Story & photos by Dana Driskill
With a 41 percent foreign born population in City Heights, it’s easy to see how a sizable percent are refugees who have come to resettle in this neighborhood in San Diego.
Refugees’ presence can be seen and felt in various areas of the community- from currency exchange buildings to colorful murals at the schools to authentic Vietnamese, Mexican, and Ethiopian eateries, just to name a few.
While refugees bring complex and beautiful traditions and practices from their culture to the area, the transition from their previous home to a new one isn’t always easy. As a result, City Heights provides various resources to help refugees resettle and assimilate to the new community.
One such organization is the AjA Project, an arts based program founded in 2000 for refugee and urban youth, and some adult populations.
The name AjA is an acronym for the phrase, “Autosuficiencia Juntada con Apoyo” which means supporting self-sufficiency and represents the core philosophy of the organization.
The foundation of the AjA Project lies in its method called participatory photography, meaning that the participant leads the learning process.
AjA Project director Sandra Ainslie describes the organization’s role as “we give them a tool, in this case photography, and a framework, some technical lessons, and a theme. Then they go out and decide for themselves what to take pictures of. We don’t tell them how to think or what to do.”
Through this process, refugee and urban youth develop a better sense of self and cultural identity.
The AjA project’s website includes testimonials of different students in the program over the years. One testimonial, by a 15-year-old girl from Iraq, illustrates the universal language of photography.
“When I first came to the U.S. I could only say, ‘Hi.’ I was shy and not comfortable talking about my culture because it was different than others.
AjA helped me be proud of where I had come from and to learn about my identity as an Iraqi woman,” said Lidia. “Telling stories using photos is important because maybe you don’t understand that language that another person speaks, but if you show them a picture from your experience, they can start to understand you.”
The headquarters of the AjA project are located on Fairmount Avenue in City Heights, and the front of the building features a close up painting of a child looking through a camera. Phrases burst through the camera lens: “there’s a lot of beautiful places if we just look,” “I am proud of my community,” and “I have learned that if you don’t tell people who you are they will tell you where they believe you will fit.”
While the students attend the program primarily at their schools, the headquarters of the AjA project does feature some student work in a space reminiscent of a gallery. One room displays quotes from different students and their photography, but other multimedia projects, such as audio picture slideshows, are also on display.
Ainslie says that the focus of the organization is more on the process of creating rather than the end product. She believes the perspective the participants gain, both on an individual level of introspection and on a large level with the community, is the catalyst for change.
“Often times the communities we serve are not given an opportunity to give their point of view. Even though decisions and changes are being made around them, they’re not participating in those changes and decisions,” said Ainslie. “This gives them the opportunity to address it from their own perspective, but in that process they’re actually realizing what their perspective is.”
The organization’s effect works two-fold: on an individual level, it allows participants control of representation and self-realization, and for the community at large, it mobilizes more active participants in the community to create positive influence and change.
“But also the work also serves as a bridge for dialogue,” said Ainslie. “So beyond that individual effect there’s also the opportunity to showcase the work and allow the work to become a launching point for understanding and starting a dialogue between different sectors of communities.”
Ainslie emphasizes that the AjA Project does not claim to empower individuals, instead the participants in the program have the potential and power in themselves to voice their point of view, change the narrative others may write about them, and participate in positive change for their new home.
Dana Driskill is SDFP’s summer intern.