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A Self-Advocate's Photography Gives Voice to Others

Iris Ramirez, DSHA ’19, received two prestigious 2019 Wisconsin Gold Key awards from the nationally-based Scholastic Art Awards program. Her award-winning photography was displayed at the Milwaukee Art Museum in March of 2019, and she was invited to compete at the national level. During her time at DSHA, Ramirez has become a self-advocate with the confidence to give voice to others through creative work.
Recent graduate Iris Ramirez, DSHA ’19, identifies as a “storyteller at heart.” She has found countless ways to do so. She is a musician who plays multiple instruments; she also sings. She has performed on-stage in DSHA theatre productions, as well as working behind-the-scenes to bring a production to life. And she is an award-winning artist who works in multiple mediums.
But photography is her passion. It is here where she feels most equipped to tell the stories that matter. To tell the stories of others who may not have the ability to do so themselves.
And it started at DSHA. Before she felt ready to advocate on behalf of others, she recognized the need to develop her own voice — to become a self-advocate.
Finding confidence through community
When Ramirez entered DSHA as a freshman, she felt her peers were sensing a level of comfort that was not immediately present in her own experience. Thus she felt led to find a group with which she could connect. Furia Latina became this group. Ramirez, who identifies as Mexican, loved the dedicated appreciation for the Hispanic culture. But more importantly, she loved that this co-curricular regularly addressed some of the challenging issues Latinos face in the real world — beyond the walls of DSHA.
Ramirez describes her Furia Latina experience as a “pillar of learning how to speak up for myself.” She attributes this significant depth of self-development to the club’s moderator, retired DSHA World Languages Faculty and Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator Jim Wilkinson.
“Mr. Wilkinson demonstrated how to be an advocate for oneself — how to speak up for the things that matter,” Ramirez said. “His voice showed me how to have a voice of my own, and that no one should live with a sense of loneness. That was inspiring — it gave me a reason to develop my own sense of self-advocacy.”
Exploring a passion; creating connections
By sophomore year, Ramirez had developed a new sense of self and confidence through her Furia Latina experience; thus, she was ready to try something new. And this “something new” would be life-changing.
With her new sense of self-advocacy at the ready, she ventured beyond the safety of Furia Latina and discovered photography through the Find Your Focus club at DSHA. Club moderator and retired DSHA Foundations and Corporate Relations Officer Frank Miller set Ramirez up with a camera and mentored the development of her new skill. Alongside of additional guidance from DSHA Visual Arts Faculty Nora Larscheid and Jill Pitterle, DSHA ’72, Ramirez was encouraged to explore this new medium in full.
“I put everything into my photography,” Ramirez shares. “I would not have been able to do this without the help and encouragement of Mr. Miller and my art teachers. Mrs. Pitterle has always pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and Mrs. Larscheid carries herself and teaches in a way that always inspires.”
The summer before her senior year, Ramirez sought out an opportunity to combine her love of photography and missions. She landed in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala through an organization called Group International and worked with a women’s co-op. The co-op focused on sustainable living through handcrafted beadwork and woven garments to sell to tourists.
Ramirez says, “I feel a big calling in missions. I like to make connections, to walk with the people and empathize.” And this was the perfect place for her to do so — with a camera in tow, surrounded by artisanal beauty and women to serve.
She knew she would find stories to tell, and voices that needed a platform. But more importantly, she wanted to build relationships and view the world through a different lens than her own.
Self-discovery for the sake of others
Ramirez fell in love with Guatemala. “There is a very deep Mayan influence, which was special to me. My middle name is Mayan. I felt that I was finding myself,” Ramirez shares. This significant feeling of connection — and her DSHA-developed self-advocacy skills — led her to move beyond the work her missions team was doing, and into the streets and homes of the city she was serving. One afternoon, she was invited into the home of an elderly woman — whose name she was unable able to learn — but whose heart and story she most certainly captured through a black and white portrait entitled Depend.
“I developed a portfolio from my time in Guatemala; the colors of the community were so vibrant, but I chose black and white because I wanted others to see the stories through the details in the faces,” Ramirez shares. The body of this work was entitled Sufficiency.
Months later, Depend would earn Ramirez the prestigious Wisconsin Gold Key Scholastic Art Award in Photography for a singular photo. Arguably, this award is considered the visual arts equivalent of an athletic state championship. However, what Pitterle and Larscheid call an “extraordinary” and “rare accomplishment” is that Ramirez also received the Gold Key honor for her Sufficiency portfolio work which went on to be evaluated in New York City at the national level.
However, for Ramirez, the honor is not about her or her talent behind a camera. “I wanted my audience to meet the women in the way I did,” she shares. “I feel the people are living on through the photos. They now have a platform; I get to give them a voice in the world.”
A defined purpose
Ramirez appreciates the chance to make a connection between her award-winning photography and the evolution of her own self-advocacy. “I am becoming confident as an individual so that I can advocate for others. Before photography, I found it difficult to interpret what my purpose was,” Ramirez says. “But now I tell other people’s stories — which is the most important thing we can do.”
This fall Ramirez is living in New York City attending the esteemed Parsons School of Design on a substantial merit-based scholarship. She will study communications design and plans to work as a photojournalist for a major publication in the future — “telling stories that need to be told.”
DSHA Quality of a Graduate: She is a Self-Advocate — She is a SELF-ADVOCATE, who as a young woman learns to accurately assess her abilities and to recognize and resist the cultural forces and customs that would erode her own emerging sense of self, or cause her to act in conflict with her own values and beliefs. Through systematic opportunities to learn, practice, and master self-advocacy behaviors, she begins to articulate her beliefs and values. She uses her own voice to state her opinion, ask questions, and effectively negotiate for her strongest possible outcome.
    • Iris Ramirez, DSHA '19


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