For Seyi Oluyole, providing kids with free education with zero hidden fees attached is her life's goal. For more than seven years, Dream Catchers Academy, founded by Oluyole, has been doing just that for young, talented girls who otherwise would likely not have such opportunities.
Dream Catchers' focus is on using dance and creativity to transform the lives of young girls living in the slums and ghettos of Lagos, Nigeria, who have “experienced abuse, neglect, or economic hardship resulting in a lack of educational attainment”. From just three volunteers, the nonprofit now has about 40 full-time and part-time staff and volunteers.
Getting access to an education is a fundamental human right and an absolutely crucial pathway towards ending extreme poverty and tackling other global challenges, from gender equality to climate change.
But milllions of children are still being sidelined, with young women and girls being disproportionately shut out from getting an education. In fact globally, there are over 130 million girls who are entirely missing out on school — about equivalent to the entire population of Mexico. The ripple effect of this means a continuing lack of women in leadership positions too, which means fewer role models for girls, which all just continues the cycle of gender inequality.
It was the aim of breaking this cycle that inspired Oluyole and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and activist Kiki Mordi (through Mordi's Document Women, a media platform focused on women's representation and empowerment) to partner up and work with the girls from the Dream Catchers' Academy to recreate photos of iconic Black women from different walks of life, to help raise money for the school but also to capture the essence and impact of these iconic women on future generations.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Maya Angelou, acclaimed American poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Maya Angelou, acclaimed American poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer.
“All of these women have had a considerable impact on their society,” Mordi said, of the women chosen to feature in the project, which include former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa; acclaimed American poet and activist, Maya Angelou; and legendary African-American tennis player Althea Gibson.
When asked why she decided to work with the girls from the Dream Catchers Academy for the project, Mordi told us: “I was thinking of where we could find the perfect girls. The Dream Catchers girls were like the perfect embodiment for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. She [Oluyole] found them on the streets and then empowered them with dancing and, as their name suggests, they are chasing dreams."
We caught up with Oluyole to find out more about the project and the incredible work that Dream Catchers Academy is doing.
What's the story of Dream Catchers?
Dream Catchers is something I wish I had when I was younger. The biggest motivation behind Dream Catchers is me creating a platform and providing opportunities for young girls that I wish were available for me while growing up. So that's mostly my drive.
For me it's just remembering how much I really wanted to be involved in the arts, and there weren't many people pushing for me to be able to do that. People think "she's just teaching them to dance" but it's way beyond that. Like there's dance, there's education, and there's housing for them. And the housing part comes in most importantly because as a young child, I also went through homelessness from when I was 10 to 13 years old.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Althea Gibson, legendary tennis player and the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Althea Gibson, legendary tennis player and the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title.
We were homeless for a long time so I know how homelessness can affect a young child, a girl in particular. I know how not having a safe place to stay can just derail you academically, because it's difficult to say that a child who doesn't have a home should concentrate in school and do better.
I think that it's mostly from my experiences as a child, all the dreams and hopes I had, all the things I wished I had access to growing up, and realising how much of a difference it would have made if I had access to those things.
What are some of your highlights in the Dream Catchers journey?
One of my proudest moments has to be the repost from Rihanna in 2018. That's because I'm a big Rihanna fan and no way in my wildest dreams did I think that there would be anything to connect me to Rihanna.
That was a very big scoring point because, at that time, things were really really bad, I was really pushing but it was really hard. So I think that the repost was like one of the catalysts in my life to just remind me that I'm doing what I'm here to do.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Alice Coachman, American athlete and the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Alice Coachman, American athlete and the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
We got a lot of international recognition in 2018 and in 2019. Beyoncé reposted our video and, in 2020, some of the girls got to travel to perform in London. Also, performing as part of Global Citizen: Unite for Our Future in 2020, during COVID-19, when we got to perform with J Balvin. I was very glad about that and we got a lot more international recognition from City Canada, Yahoo, BBC, CNN.
I think the most beautiful accomplishment out of everything is mostly the kids for me, because we have students that are now in university. It’s not just about international recognition and fame but the people who are actually in the program are also getting a chance at a better life.
How does the girls dressing up as iconic Black women illustrate their journey so far?
We had the girls dress as iconic women just for them to know that there are women that they can look up to in the community that we live in. A lot of the girls are told, "Even if you go to school, you will end up coming back home to be somebody's wife." What that project with the iconic women did was give validation to their dreams, inspiring them and opening their minds to know about more women like these.
It was also amazing because they were chosen based on looking similar to the woman they were representing, but the majority of the girls had a lot of similarities with these women so it did a lot in terms of self esteem. We have one of our girls here who was crying because she did not think she was attractive and she was one of the girls that was chosen.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Chioma Ajunwa, a former Nigerian athlete, notable for becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Chioma Ajunwa, a former Nigerian track and field athlete and football player, notable for becoming the first Nigerian to win gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event. She is also the only woman to compete at both the FIFA Women's World Cup as a footballer and the Olympics as a track and field athlete.
So we just showed her the final pictures and said, "Look at you, look at how beautiful you are, don't let anybody tell you that you are ugly."
So it really did a whole lot for us, and a percentage of the pictures sold helps the girls continue their education.
What kind of support does Dream Catchers need moving forward?
The support we need is strategic partnerships and sponsorships. We are growing everyday, our wait-list is ridiculous, it's the fullest wait-list ever. People call me everyday because they want to place girls in our program.
Our space is currently limited and we are working on building a shelter that would be able to accommodate a hundred girls. So basically, what we really need is partnerships and sponsorships. Sponsorships for the education program and partnerships in terms of the other things that we can do because there's also day-to-day operations.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Oumou Sy, Senegalese fashion designer popularly known as "Senegal's Queen of Couture". Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Oumou Sy, Senegalese fashion designer popularly known as "Senegal's Queen of Couture".
We try our best to remain sustainable. For example, we grow the majority of our food like cocoa, corn, and yam. All our girls have a portion of farmland where they grow their own food.
What that does for us is that they learn farming and that's a sustainable skill that can help them become financially independent, and it also saves us money. We are able to eat and sell some when we have excess.
Why are you doing this work?
Educated girls will change their communities, at least that's what I believe. You think you’re just educating one girl but you don’t know how far just that one person will go. And I also just want to be the person I needed when I was younger and homeless.
Giving girls who are talented, who are gifted, an opportunity to succeed in their lives and their career path is very important to me. We found out that a lot of young girls, once they were getting into senior secondary schools, drop out of school and we did not want that for them. So we have programs like this for the Academy, they get formal education along with their arts education.
I just want everybody to understand that art and science are so important that none of them can stand in isolation. Art is as important as every other field.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghanaian author, poet, playwright, academic and former Minister of Education. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghanaian author, poet, playwright, academic and former Minister of Education.
What is your message to young girls?
My message to them would be to trust the process. Work hard, believe in your dreams, and trust the process. As long as you are giving in your best and you believe in yourself, it will happen when it's supposed to happen.
You can support Dream Catchers Academy by purchasing 1-of-1 prints of these images and others like them via the Document Women store here. 50% of proceeds will go directly to the feeding, housing, health, and educational need of the girls of Dream Catchers Academy.