When Aesha Ash was growing up in the inner city of Rochester, NY, she imagined people driving through her neighborhood, seeing her black skin and never knowing the dreams that lived in her heart. Aesha also knew that for those dreams to come true – for her to have a career as a professional ballet dancer – she would have to pave her own road.

“They’d never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, some day she’s going to make it into New York City Ballet,” Ash told Dance Magazine.

But pave that road she did, going on to become, for the majority of her career, the only African American dancer with the New York City Ballet Company. Now that she’s retired, she’s set her sights back on that neighborhood in Rochester – and others like it.

In 2011, Aesha Ash launched the Swan Dreams Project, which aims to inspire kids in communities like the one she grew up in. Originally, she wanted to pay for images of herself around Rochester in her tutu to be posted on the street – but not because she’s vain. She wanted to combat a very specific monster from her youth.

“I remember growing up and in the bodega you’d see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes. I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light. … I want to show it’s okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we’re multidimensional.”

Ash knows firsthand the power that positive images can have on a young and hungry mind. When she was a student at the School of American Ballet, she looked often on a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long.

“That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted,” she says. “I’d see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too.”

Ash soon realized she didn’t have the budget to fund her original plan (“I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!”). But she’s made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration. Any proceeds go instead to other organizations working to offer ballet in diverse communities.

The mother of two teaches ballet for free here and there, and still puts on her tutu for the occasional stroll around Rochester. And, in the event she runs into any kids with big, wide eyes, she makes sure to stop and tell them how she was once in their sneakers, but traded them for pointe shoes on a New York City stage.

You can support her efforts through her online shop, or donate to swandreamsproject.org.

h/t: Dance Magazine