Columbia alumna wins $25,000 3Arts award

Columbia alumna Sophia Nahli Allison is a teaching artist who works with youth to tell visual stories.  After receiving a $25,000 3Arts grant, she is currently working on projects in her home in Los Angeles.

Sophia Nahli Allison, a 2014 photojournalism alumna, has been selected as a recipient of a $25,000 grant from 3Arts, a nonprofit that advocates for artists of color, women artists and artists with disabilities.

Each year, 3Arts selects 10 people as grant recipients, according to Executive Director Esther Grisham Grimm. The organization typically awards $15,000, but this year’s recipients received an additional $10,000, Grimm said. An increase in donations from organizational sponsors and award partners supplied the additional funds, she said.

“We are that strange bird of a nonprofit grant maker that raises money, but we also utilize our own investment portfolios to contribute,” Grimm said. “Every dollar we receive, every contributed dollar to our organization—whether it’s $5 from an individual, $15,000 from a corporation—goes out to an individual artist.”

Allison said she was 26 when she graduated. She grew up in Los Angeles but moved to Chicago during her junior year of high school. Once in Chicago, she became involved in theater and even studied it for a short time but soon realized she wanted to pursue other interests.

She then began to teach young girls photography, she said, spending years teaching the art as a tool for social change as well as empowerment for her students. She said she wanted to explore social issues in her community and hand those ideas down to youth.

“I realized how important it was to create these opportunities for youth, especially youth of color within the city who may not know about photography or video and how that [can be] an important tool for them to learn to tell their stories,” Allison said.

Before receiving her 3Arts award, Allison said she had learned about the organization and knew that was something she wanted to work toward as an artist, but she never thought it would come so quickly.

“I honestly just cried because it shows that hard work and determination pays off,” Allison said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize the importance of working with youth and the importance of art in schools.”

She said the money she was awarded will allow her to do the work she is passionate about because she can focus on her craft and dedicate her time to her work.

“I just felt so loved in that moment by just everything,” Allison said. “It was possibly the most exciting moment I’ve ever had in my life.”

Allison is currently home in L.A. doing a visual journalism project about the L.A. community in addition to teaching several photography workshops with different youth groups. She said she plans to return to Chicago after that.

“Even though Los Angeles is my home, I feel so much love and thanks is due to Chicago in how it’s helped me grow as a person and as an artist,” Allison said.

In addition to the grants, recipients have access to programs including a network of residency fellowships, project support and a crowd-funding program called 3AP as well as professional development opportunities in partnership with Creative Capital in New York City. Once an artist has been selected as a recipient, all those opportunities become available to them,

Grimm said.

Utilizing a nomination and jury process in its award selection, Grimm said the organization seeks 35 anonymous nominators in Chicago who each nominate three artists in their own artistic discipline. A national panel of jurors then vote on those nominees and the previous years honorable mentions. There are five discipline-based panels with three judges each—one local and two from out of state. Nominees fill out applications and judges choose the recipients based on their qualifications, Grimm said.

“I am the humble facilitator of the panels,” Grimm said. “I don’t decide. The organization doesn’t decide. These are real experts in their field—artists, critics, presenters and so on make the selections.”

Suzanne McBride, associate chair of the Journalism Department, said she got to know Allison during her time at the college while working on a year-long project about unsolved homicides in Chicago. Allison went out with several students and took photos of family members of homicide victims, which added a dimension to the project they would not have had otherwise, McBride said.

McBride said it is amazing for an artist to receive such a grant as early in a career as Allison did.

 “She well represents what all of you do at Columbia as students—people who are really deeply involved in the craft and are doing work of professionals long before you graduate,” McBride said.