), a civic leadership institute that the Staley School has offered for three years now, in partnership with the US Department of State. The months of June and July were spent taking an abundance of photos and making many meaningful connections with incredibly inspiring leaders from different sub-saharan countries in Africa. The photos I had the privilege of capturing were sent on to IREX, the administrative entity of YALI, and they served as a window into the learning and growth that took place amongst our cohort.
When I captured this photo of my friend Abdoul-halim, a Fellow from Comoros, I had no idea what might lie ahead for both of us.
As the summer was slowly coming to an end, I felt energized and deeply inspired by the stories that I had been invited into all summer. I knew that I wanted to find a career where I could continue tapping into my passion for photography and visual storytelling. During my job search, there didn’t seem to be many available opportunities that would allow me to do those very things. Instead of feeling discouraged and the need to settle for a career that didn’t quite align with my aspirations, I decided to step into a realm of unknown and create my own.
In August of 2018, I launched the Human Tapestry Project. Initially, I created this passion project and business with the vision of working alongside various organizations as a freelance photographer, helping to advance social-awareness campaigns and use storytelling to bring people together. I began to think more about the sustainability of my pursuits and the long-term impact I wanted to help create amongst different groups and organizations, which is when I decided to create a Human Tapestry Project Digital Storytelling Workshop. Rather than just sharing my skills with others, I wanted to empower and equip individuals with resources and education so that they can share their powerful narratives that are worthy of being shared with the world. I wanted to remind others that they too are storytellers and can be a voice for important issues around the world.
Now, back to that one photo captured of my friend Abdoul-halim during the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Once I launched the Human Tapestry Project, Abdoul-halim and I began to explore ways to continue working together. He wanted me to travel to his home country of Comoros and take photos and share my skills with his team and organization. Abdoul-halim is a English teacher and is heavily involved in an organization called “Yes We Can Comoros,” that is doing amazing work to promote the English language, conserve the environment, protect the Comorian culture, and work towards human rights and youth development across the country.
In December, we received the news that we had been selected for a Reciprocal Exchange Grant. I honestly couldn’t believe that I was going to be able to share the Human Tapestry Project overseas and see first-hand the leadership and inspiring work of Abdoul-halim on his home soil.
In February, I traveled to Moroni, Comoros where I facilitated the first ever Human Tapestry Project Digital Storytelling Workshops to university students, Peace Corps volunteers, non-profit leaders, and female entrepreneurs, as well as supported the amazing work of our Fellow, Abdoul-halim.
The first digital storytelling workshop we facilitated took place over three days and brought together nearly 40 young people who were all enthusiastic about learning how they could leverage visual media to tell their powerful stories.
The participants learned some of the best practices for telling stories through powerful imagery and video. They also spent time reflecting on their own personal journeys and created their own storyboards. During our final workshop, they each had the chance to share their stories to the learning community and demonstrate what they had learned.
“The three-day workshop was so well organized and the participants learned many new things. It was a opportunity for the participants to experiment beyond their comfort zone by collaborating with new people and especially with an American professional, Savannah,” Abdoul-halim said. “They now have a clear understanding of digital storytelling and its importance and can use these skills to make a difference in their organizations and community. It has also boosted their CVs and exposed them to different national and regional opportunities.”
It has been nearly two months since the workshop took place and I am still receiving messages about how beneficial the training was and how the participants continue to work with one another on their digital media projects. It is immensely rewarding for me to see how the participants are applying their new skills and working together across sectors to make progress on different challenges in Comoros.
“I’m currently doing a short video that will be used for fundraising efforts for a local agriculture business. I’m creating the video with one of the workshop participants and we are using the frameworks and methods we learned in the workshop. This is our first experience creating using digital storytelling to fundraise,” said Salim, a workshop participant.
“The Human Tapestry workshop was wonderful. I learned so many new things, especially when it came to photography. Before the workshop, I would just point my camera and shoot. Now, I think about the lighting, the composition, and all of the small details. It was such an enriching experience and I am so happy that I can take good photos that tell stories,” shared Rachida, a workshop participant.
It’s very surreal as I reflect on just seven months ago, I had absolutely no idea where the Human Tapestry Project might lead me. It all started with an idea, a vision and a relentless desire to use digital storytelling to cultivate connection across cultures and amplify the powerful narratives around the world. Leadership Studies has been an such an integral part of this journey. The connections that I have made, the personal learning and growth, and the support and encouragement that I have found amongst the faculty and professors in Leadership Studies is something I will never be able to express adequate gratitude for. I am also beyond grateful that the Reciprocal Exchange Grant allowed Abdoul-halim and I to bring the Human Tapestry Project to Comoros and embark on this enriching journey together.