2016 Changemaker: Jessica Smith

Photography by Sarah Whiting

“I wanted to be able to get the word out in the community, because it’s not something that’s talked about very widely.”
– Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith has been committed to bringing visibility to local artists and global artisans while also raising money for social justice causes and arts education since she opened Regla de Oro in 2010, a gallery and fair trade gift shop. This fall, she used her gallery to bring awareness and raise funds for an issue that’s near and dear to her heart: hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC).

“The Powerful Journey of Hereditary Cancer” exhibit, which ran in September and October for ovarian and breast cancer awareness months, highlighted artists who have been affected by HBOC, many of whom belonged to a group called Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), an organization that provides support and advocacy for people who carry gene mutations that impact predisposition to risk for the cancers.

Smith learned she had the BRCA2 gene mutation after her mother tested positive; her mother is an 18-year breast cancer survivor and a stage 4B gynecological cancer survivor for more than five years. Smith’s grandmother had breast cancer and died of it. By the time Smith got tested, she already had been diagnosed with stage 0 cervical cancer. “My doctor, who I’d been with for 15 years, said, ‘Okay, you’re done. We’ve got to take it out.'” In January 2013, she had a full hysterectomy, and that August had a preventative double mastectomy.

One of the co-coordinators from FORCE, where Smith has sought support in her journey, suggested doing an art show at the gallery around HBOC, knowing that Regla de Oro’s mission is to have exhibitions where the receptions serve as fundraisers for different groups. The topic of breast and ovarian cancer awareness didn’t fall under one of the two categories the gallery typically supports – social justice and arts education – but Smith decided to go ahead. “It was something that’s so important to me,” she says. “I wanted to be able to get the word out in the community, because it’s not something that’s talked about very widely.”

As a mission-driven, for-profit business, the gallery and shop has featured exhibits that rotate every 6-8 weeks, with artist receptions combined as benefits for nonprofits. “It’s a lot about educating and promoting community projects and getting money into the hands of people that really need it,” Smith says.

The exhibit brought awareness to the issue of HBOC, as did an essay Smith wrote for the Minnesota Women’s Press (September 2016) that hangs in the store, telling her own story. “It’s definitely been something that has increased awareness in the community,” she says. “It’s important to get the word out so more people can be tested.”

This fall Smith made the decision to close the gallery and gift shop after the holiday season, in part because she’s been dealing with chronic pain issues that resulted from her surgery. Her online shop, however, will continue, and Smith hopes to focus on advocacy and education about genetic mutation and helping others walk through their journeys.

Regla de Oro Gallery and Fair Trade Gift Shop, 28th and Lyndale, Minneapolis shop.regladeoro.com
Resources for HBOC:
Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered www.facingourrisk.org/index.php
Gilda’s Club (Cancer support community)www.gildasclubtwincities.org