The Identity Project

The Identity Project: Cultivating Empowerment & Illuminating Voice Through Documentary Storytelling

Washington D.C., United StatesWashington D.C., United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Identity Project addresses poverty-related barriers to identity development in Indigenous girls through a specialized curriculum in documentary arts and project-based literacy learning. Our interventions result in a sense of empowerment and self-actualization in school and beyond.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if the most practical tool for survival is a profound belief in the self?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The US is facing a national crisis in education, and serious poverty related barriers to learning are impeding children’s identity development and success in school and life. These barriers to learning are effecting Native American girls profoundly and viscerally. Disruptive classroom function paired with unstable school cultures ill-equipped to deal with issues stemming from poverty are derailing readiness to learn in our most at-risk girls.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

The Identity Project believes that Indigenous girls growing up in poverty, and dealing with the implications of traumatic stress, must experience an education that responds directly to their needs. These girls need programming that can lift them out of this internal war zone, ravaging their sense of self worth and squandering their richness of identity. Our program responds directly to this need by engaging girls in critically reflective identity work through a specialized curriculum in documentary arts and project-based literacy learning. Equipped with a pedagogical framework tested in over ten Title 1 schools, our interventions empower marginalized girls by investigating questions of selfhood through critical and creative lenses.


first prize in The Joy of Giving Something Photography Contest from the Forward Thinking Museum (2014); a gallery exhibit at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum on Arts Education (2013)
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

One early implementation of this program was in a severely underserved school within a Dominican American community. At the end of the implementation my 8th graders produced three final products; an ensemble spoken word performance (English/Spanish), a book of poetry, and a final gallery exhibition of portrait projects. The performance was so well received that we were invited to perform at city hall. Many of these students had never performed before, let alone travelled across town. This was a huge hurdle for them and for their families who came to support them. It proved to be a valuable opportunity for them to celebrate where they came from and experience a kind of pride that is rare and glistening for new immigrants in this country.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

The impact of this work is best reveled by reflective student self reporting. Our process deepens students’ self-perception, equipping them with methods of self-reflection that lead to self-healing. In the words of past teacher collaborator, Kaydi McQuade, “Many of my students are not just feeling the tension between childhood and maturity, but also between the lure of the street against their morality. The Identity Project met them at a crucial crossroads. My students trusted Alesandra and believed when she told them they could make great things. Now they are experienced performers and writers. Now they know they are artists.” In addition to collecting powerful testimonials, we must measure our success through strong program evaluation implying a method of measurement that incorporates MTSS and social emotional learning standards.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

It is my hope that as implementations in Indian Country start to increase, we will have the opportunity to partner with tribal schools and community centers on reservations and in urban areas. A longterm goal of The Identity Project is to develop a program model that can be self sustaining once the implementation period is over. For this reason, we are currently designing Identity Project professional development trainings for Indigenous teachers who are interested in sustaining this important work within their community.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

It is our intention to secure 501c3 status and apply for arts education and mental health grant funding from the national government, tribal governments, family foundations etc. In addition, we plan to secure interest and support from private funders in the arts and education. Another option that we've considered is incubating within a similarly aligned institution, organization or university department.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Amidst the multitude of strong education reform models, few recognize that a students' readiness to learn must change before meaningful academic success is possible. Even fewer stress social and emotional learning, and even fewer engage the arts as a catalyst for holistic, student-centered change. The Identity Project is unique in that it incorporates all of these reform strategies. Equipping itself with a pedagogical framework tested in over ten Title 1, turnaround schools, we believe that documentary arts are the ideal medium for empowering and engaging at-risk girls in school.

Founding Story

The Identity Project initially grew out of my year of service with AmeriCorps in 2011. As a full time arts integration educator, I was placed in one of Rhode Island’s most underperforming, Title 1 schools. Throughout the year I saw that my students were asked to achieve without ever being recognized or fully seen. The only way I found success breaking down the barriers of poverty related trauma was to engage these young people in the work of themeselves. To reawaken their voices, to empower them with their own capacity for originality. As we dove deeper into our work together, I realized that what my students needed in order to survive their daily lives was a genuine belief in themselves.


At this time, I am the sole person working full-time on The Identity Project. However, over the next year I would like to grow my team out to 3 full-time members. I see taking on one teammate who has a background in arts/non-profit management, marketing and fundraising. And, I see taking on a second teammate who has a background in clinical mental health counseling and social work. This second person will join me when it comes to implementing interventions in the field with Indigenous girls.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

Ashoka Changemaker email

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

Founding Artist & Director

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

Gender Equality.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

I spent this past summer in Santa Fe, NM working toward my graduate degree at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. While in Santa Fe, I worked closely with my mentor and renowned Acoma Pueblo poet and scholar, Simon Ortiz, to design a new pedagogical framework for The Identity Project specifically geared towards Indigenous youth. In an effort to ground itself in the cultural values of Indigenous, and specifically Pueblo, youth, The Identity Project’s framework draws additional inspiration and direction from Dr. Eunice Romero-Little’s The Keres Study: Identifying Giftedness Among Keresan Pueblo Indians. Conducted from 1990-1993, this study was instrumental in breaking down and problematizing conventional understandings of intelligence as represented by the IQ test. Dr. Romero-Little explains that the Keres Study was “named after the seven Keresan Pueblo communities in which the qualitative study took place, [and] strove to understand giftedness from culturally knowledgeable Keres members active in the traditional life of the community”. This unique investigation resulted in the documentation of a Pueblo construct of giftedness encompassing four domains. These domains identify the realms of giftedness as expressed by individuals within in the cultural contexts of Keresan Pueblo life and they include the Humanistic/Affective Domain, Linguistic Domain, Knowledge/Cognitive Domain and the Domain of Creativity. From a Pueblo perspective, all individuals are viewed as being bestowed with chaa’wiya, a spiritual blessing of giftedness that embodies the characteristics from one or more of these domains. However, to be considered truly gifted in Keres, it is expected that the gift be given back, in a gesture of service to one’s community. This construct of giftedness offers a deeply humanizing perspective of students’ innate abilities and their intuitive intelligence. In an effort to realize the wisdom of The Keres Study, The Identity Project utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to nurture the qualities within each domain. This effort is exemplified by the creation of four corresponding learning phases for each of the four domains of Pueblo giftedness. The creation of this framework was the last essential piece to complete in preparation for delivering this work to Indigenous communities.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

Forthcoming Partner Schools in Indian Country:
Santa Fe Indian School (NM)
Fort Washakie School (WY)

Current Partner Organizations:
Big Picture Learning (Boston, MA)
The Literacy Lab (Washington D.C.)
BeHeard.World (Boston, MA)