The Awakenings Project by Marissa Southards
By Sharee Silerio

When Marissa Southards picked up a camera three years ago, she was simply trying something new. One day, her husband Brian, a pencil artist, brought a professional-level camera home so he could work in a different medium.

Active in St. Louis protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, she took the camera into the streets to capture what was going on.

“You see an image, and it angers you, or it makes you mad. Or it inspires you. We are now equipped with the ability to tell our own story, because we have cameras now. One of the best quotes that I have ever heard was ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ And it won't be. We're telling our own story and we're doing it through pictures.”


After reviewing her protest photos, Southards’ husband noticed that she captured some unforgettable moments. Though her work was beautiful, she rejected the part of her that was an artist.

“I felt like, I'm a mom. I'm a career professional. I'm a wife. I'm an activist. These are the most important things,” she said. “Yes, I have this creativity, but I'm not going to do anything about it.”

After flipping through Instagram, she came upon a photo of her friend Ashley, covered but topless, fully without shame.

“Her attitude was, ‘If you don't like it, look away, but I love who I am.’ There was something about this woman owning everything about who she is that sparked something in me. I call it Revelation X because it was that true moment that I realized I am really stuck in my own way."

With her husband’s help, she took a photo of the word “empowered” on her bare back, put it in black and white, and then posted it on social media. She received a lot of positive feedback, and her friend Julie proposed using her space, the botanical beauty store Blissoma, for a shoot. After planning and promoting, they expected 10, maybe 12 women to show up.

Marissa Southards 
“There was a line. I ended up getting 52 women, girls and Trans women who were ready to reclaim themselves. Every woman chose a word that best reflected them, and it was not the label that society gave them,” says Southhards.

Thus, on October 29, 2016, The Awakenings Project was born in St. Louis, Missouri. The series was so powerful that Southards did it again. This past summer, she shot Awakenings II in Mattoon, IL, St. Louis, and Chicago, which included 101 participants. Awakenings III, which kicked off in Chicago this past weekend, has a wait list and will span multiple cities such as Louisville, Kentucky; Mobile, AL; St. Louis; Mattoon; and more.


Kujichagulia (Self-determination)
Using the body as a form of empowerment, protest, healing and reclamation has become a passion for Southards. This January, she planned an action during the St. Louis Women’s March when its leaders decided to silence women of color by disregarding their point of view, feelings and experiences.

“For generations, white women's bodies have been put on a pedestal. They have been used to shame women of color. Specifically, if you don't fit this idea, if you don't look like me, we're going to shame you. We decided to take back the messaging of our own bodies,” Southhards explains.

During the march, seven women walked down Market Street with little to no clothing on, and messages written on them such as: 53% of white women voted for Trump; Black Women Matter; Black Trans Women Matter; Resist; and No Justice, No Peace. By the end of the march, the group had grown to about 42 women.

Women's March 2017
Kelly Morrison, one of the models for Awakenings II, also participated in Southards’ Women’s March action says,

“There is something really beautiful and empowering about stripping away the context of everyone's opinion of you and focusing on how you see yourself, and putting that word on your body for all to see."
When using the female body as a form of protest, Southards feels that it's important to focus on issues that impact all women.

“Body as canvas is not a form of protest utilized very often. There's a very human element to it, and it’s very risky," says Marissa. "You have to be very cautious about it. But because it is so visual, the impact is bold. There is no way to ignore it."

To keep up with activist and photographer Marissa Southards, follow her on Facebook  & Instagram

Do you think bodies used as canvas is a viable form of protest?
 Sharee Silerio is a St. Louis-based freelance writer, Film and TV writer-producer, and blogger. When she isn’t creating content for The Root or The St. Louis American, she enjoys watching drama/sci-fi/comedy movies and TV shows, writing faith and self-love posts, relaxing with a cup of chai tea, crafting chic DIY event décor, and traveling. Review her freelance portfolio at then connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
A group gathered at a candlelight vigil at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., on Sunday.CreditCarolyn Kaster/Associated Press

At this point, the instances—ranging from absurd to horrifying—are almost a daily occurrence. Angry, red-faced women hurling racist insults at Wal Mart, Sears and at festivals in Chicago. Nooses found at George Washington University, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and at a Washington DC construction site. Fatal stabbings on Portland trains and at the University of Maryland And earlier this week, Buzzfeed issued this report on how children across the nation are using rhetoric from Donald Trump's presidential campaign to bully and taint children of color.

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All of these terror attacks combined with the continued shootings of unarmed citizens by police, existing and newly proposed systemic racism spearheaded by the likes of Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos, Ku Klux Klan rallies and blatant voter disenfranchisement highly suggests a resurgence of good, old-fashioned Jim Crow. So what are we supposed to do in the face of it? And more importantly, how do we educate and protect our children?

If these various terror attacks would have been perpetrated by ISIS/ISIL sympathizers, then news media all across America would feature news segment after news segment on the horror of these events. Teary-eyed witnesses would express their fear and confusion and then specials would be produced specifically discussing the existential threat to America as we know it. Washington politicians would be holding hearings to get to the bottom of the problem and penning new legislation to increase protections. County and city officials would hold town halls teaching God-fearing, Christian citizens on how to alert police and shelter in place during Orlando night club-inspired active shooter situations. Journalists would publish a flurry of articles on how to properly educate and protect children on the scourge of Islamic terrorism sweeping the nation.

With regard to White hatred in all its various forms, ain’t none of that happening.

A Google search will produce an array of intermittent articles all written from a White perspective about talking to White children about racism. Each of the articles advise parents to start early with age-appropriate dialogue. The articles also urge parents to help children avoid following the social cues they have already picked up on by the age of three. They say to reinforce the idea that beauty and positivity come in all shades of color, not just White.

Obviously, these articles are both nice and necessary. But based on the afore-mentioned Buzzfeed article alone, these articles aren’t happening often enough. Plus, Black families are still put in the impossible position of explaining to their children that they should indeed be Black and proud but their Blackness could still be a liability in this here ‘Murica.

Three years ago, during the cultivation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Atlanta Black Star released this article discussing eight specific ways to discuss racism with Black children. The advice is still relevant and helpful—don’t avoid the discussion, be honest, embrace teachable moments, relate personal experiences and reinforce self-pride—but is it enough in the face of rhetoric and violence emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential victory?

As the parent of two sons under the age of two, I am open to any and every bit of advice I can get that doesn’t end in harm to my family, or my husband or I ending up in jail. And I’m counting on our community to come together, as we’ve done before, to empower, protect and guide ourselves and our families through these trying times. One final question is can and will we unite, despite age, income or location, to combat the new Jim Crow?

Nikki Igbo is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and political junkie. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and a Masters in Fine Arts of Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. When not staring in disbelief at the antics unfolding on CSPAN, she enjoys philosophical arguments with her husband, 70's era music and any excuse to craft with glitter. Feel free to check out her freelance services at and stalk her on twitter @nikigbo or Instagram at @nikigbo.