I kenna Ubaka wanted a formal way to acknowledge the transition her youngest daughter, Zenzele, 9, would be malting from childhood to adolescence. So last October, the 42-year-old director of Harambee IL an after-school and teen program in Atlanta, reached out to other local mothers and started a chapter of Sisters of Tomorrow. This rites-of-passage program for girls, founded more than 15 years ago by mothers in East Polo Alto, California, draws on traditions from Tanzania, Ghana and other African cultures to help guide young girls into womanhood. Sisters of Tomorrow tackles subjects ranging from cultural identity and spirituality to sexual responsibility, health and social etiquette. "I wanted my daughter to be prepared to face new challenges," Ubaka says. "I can't wait to see how she will live out what she has learned."
It's not easy navigating adolescent life and all that goes with it--acne, insecurity, peer pressure, boys. Factor in such heavy influences as racy music videos, and it's no wonder parents are looking to offer an alternative. Experts say involving your child in rites of passage can help.
Some programs are based on the Bible; others have a cultural emphasis. But all aim to expand a girl's horizons and self-awareness. The best ones also offer a way for young girls to develop strong relationships beyond family and immediate community. "Rites of passage fill the gap between formal education and home training," says Sharon Burks, program coordinator for Franklin County Children's Services in Columbus, Ohio. "Girls need the spiritual, cultural and moral enrichment that rites-of-passage programs provide," says Clifford B. Simmons, executive director and cofounder of the Blue Nile Passage, Inc., a Harlem rites program. "As they say, 'When you educate a woman you educate a nation.'"
HOW TO START YOUR OWN PROGRAM
If you want to develop a program, begin by reaching out to other parents, says Sister Kwayera Cunningham, executive director and founder of ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility, Inc., in Brooklyn, which offers the Sisters in Sisterhood rites-of-passage program. Chances are another parent also wants to start one, she says. Cunningham suggests first getting a group of mothers together informally, to discuss ideas. "Parents can narrow down areas important to them," she says, "such as ethics or self-esteem." Follow these tips for establishing a rites-of-passage program:
Do your research. Read up on traditional rites customs, African culture and child development for African-American girls. (See sidebar for recommended reading.)
Identify resources. Create a small team of parents and friends to support your efforts. Reach out to professors in African studies, education, psychology and anthropology to be program leaders.
Clarify goals and objectives. Plan where you'll meet and how often. Identify. educational and cultural activities, such as quilting or museum visits, you'd like the girls to be exposed to. Plan your curriculum. Some sample topics:
* Studying African and African-American contributions to the world.
* Honoring family and genealogy.
* Discovering different religions and cultures.
* Gaining time-management skills and financial wisdom.
* Learning about the body and how to take care of it.
* Becoming versed in etiquette and relating to peers and adults.
* Developing personal values, goals and plans.
Recruit participants. Talk to the parents of your daughter's friends about your program. Pass out flyers at her school and at local businesses and churches. Enlist friends' help in spreading the word. Write an announcement to send to the public-access channel or radio station in your community.
Hold an orientation meeting with parents of girls you have recruited. Outline your goals and objectives, activities and program needs. Review the parents' role and the commitment required.
Schedule workshops and activities. Identify women in your community willing to share their expertise with the girls. Speakers can talk about such topics as girls' health; communicating with peers, parents and adults; and African history and cultures.
Celebrate achievement, Plan a ceremony to recognize completion of the program. It can be held in a community center, a banquet hall, a church or someone's home. Incorporate activities (such as African dance or poetry recitation) that let the girls share what they've learned and the parents participate For example, mothers of girls in Atlanta's Sisters of Tomorrow program ceremoniously adorn their daughters' heads with colorful African fabrics. The Blue Nile program in Harlem invites the community to share in their ceremony, which includes African dance, music, a kente-cloth--draping ritual and a walk through the neighborhood.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN EXISTING PROGRAM
Time-strapped parents may prefer finding an established program. What's most important is that girls get the support they need, says Shon Gables, a New York City news anchor and board member of Youth at Risk. It sponsors Woman to Woman, a program for pregnant girls and young mothers. "I've been amazed by the transformations I've seen in these girls," Gables says. "Let's face it: The women they see in the music videos aren't showing them how to succeed." Use these guidelines to help you evaluate a program:
Do the research. Meet with the program's directors to learn about its purpose and goals. Look for a curriculum that emphasizes self-esteem building, cultural awareness and consciousness-raising. "It's important that African-American girls know that they have to give back," says Madeleine E. Wright, Ph.D., author of Sisters Helping Sisters (African American Images), a book on rites-of-passage programs.
Check out the staff. Because no one person can prepare girls for everything they will face in life, good programs are led by a number of women with diverse expertise and backgrounds.
Ask about resources, Many of our girls are in crisis, says Janice Ferebee, founder of the Got It Goin' On Empowerment Program For Girls in Washington, D.C. Ferebee is the author of Got It Goin' On: An Image Guide for Young "Ladies" and Got It Goin' On II; Power Tools for Girls (Ferebee Enterprises International). Some may need referrals to services such as family counseling, she explains. "See what kind of referrals and services the organization and staff can provide," Ferebee says.
Talk to graduates to get a sense of the program's track record. Ask past participants about what their experiences were, what they're doing now and how the process helped them get where they are.
Show interest. Set aside time to talk about the program with your daughter. Ask what she's learning and how she feels so you can pick up on problems and keep the lines of communication open.
Get involved. Volunteer to assist in activities or lead workshops in which you can share your life experiences. Or suggest other African-American women as speakers. If you have concerns, voice them.
But also let the program directors know what's going well.
Want to Learn More?
Here are some books and other information to help get you started:
Herstory: Black Female Rites of Passage by Mary C. Lewis (African American Images) and Sisters Helping Sisters by Madeleine E. Wright, Ph.D. (African American Images), both detail African-American girls' development and rite-of-passage programs. Available at africanamericanimages.com.
How to Be: A Guide to Contemporary Living for African Americans by Harriette Cote (Simon & Schuster) and Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times by Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen Elyse Hudson (Broadway) discuss social etiquette for young girls. Available at amazon.com, Got It Goin' On II: Power Tools for Girls (Ferebee Enterprises International) is a fun, Informal workbook with blank space for girls to take notes and write affirmations. Available at janiceferebee.com.
Monday's Girl, a look at a traditional rites ceremony for adolescent girls in Nigeria, offers ideas and inspiration. Available at newsreel.org, or call (877) 811-7495.
girlstories.org features a slide show of activities in a girls' rites ceremony.
Angeli R. Rasbury is an educator, writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn.
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