'Images had power': Former ballerina uses images to empower women of color, children from underprivileged communities

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- A former ballerina is focusing her attention on empowering women of color and children from underprivileged communities - and she's doing it through the power of imagery.

"One of the things that I want people to understand is that this project is so much bigger than ballet," said San Jose resident Aesha Ash, founder of The Swan Dreams Project, a self-funded program that aims to get people to think twice about stereotypes.

Growing up in Rochester, New York, Ash was part of a program that sent students from inner-city neighborhoods to schools in the suburbs, where she encountered assumptions about what it meant to be a minority.

"There's this image of the woman of color, this soft, angelic, ethereal image that we don't often see, but that we exist, and that we are people who are multi-dimensional," said Ash.

Ash was accepted into the School of American Ballet when she was 13, and would go onto join the New York City Ballet at the age of 18.

"No matter if you're a male or a woman, gay, straight, black, white, when you're a minority in a space, you feel that as soon as you walk into a room," added Ash. "It's lonely because they did not share my unique story, that they didn't share where I've come from, and the added challenges of being a woman of color and feeling isolated, feeling like... I didn't belong."

Despite the odds, Ash never gave up and ended up dancing professionally for 13 years. Upon retiring, she decided to use her platform for good, and that's how The Swan Dreams Project came to light. Images taken of her while dressed in a tutu on the streets of Oakland have since been shared all over the world.

"Others were saying if I only saw an image like this when I was dancing, I never would've given up," said Ash. "That's when I knew that the images had power and that they were working."

Ash has traveled the country conveying the message that beauty and talent shouldn't be constrained by race or socio-economic status. We recently met up with her as she was leading a Black History Month celebration at Lietz Elementary in San Jose, where her two children attend school.

Students say they were inspired to hear about Ash's journey.

"She showed something called grit," said Lietz student Charlotte Homer. "She didn't give up and that's what I think is a hero."

Ash's kids say they're happy to share the lessons they've learned from her with those around them.

"I was speechless because it's amazing seeing my mom do all this stuff for all these kids," said Alessia Ruello, Ash's daughter.

Salvatore Ruello, Ash's son, echoed his sister's comments and said: "No matter what skin color you are, you're a person like everybody else and you should be treated the right way."

This ABC7 star, who is committed to breaking down barriers, has a heartfelt message for the next generation.

"That there's somebody like me that's encouraging them to dare to dream," said Ash.

To learn more about The Swan Dreams Project, click here.

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