Project Black Girl aims to educate and empower young women in UtahOct 21, 2020 12:48PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
Young women of color pose with affirmative words drawn on their skin to combat stereotypes and show others how they see themselves. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Lake)
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
Stephanie Nguyen Lake is determined to help build a world where girls of color feel safe and confident—first with an empowering photography project, then with a website that will provide education, self-care and safe spaces for Black girls and women.
“I’ve always had an artistic eye,” said Lake, who is Asian and African American. “That’s the best way to express myself. I’ve always been very passionate about racial issues and have been involved in making sure that minorities have a voice.”
Lake served an 18-month mission for her church and returned home to Midvale on March 26. She self-quarantined for two weeks and then found a job working in a chiropractor’s office. Then George Floyd was killed, and Lake was bombarded with questions.
“People kept asking me questions about Black Lives Matter and wanted me to educate them,” Lake said. “I was already doing it, but it became crazier and bigger. People would ask me for my opinion. I felt weird about it, but I still replied. Then I was shut down. They would say I was wrong, I was crazy. I remember coming home one day feeling so overwhelmed.”
That’s when she decided to put together a photo shoot.
“That night I went to sleep and had a dream about what I needed to do,” Lake said. “I reached out to a photographer, Anapesi Brown, and all the black girls I know.”
For part of the photo shoot, Lake posed alone with negative stereotypes painted on her body. Many of the words and phrases came from things she had heard while growing up.
“People would say I’m ‘pretty for a Black girl,’ ‘that I was cursed,’” Lake said. “They asked if I could twerk.”
For the next series of photos, Lake joined her friends in posing with positive words, like leader, resilient, boundless, goodness and human.
“Words that actually represent us and show our worth,” Lake said. “It was emotional. A very heartfelt, amazing project. I was able to manage it and direct it and put into words my experience.”
The images were posted to social media and the response was swift and almost entirely positive.
“I’ve heard from people saying they feel loved and cared for,” she said. “They feel like everything has been captured in a picture.”
Lake is now working with Bri Ray, a musician from Orem who was part of the photo shoot, to build a website and eventually a nonprofit organization.
The website, www.projectblackgirl.com/, will launch in 2021. It will offer courses on how to care for Black skin and hair and also be a platform where girls of color can build a community and collaborate.
“It’s a small community here in Utah, and in the western states there are so few resources (for Black girls and women),” said Lake. “We want to be role models and help them know they’re not alone.”
The website will also be a resource for white families who adopt children of color.
“They’re taking on the culture as well,” said Lake, whose adopted mother is white. “Even if (the parents) don’t see the culture, other people will. We want the parents to be educated on the culture, the hair, the skin and how to combat racism.”
Lake grew up in Utah and graduated from Hillcrest High School and Utah Valley University. She noticed that people liked her better with straight hair. When she decided to let her hair curl naturally, a young man asked her if it was fake.
“When we raise girls to hate themselves we have to ask what we are doing,” Lake said. “Do we teach them that beauty is fairness, blue eyes, straight hair?”
Lake also sees her younger sister facing hurtful comments from classmates.
“I hoped that things would get better, but it seems like things are getting worse,” Lake said. “This is a continuous cycle. We’re disrespected and downgraded. We’re told that we need to be strong, and that we’re too loud. But I’m sensitive. I’m passionate.”