For the third year, the Museum is honored to be participating in the MEPI Student Leaders Program (formerly called U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative or MEPI)—a partnership with Portland State University. The highly competitive program selects students from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They spend seven weeks in the United States, including six weeks in Portland at PSU, where they develop leadership skills and expand their understanding of civil society. Upon completion of the U.S.-based programs, host institutes and NGOs work with participants to implement civic engagement programs in their home communities.
Every Student Leader brings a unique and compelling perspective to the program. Jabr Asmew, a medical student from Benghazi, Libya, aspires to work for Doctors Without Borders. Joelle Nassif from Beirut, who has a double degree in Law and Political Science, has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon and contemplates a career in politics and journalism. Rosa Ouarda Benlakhlef is a 22-year-old student from Algeria who aspires to be a TEFL teacher, a motivational speaker, a social activist, a writer, and much more. Describing herself as restless and driven, she knows she will find a way to make all her dreams come true. The Museum shares this same faith in all of the Student Leaders.
Of the consortium of universities that receive grant funding for the program, Portland is the only site that partners with an art museum—offering students unique opportunities to learn from Museum staff, artists, and educators. The art museum provides a space for critical conversations as well as personal stories, where students explore big ideas such as the role of dissent in democracy and also have intimate conversations around identity and our understanding of home.
This year, students are focusing on artwork related to both Portland and the United States. They met with Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a Portland-based Klamath/Modoc artist, activist, and educator, to discuss indigenous art, cultural identity, and decolonization. Ka’ila guided students through the Native American art galleries, focusing particularly on the work of contemporary artists, such as Lillian Pitt and Joe Feddersen. Students also had the opportunity to discuss art and social justice through works in the Museum’s permanent collection and learn about collaborative initiatives to address Portland’s housing crisis through affordable, sustainable, tiny houses as part of the Quest for Beauty exhibition Plywood POD Initiative.
During the third and final session, the students will have the opportunity to discuss art, race, and democratic practice via the forthcoming exhibition, Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans.