June 07, 2018

Century College Art faculty member Melissa Borman recognizes how empowering photography can be as a form of artistic expression.

“Photography allows people to tell their stories that might not be able to tell it any other way,” said Borman. “It lets them know their voice matters, that what they have to say about their culture, about their lives, about their identities, is important.”

To help East African high school students tell their stories, Century College collaborated with Somali-born photographer Mohamud Mumin to facilitate the Youth Outreach and Engagement Project, an educational program in photography funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Mumin and Borman led photography classes for Heritage Academy of Science and Technology (Minneapolis Public School), Ubah Medical Academy (charter school in Hopkins), and St. Paul’s Skyline Tower/Common Bond community, all of which have high enrollments of East African students.

The students worked together to create their own photography exhibit, which will be unveiled July 12 at the Quarter Gallery in the Regis Center, near the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, with a reception from 4:00-7:00 pm.

The Power of Photography

According to Borman, photography wasn’t taken seriously as an art form for a long time, since it was believed a photographer could be successful without achieving a high level of expertise in the field. But now, Borman contends that photography’s accessibility is one of its greatest strengths.

“As far as creative expression or having a voice, photography is a way to get to content very quickly in ways that you might not be able to with drawing and painting,” said Borman.

The Youth Outreach and Engagement project, a 12-week program, did not allow much time to develop technical skills. However, the students learned the essentials of photography in short order and were able to devote their full attention to their art.

The end result was a compelling collection of photographs that expressed each artist’s unique perspective. In fact, the work was of such high quality that many of the photographs were mistaken for Mumin’s or Borman’s work.

“There were a number of recurring themes,” said Mumin. “Wanting to tell their stories, showing what was important to them, expressing their identities, celebrating culture, dispelling stereotypes, sharing their connections with one another and their communities. It was very powerful.”

Creating a Sense of Community

One of the primary objectives of the Youth Outreach and Engagement project is to provide students, through photography, with the skills required for artistic expression. Mumin and Borman consider artistic expression to be a vital way to connect with the community, and for the community to likewise connect with the artists.

The Cedar-Riverside area was chosen as the venue for the final exhibit in part because it was central to the three participating institutions, but also because it was a great location for the art to reach the community.

“It was really crucial to be as close to the Cedar-Riverside community as possible,” said Mumin. “If we want to get the students’ art to the largest audience – especially the largest East African audience – I think that is very important.”

By engaging with a large audience, the students foster a sense of community. That leads to a sense of accomplishment.

“For them to have their families, peers, and the wider community show up at the conclusion of the project, they see that the work they are doing is adding up to something meaningful,” said Mumin. “They realize they can expect something greater of themselves.”

Opening Doors

Many of the students in the Youth Outreach and Engagement Project attend STEM-focused schools and come from immigrant families who prioritize vocational education. Students like Mumin, who studied chemistry in college, may not have exposure to art education. 

“When we brought the students to Century College, it opened up possibilities – they were excited to see the exhibits,” said Borman. “It never occurred to them that they could even study art in college.”

Instilling a sense of possibility in students, regardless of whether they go on to study art, is a key part of the Youth Outreach and Engagement project. Borman sees this as an extension of Century College’s mission.

“A big part of what we do at Century College is open doors for people that they didn’t know existed,” said Borman. “I get a lot of students who come here to get their generals out of way, and all of sudden they’re in awe of what they can do with photography.”