PROJECT BUTTERFLY'S HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
In 1996, I returned to Chicago after a 17-year absence since leaving for college in 1979. Those intervening years, between 1979 and 2000, marked a crucial period of personal growth and discovery for me. I pursued higher education at Michigan State University and thereafter embarked on a diverse career path - eight years of which I spent as a flight attendant with a major airline living and traveling all across the country.
I married the wrong man for me and spent seven years in an emotionally and verbally abusive marriage. I ended the marriage and embarked on a profound healing journey, ultimately returning to Chicago once again. This time , I returned to school and nurtured my long-dormant creative talents.
By the turn of the millennium, I had fully immersed myself in the world of visual arts. Pursuing a Master's in Art Therapy, I reached a pivotal juncture midway through the program. An epiphany struck: I lacked true passion for the path of a clinician. The prospect of working in hospitals, mental health clinics, and social service agencies as an Art Therapist failed to resonate. Though I cherished both art and psychology, I sought a more fulfilling, heartening, and stimulating convergence of the two.
As I half-heartedly scanned the job classifieds, I realized that no offering truly spoke to my spirit. I decided to craft my own opportunity, envisioning a space where I could create, sell art, and host workshops, predominantly for women. This vivid dream emerged despite lacking a clear path to realization. Simultaneously, I considered discontinuing my graduate studies.
A twist of fate led me to a three-story greystone building in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood, where two of my sister friends resided. Upon entering, I experienced an uncanny sensation - this building eerily resembled the one etched on my vision board. While touring, I could visualize my future there. Reluctantly, I shared my vision with my friends, who reacted nonchalantly. My wishful thinking was met with laughter.
Soon after, one roommate relocated to care for her ailing mother. Months later, my other friend, the remaining occupant, contacted me. She too planned to move and wondered if I was interested in renting the space. Without hesitation, I seized the chance, left grad school, and promptly moved into the greystone, christening it "Mijiza, Art Gallery and Creativity Center," drawing inspiration from the Swahili name Mijiza meaning "she works with her hands."
Within these walls, I began orchestrating personal development workshops, capitalizing on my psychology, art therapy, graphic design, and self-publishing background. As my artistic endeavors flourished; I found myself sculpting miniature clay figurines. Engrossed in my studio one day, I envisioned women with butterfly wings. Reflecting on my own journey of transformation, I recognized the symbolism in the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. This imagery resonated profoundly, leading me to create an entire series of female figures with butterfly wings. The analogy became an integral part of my personal development workshops.
A few months passed, and I received an unexpected phone call from a middle school teacher who had attended one of my workshops. She wanted to know if I would consider creating and executing an afterschool program for about 30 sixth grade girls at her school. She and a few of the other female teachers had a growing concern about several of the girls. They were not "bad" girls, but were beginning to exhibit some rather risky behaviors. The teachers felt that the girls were lacking in positive self-respect and a healthy view of themselves. I agreed to create a curriculum for the girls and to work with them the following school semester.
As I was pondering my current dilemma of having an impending program, with no content, I received another phone call. Another friend of mine had just become director for a residential drug treatment facility for adolescent girls. My friend explained that although the program had been in existence for several years, as the new director, she felt that their current programming model (which was modeled after the adult AA 12-step program) was insufficient for the teens. After just accepting a position at the nearby middle school, I took on the challenge. I reasoned that since I was developing a curriculum for girls of African descent ages 11 and 12 (6th graders), surely I could modify that same curriculum to meet the needs of at-risk girls ages 11 to 17 (the girls in the residential drug treatment facility).
Approximately a week after accepting the second position, yet another call came, this time from a representative of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Recognizing a void in their programming, she sought a solution to create positive self-development for the adolescent girls in foster care. My facility and its unique approach captured her attention. Without hesitation, I accepted, solidifying my commitment to empowering young women.
Delving into the task at hand, I began researching existing curricula. Astonishingly, I found none tailored to the specific needs of girls of African descent. Fueled by frustration and concern, I realized the enormity of the gap in resources. Driven by the desire to fill this void, I decided to write a book addressing the unique challenges faced by young women of African descent.
With divine guidance, the title and table of contents flowed effortlessly. "Project Butterfly: Supporting Young Women and Girls of African Descent Through the Transitions of Life" became the beacon of my mission. Equipped with a skeletal framework and inspired by an African proverb - "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time" - I enlisted the group of around 100 girls, ages 11 to 17 from the three work opportunities, as my makeshift focus group.
Week by week, I engaged these girls in discussions and exercises, drawing from my psychology, spiritual, and art therapy background. Energized by their receptiveness, I returned home each evening to compile their stories and experiences into the fabric of a book.
Drawing on my prior experience in graphic design, I meticulously crafted "Project Butterfly" within a nine-month timeframe. The cover featured a captivating silhouette of a woman with butterfly wings, encapsulating the essence of transformation. Each topic and chapter emerged through the lens of these extraordinary girls, enriched by their insights and responses. It was truly a magical time of my life and unbeknownst to me at the time, the beginning of an unforeseen journey to empower and uplift girls.
The book became the foundation for a plethera of afterschool programs for girls in Chicago and in various programs across the country. It continues to be used as a foundational underpinning for girl focused programming. In fact, in 2006 Dr. GiShawn Mance defended her dissertation research on Project Butterfly with findings that both the programs that were based on the book and the 7-day residential camp experience called Camp Butterfly, were central in enhancing the extent to which teenaged girls and women felt positively towards their ethnic group. Her findings not only supported the efficacy of the programs, it essentially provided credence that Project Butterfly conveyed the African cultural values that it purported to teach, and increased both ethnic identity and cultural pride.
Through Project Butterfly and Camp Butterfly, I have supported (literally) thousands of girls from various parts of the country and continue to champion their cause. Today, both Project Butterfly and Camp Butterfly have become components of The Butterfly Movement (www.thebutterflymovement.com) and Project Butterfly Training (www.projectbutterfly.com) both are expanded personal development opportunity for women and girls led by phenomenal women.
"Transformation is the natural order of things when you align yourself with butterflies."