One U student’s photo project empowers women to heal, reclaim insecurities

University student Ali Miller has photographed and interviewed over 100 young women sharing personal struggles.

Ali Miller hold up her own poster saying I am not a victim, I am a survivor on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 at her apartment in Minneapolis.

Easton Green

Ali Miller hold up her own poster saying “I am not a victim, I am a survivor” on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 at her apartment in Minneapolis.

by Samir Ferdowsi

Last spring, University of Minnesota student Ali Miller wanted to help others feel the same sense of empowerment she found in publicly sharing her story of surviving sexual assault.

Since launching her project in March 2016, the strategic communications junior has photographed and interviewed over 100 young women around the country about their personal struggles ranging from sexual assault trauma to mental illnesses and body image concerns. The project, called the “I Am Movement,” features the photos with the subject’s stories on social media.

Last summer, the project garnered attention from national media outlets such as USA Today.

Miller found inspiration for the project after Australian blogger Chantelle Baxter featured her on her website.

“It was really the first time I got to tell my side, which was amazing. Instead of being told what happened, I was heard,” Miller said. “I realized how often sexual assault and rape happen, which is horrifying, but it also made super clear in my head that what I went through wasn’t OK and something needs to be done about this.”

With new insight into the vulnerability and power of storytelling, Miller wanted to start her own project, open to any women who wanted to share their life experience. The project features many University students though it is not exclusive to them.

Sociology senior Liz Ogunkanbi decided to join the movement to raise awareness about artificial beauty standards that over-sexualize African American women.

“That post made me feel very empowered and let people know that everyone struggles, and the definition of struggling is different for everyone,” she said. “It was great to reiterate that I need to feel beautiful for myself, no one else. There’s no common mold to be a woman.”

For those participants who describe their experience with sexual assault, advocacy experts say projects that encourage victim-survivors to share their stories can be an effective way to heal and empower themselves and others.

“I think it is very powerful to see the variety of images and faces that help victim-survivors realize who aren’t even a part of a movement,” said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Ronayne said that social media movements such as ‘I Am’ may have evolved from marches that took places in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Movements like the ‘I Am’ directly address the need for finding community and taking something that is very painful, and perhaps uncomfortable, within our experience and say this is part of me. It can be used to make life better,” said Katie Eichele, Aurora Center director. “It’s breaking the silence and taboo.”

Miller said she hopes the I Am Movement will continue to help girls.

“I really think this is changing people’s lives,” she said.