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On a recent hot Friday afternoon, I went with photographer Amy Boyle to visit 80-year-old Sue Smith in Lincoln Park, to hear her joyous words of wisdom I’d only read about. She greeted us in a summery orange shirt and matching handkerchief with shining jewelry, but an even brighter smile.
Smith recently lost her husband to coronavirus and moved to Chicago from Indiana to be with her son and family. But despite the loss, which she called a life-changing event, Smith is not letting her happiness be spoiled and wants others reading her story to follow her lead. “Find joy in life through this pandemic,” Smith told me. “There is joy every day—in a leaf falling, a flower blooming, that is my philosophy.”
Smith is one of 52 women featured in Boyle’s two-year photo project called 52 Phenomenal Women, which started September 2018 and will conclude September 9, 2020. For more than 100 consecutive weeks, Boyle has highlighted extraordinary and inspiring women for her photo project, showcasing the beauty in our stories, turning struggles into words of advice and lessons learned. It’s a reminder that we each have a story to share and that there is power in displaying vulnerability—that we aren’t as alone as the world can sometimes make us feel, especially the isolation brought on by this pandemic.
Boyle, an internationally published photographer, wanted to start the project to create a dialogue of inclusion, support, and recognition by celebrating the phenomenal qualities within each woman. As the project wraps up, the Chicago native looks back on the inspiring community she’s created. She’s also looking forward: she plans to create a book out of the project. It’s scheduled to be released on International Women’s Day in March 2021. And she’s working on a podcast to debut in October to keep the conversation going. Tentatively called Speaking Of Phenomenal, it will be a combination of new and old interviews with women bettering their communities.
“The community that the project has built, whether in person [or on Facebook],a lot of these women have gotten to know each other.[It] has been wildly rewarding,” Boyle says.
52 Phenomenal Women brought together neighbors, friends, coworkers, local leaders, and entrepreneurs from 15 states ranging in age from 21 to 84. Boyle hopes they will be an everlasting group, that their connections will allow them to offer advice, support and everything in between for years to come. Women were referred through past participants and each shared their story in their own words on the site’s blog. Each also donated to the Chicago-based Dress for Success Worldwide-Central, a coalition that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and other tools to help women thrive. The photo project has raised more than $7,000 for the nonprofit.
Beyond just highlighting women we should know, Boyle’s project is like an encyclopedia of women’s empowerment, with encouraging stories that need a wide audience. “It’s the ability to see people get different things, whether it’s learning someone’s circumstances or what they have overcome or how they choose joy,” she says.
As luck would have it, Boyle says our new normal hasn’t stopped the project’s routine. Thanks to the large but tight-knit group of women, she never lost a week, even though photo shoots shuffled around like Tetris. That taught her to let go of her regimented plan—a thing so many of us cling to in an effort to complete a project—and pivot to the present moment.
“I am a planner, but I had to surrender a lot more than I thought but for the best outcome I could have ever hoped for,” she says. “We put ourselves in such rigid [boxes]—‘I have to do this by this time’, whether it’s in your 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s. But as long as it’s guided by your heart and where you would like to go, heck, the road keeps changing and that’s OK, that makes the ride interesting.”
Smith did exactly that and followed a new path to Chicago to start fresh after 57 years of marriage and a plentiful life in Fishers, Indiana. She says she was honored to be part of the project and share her story with the world, and the community of women has been a blessing as she adjusts to a new city. “It was such joy for me to find friends,” she says. “I am not from here and I came here [two days] after I lost my husband.”
Nika Clark, who grew up in North Lawndale but now lives in Bricktown, shared her story of traveling to Ghana to connect with her heritage and culture after finding out she had Ghanian ancestry. What started as a 40th birthday trip turned into a deeply emotional and rewarding experience that Clark was happy to share with the world through Boyle’s project.
She was able to make the trip in early February, before coronavirus took hold, and says the lessons learned from the trip will stick with her forever, just like the connection to the land that she felt. She says the trip was like a coming home journey, especially visiting the Cape Coast, which was the final passage where enslaved African were taken through and put on the ships. “I hope I did return to one of my ancestors who has been watching over me; I hope there was some relief because I know I felt it,” she says. “It was a powerful release of emotion that I didn’t know I had within me.”
Tanya Turner, who lives in Oak Park and is an admirer of Boyle’s work, found power in sharing her story of growing up in an abusive, low-income household and how she persevered through the odds. She became the first person in her family to graduate college and paid off her student loans in just three years. She entered a lucrative career in computer science and started her own travel blog. Her motto: the glass is refillable.
“My goal was to let people know you are not alone,” Turner says of participating in Boyle’s project. “It’s been encouraging to see that women have a voice and that it’s captured and expressed with others. It’s positive and in the world today, we certainly need that.” v