INTERVIEW: JESSICA RODRIGUEZ 

Samera Paz is an artist from DC, who currently attends the University of the Arts in Philly. She is the founder of Girl Power Meetups, a platform created for women ages 12-28 to discuss issues pertaining to womanhood and to unite young girls and women to “create, collaborate, uplift and inspire.”

I attended their latest meetup in DC, which was a clothes swap and sale, where I spoke to Samera about GPM, mental health and being a WOC artist in a predominately white space.

Tell me about yourself.

I am an artist, I am a photographer. I guess I would call myself a visual artist. My whole life literally revolves around art. The creation, the things I look at, the things I do for fun are very art based. I like taking walks, I like going to museums, I like watching movies. I like organizing and making to-do lists.

Tell me how Girl Power Meetups came about.

Girl Power Meetups was an idea I thought of one night that was inspired by the parties and functions I would go to and see really great girls that were my friends but I would only see them at these parties. And we would have so much fun but these events were the only times I would be spending time with them and I thought ‘why can’t I hang out with them on a regular basis? Why isn’t there a space where we can hang out and talk about things that we go through and connect with each other.’ I realized we don’t have that, the only thing we have is girl scouts when you’re in elementary school and then there’s Planned Parenthood [Planned Parenthood organizes VOX chapters in different campuses to educate young Americans about reproductive health and freedom] but why isn’t there something in between for girls that are transitioning into adulthood. It quickly turned into a bigger thing, I realized ‘woah, this can be ongoing and we can tackle real social issues and we can better our lives through this.’

And you have expanded to Baltimore?

Yea we have! The Baltimore chapter is really great. They’re really passionate and super open and hard working.

You also have another project called Locals Only DC, can you talk a little bit about that.

It started out as a platform to highlight the local talent in DC because there is a lot of underground art that doesn’t get recognized in galleries and museums and I’ve known some of [the artists] for years so I had the idea to start a website to highlight them. And then I realized that through this platform I can do more than highlight artists, I can reach out to the community, I can preserve the real D.C., I can help the homeless and so I decided to turn it into a DC lifestyle blog where I focus on the real DC and places to go, to eat, what to do for fun. And not just the new gentrified DC but what makes D.C., D.C.! Things like gogo [music], mumbo sauce, our historical landmarks, you know, the good stuff! I created an all boys team of journalist and photographers and they’re going to have assignments on whatever topic they choose to write about or document their own perspective of DC and I get to be the editor! I think it’s going to be great to have people from DC who actually [grew up] here writing about their experiences, it’s gonna be something different and new.

I recently saw an IG post you put up where you spoke about being the only WOC in the classroom and feeling attacked. Can you talk about what happened?

I was in class, [at the University of Arts in Philly] and we were looking at a WOC artist and I really enjoyed her work because she was illustrating people of color. I thought that was so important because it is so rare for people of color to be represented in art. I was in my class of all white people except one other person who’s [latinx].

I then decided to bring up the topic of catcalling and I made a statement that women of color get really disrespected when it comes to catcalling. Even more than just catcalling, women of color are the most disrespected people in society. Another girl then decided to bring up her experience [stating] “I’m not saying women of color don’t get catcalled more, but I got catcalled yesterday” I just sat there thinking, ‘this isn’t a debate, I just want you to listen and understand. This isn’t a competition on who is more oppressed.’ I just want people to understand that these are struggles that we face and [we’re] not heard. I felt really uncomfortable in that space and thought ‘ok now I just look like an angry black woman’ or I feel ashamed to raise my hand and speak up. And then I felt like people were just looking at me when people would use the phrase “people of color.” I felt really uncomfortable and like I didn’t belong or fit in. So I made a shirt, I just took a white t-shirt and I [wrote] a statement on there, something that I wanted to say but [felt I] couldn’t so I wrote it on the shirt, I wear that shirt every day in class now. I didn’t make it for the class to see it, I made it for myself. It gives me courage and reminds me that I’m here to learn and educate and I have every right to be there and raise my hand. That shirt gives me the courage to speak up.

I posted [the photo of the shirt on Instagram] while I was feeling upset and people were sending me paragraphs saying “girl, I feel you, I’ve been through that, this is what you need to do” and someone said something that stuck with me, she said “use your blackness as a tool and not a weapon” and other people were like “you’re not here to change their minds or educate them, you just need to be yourself and say what you need to say”

Wow, that’s great, good for you! So that leads me to my next question. What are some obstacles you face as a Black female artist?

It’s rare to hear about women of color artists in the media, I know that they’re out there but they’re just so hidden. They’re not on the tv screens, not in the magazines, the women of color artists I know are the girls that I’ve met, my friends. It’s nice to be able to create things that I can relate to or they can relate to and it’s nice to be able to have this voice and use it..to let people know what you have to say. I’ve been working on this piece about how the media sexualizes black women. I’m in the creative process, which may take forever but I’m enjoying it. I think that with my platform and my art I have the ability to speak up on injustices and what I have to say and it’s for me. I have this new perspective.

My professor showed us work from an Afro-Latina and it was directed towards the government and it basically stated stay out of my ovaries in a vulgar way something like “my pussy, my rights’’ so she was being very open and blunt and it was great! But the white guys in the class were like no this is wrong and saying things like “I don’t think she’s a political advocate or a political artist” but I raised my hand and said “she’s definitely a political advocate. You have no idea what women of color hear when they get catcalled on a daily basis. This is nothing [compared to that]…the government is invading our space so of course, we’re angry.

I saw that you were featured on arthoecollective for your performing arts piece that was centered around depression and anxiety. Do you feel like mental illness plays a role in the work that you put out? What advice would you give an artist that suffers from mental illness and how to cope with it?

My mental health definitely inspires my work. I got my start in the arts because of my mental health, 7 years ago I was going through a very rough depression and it was like the black hole. It was life or death and I would wake up every day wishing I didn’t wake up and it wasn’t until I picked up a camera that I was able to finally express myself and understand my mind. My camera brought me to life and I started to document my world and my perspective and now I am grateful to say that it was such an incredible journey but in the moment it was like a movie. I had dropped out of high school and for literally a whole year I would wake up and hang out in my room. It was my destiny to find photography and find the arts and I started taking classes and meeting people and got back into school. I had this one moment that I will never forget, I was on my balcony and I had my camera and I was talking to myself like ‘are you going to do this? Is photography something you’re going to do for the rest of your life?’ And I told myself that I will have to be the best and take it seriously and succeed. I decided in that moment, I will be a professional photographer and I will stop at nothing to get there. I was 16. I was going through a really bad depression and ever since then, I haven’t put my camera down. It’s a learning and growing process. There’s never an end goal for me, I am always looking for the next thing I can do, who can I help, who can I meet, and what kind of platform can I create for other people. [Visual] art is definitely an outlet for an expression when words aren’t enough.

You have to find your style, there are some people that aren’t open about their mental health and not willing to put that out there and that’s perfectly ok! Being vulnerable just works for me. It helps me heal and to understand myself but it depends on the person. I would say that in those dark times, turn to your art. It doesn’t mean you have to put it online or show anyone just create just to create. Focus on how you feel and try to translate that and that’s where the magic happens.

Where do you see GPM 5 years?

I see GPM having multiple branches. I hope to see us connecting more with our community and having support from businesses in our areas. It would be great if we can have mentors, older women that want to connect with girls and mentor them and be there for them and support them. [I want] GPM to be all over the world, every city will have one. Girl Power is a universal thing and I feel like good things will come from it.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years, I hope to be on site as a war photographer. I want to be on assignments professionally in the photography world. I want to be traveling and doing outreach work. Working on social issues is a passion of mine and I want to be able to connect with people from all over the world and meet women who do amazing things in their [community]. I definitely see myself breaking barriers in the art world and creating platforms for WOC and all girls. In 10 years I will have a family [laughs].

War photography is my dream career. I want to do it before having kids, and getting married. I want to travel and tell the unheard stories of varying topics, that include conflict and women. I just want to capture the truth. I want to document raw unfiltered truth in hopes to inspire change.

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