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Graduate’s research connects community resilience to craft-making
group of women sitting in a circle talking

Imani Wright (left, wearing cap) met women who were learning skills and making art at El Centro de Formacion in early 2020. She wrote her interdisciplinary studies honors thesis about their art and its significance to reaching UN Sustainable Development Goals.

— Photo courtesy of Imani Wright.

Can a woman’s creative handwork help heal herself and the world? Imani C. Wright, who graduated from Emory College in May, believes so, based on her interdisciplinary honors research in Central America and personal experience growing up in Washington, D.C.

Originally an anthropology major, Wright investigated human societies and cultures, which led her in early 2020 to Granadilla, Costa Rica. She was supposed to create a sustainable program to help immigrant women from Nicaragua better themselves.

Instead, Wright became an ambassador for the powerful work she saw them doing: lifting themselves out of poverty, past abuse and trauma. They did it literally by their own hands, by using recycled materials such as paper, canvas, straw and beans to express their lives.

Sometimes the women sold their art, but its main value was to reclaim their self-worth. By trying and believing in the creative process, they saw their own potential. The biggest dividend was the women’s psychological, spiritual and personal transformation.

Craftsmanship gave them “an escape from the weight of holding onto these experiences and grasping hold of the freedoms these women are constantly denied,” Wright wrote in her honors thesis.

It wasn’t enough for Wright to observe the women’s transformation. She feels most fulfilled when she takes action on behalf of the vulnerable. As an African American, first-generation college student, she knows how that feels.

Strong voices in the shadows

Starting in third grade, Wright commuted from Bladensburg, Maryland, across D.C. to a majority-white, all-girls private school. At 13, she became the after-school caretaker for her younger siblings while her parents worked.

Imani Wright

Imani C. Wright believes that creating things can ignite well-being and improve quality of life.

In many spaces, Wright felt that her experiences would make a difference if anyone would ask or listen, but few did. In high school, as she found her own voice as an activist, she began expressing her story in clay. She sculpted the small apartment of her family of six, contrasting her classmates’ spacious homes. To show the effects of the wealth gap and mass incarceration, she sculpted a staircase with white figures going up one side and Black figures going down the other.

“It was a way to express herself and remind herself how smart and capable she is,” says childhood friend and classmate Ashleigh Hale. “Getting her hands moving was part of her development.”

Making ceramic pieces such as these validated her story, fueled her determination and gave her confidence to lead. She organized a diversity conference for her school, and after the police killings of unarmed Black people in 2020, she created alumnae conversations around race.

“A lot of people don't necessarily have resources or support to amplify their voices, and they have very strong voices, but we don't listen to them,” Wright says. “So a big part of me wants to go deeper with people who are left in the shadows.”

Observing the immigrant women in Costa Rica challenged Wright to make their story matter beyond anthropology. Their craft practice, Wright discovered when she returned to Emory, could influence development studies, which identifies humane, dignifying practices for aiding people in developing countries.

At Commencement, Wright was one of six Emory College graduates with an interdisciplinary studies degree, and her honors thesis promotes the idea that the simple act of trying to make something can ignite well-being and improve quality of life.

“The argument she made about the importance of craft is that it’s quite universal,” says thesis advisor Mark Risjord, professor of philosophy and visiting professor in the Emory Institute for the Liberal Arts, which is home to interdisciplinary studies. “Nutrition, clothing and shelter are essential, but if you’re just doing that, you’re missing something that actually makes it possible to do the basic things better.”

Wright’s work was funded through the Halle Institute Honors Research Global Fellowship, based at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

“My honors research was my way to take what I saw in Costa Rica and put it into action,” Wright says. “I didn’t even know interdisciplinary studies was a major. Without it, I would have gone and learned from the women but not been able to do anything with what I had seen.”

Experiential healing

Through El Centro de Formación Integral Maria Madre de Los Pobres, located in a Catholic church, the immigrant women attended workshops on entrepreneurship and money management. Crafts helped the women feel safe in the close-knit Granadilla community. They worked at their own pace on whatever they wanted to make, shared with each other what they had learned and made discoveries about themselves.

“Poverty can act as a mental cage of sorts in which women blame themselves and feel guilty,” Wright says. “Craftsmanship can be a meditative activity that requires focus but also forces the artist to reckon with mistakes and work past them.”

Confidence and autonomy are essential to sustain women’s lives free from poverty, Wright notes.

“Art can be an outlet to remind people that there is more to their existence than playing into the market economy,” she wrote in her thesis. “Women who do not feel worthy of more cannot achieve more. These deeply rooted barriers, psychological and spiritual, have to be broken down before taking on the personal challenges of escaping poverty.”

Eradicating poverty is the first of 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which make up a global plan to reduce inequality and protect the planet by 2030.

Women’s support is essential to the SDGs because they handle most domestic work and childcare around the world. Wright’s research, which examined models of human well-being and fulfillment such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, connected women’s craftsmanship to solving every SDG.

“Women play an important role in improving overall quality of life for everyone,” Wright says. “Craftsmanship acts as a satisfier to this objective.” 

Being heard, being seen

Since graduating, Wright has begun to look for full-time sustainable development work in the D.C. area. In the long term, she is considering a PhD program, possibly in development studies. She also plans to continue advocating for homegrown practices such as what she saw in the Costa Rican women. 

“Facilitating spaces like this, like the ceramics studio was for me in high school, can level out not being heard and not being seen,” she says. 

“We think about progress from a capitalist or corporate model, that you have to be building something big, and we focus on the product versus the process,” Wright adds. “Bettering your life in some way doesn’t have to be something grand. It can be something very small.”

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