HEIDI STEVENS TRIBUNE VOICES
Column: Amy Boyle set out to tell the stories of 52 phenomenal women. She’s at 100 and counting, boosting her faith in humanity all along the way.
By HEIDI STEVENS
CHICAGO TRIBUNE | AUG 12, 2020
There’s Hillary Flores, the founding editor of La DePaulia, DePaul University’s Spanish language newspapers.
There’s Kimberly Lloyd, a 21-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who started an organization called We Got You Covered to boost literacy rates among Chicago youth.
There’s Rebecca Sankey, who grew up surrounded by violence and addiction and went on to lead the nonprofit Shama Ministries, which helps families recover from incarceration.
There’s Kim Leali, a Chicago chef who works to mentor and elevate women in the often-cutthroat culinary industry.
Each one is part of Chicago photographer Amy Boyle’s 52 Phenomenal Women project, a documentary series with weekly installments that feature Boyle’s photos alongside the women’s stories, written in their own words.
Boyle started the project in 2018 as a lead-up to her 50th birthday. She wanted a celebration that trained her lens outward, that captured the world around her and the women working to improve it.
She describes them as a cross between #WomanCrushWednesday and Humans of New York. She figured she’d find a new woman each week for a full year: 52 weeks, hence the name.
On Wednesday, she hit 100 consecutive weeks.
She thought about stopping at 52, but the project was sustaining her faith in humanity’s willingness to care about and for one another. Plus people told her they looked forward to the weekly posts and didn’t want them to stop.
“If you read anything these days, it’s easy to get stuck in the quagmire of everything feeling bad,” Boyle told me. “It helps to look for each individual person making change, even in tiny ways. If you put one foot in front of the other, you’re making progress. You might trip, but you get back up.”
Activist Nita Tennyson is Boyle’s 100th subject. Tennyson travels around Chicago, posting her location on social media and inviting people to come drop off diapers, wipes, formula and other supplies. Then she brings the donations to different communities and distributes them to people who need them. She calls it Nita’s Love Train.
On Wednesday afternoon, Boyle and Tennyson met under the tracks at the Fullerton Red Line station so Boyle could deliver prints of Tennyson’s portraits. A few hours earlier, Boyle was in Wilmette shooting photos of a mom of two with lung cancer who’s lobbying Congress to fund more research on lung cancers that aren’t caused by tobacco. She’ll probably be week 101.
I asked Boyle if she had a favorite subject.
“That’s like picking your favorite kiddo,” she said. (She has four kiddos — all sons, ages 17, 19, 22 and 24.) “I’m just grateful to everyone who says yes and agrees to be vulnerable and share their stories.”
Boyle asks two things of each woman she profiles: Recommend another woman doing phenomenal things and make a donation to Dress For Success, a nonprofit that provides career training and professional attire for women who need assistance. The project has raised just over $7,000 for Dress For Success, she said.
(Full disclosure: Boyle featured me in March 2019. I exaggerate not even a little when I say I feel utterly unworthy of the company.)
The coronavirus changed Boyle’s approach a bit. She used to occasionally feature women outside of Illinois and fly to their home states to profile them. No more. She used to go inside people’s homes and offices and other indoor spaces. Now she stays mostly outdoors. But despite the tweaks, she has kept the project going without interruption.
“That’s the beauty of the long lens,” she said.
The safety of a little distance, but still keeping an eye on what’s good, what’s helping, what needs elevating.
One hundred phenomenal women, 100 weeks of training her lens outward, 100 reminders of all the ways people are working and creating and loving a better world into existence.
Find Amy Boyle’s full project and her subjects’ full stories at 52phenomenalwomen.com.
Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats.