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The Page Turner

Reclaiming Girls’ Voices

First Steps

Building Communication

Sister, Mother, Daughter
Using Letters to Build Relationships and Improve Self-Esteem

by Sister Kwayera Archer-Cunningham
Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility, Inc.

Remember being thirteen years old? Girls at this stage are searching for the perfect adult image and using the media to find their own identity. They often see their mothers as old-fashioned, out of touch, even alien. At Ifetayo, we have found that adolescent girls need three key factors to enhance their self-confidence:

Ifetayo’s afterschool youth development program for girls, Sisters in Sisterhood (SIS), helps girls manage the many challenges they encounter in adolescence. SIS supports young sisters through their growth into self-sufficient, confident women with strong visions of their futures and roles in their communities and society. A process that takes a minimum of two years features programs in personal and professional development, literacy enrichment, cultural and spiritual exposure, community service, and intergenerational exchange. One important part of this rite-of-passage program seeks to help adolescent girls relate to their mothers as sources of loving guidance.

First Steps

The first step in reconnecting daughters to their mothers is to create a space—the sisters’ circle—where adolescent girls can develop a stronger identity and try it on in a safe environment. In the sisters’ circle, honesty and privacy are core principles. Sisters are encouraged to use the circle to incorporate nurturing and self-loving approaches when dealing with themselves and others.

We usually set up the circle on the first day of the rite-of-passage program; five to fifteen girls and young women meet at least three times per week for two or three years. Each session begins with a few minutes of silent meditation, breathing exercises, and sometimes stretching to help the sisters release the day’s stress. When the circle begins, each sister gets the opportunity to communicate anything she wants to share. Sharing that starts simply with how the sisters’ day went becomes, as the months go on, talking about what they could have done to change negative experiences. Many sisters have said that the circle has become the most significant place in their lives because their voices are actively sought and respected by others. Sharing stories and comparing experiences is a key factor in how the sisters develop their views about their mothers.

As the sisters explore their inner selves and develop a community, we are simultaneously providing workshops to prepare their mothers and fathers for information that they may receive from their daughters in the next step of the process. In these workshops, conducted monthly on Saturdays, parents learn new parenting techniques based on culturally specific traditions. Through honest sharing, a parent support group is naturally born.

Building Communication

The sisters’ circle and parent workshops provide the ingredients to create outcomes beneficial to each girl’s development. In the sisters’ circle, we use role-plays to prepare the sisters for honest communication with their mothers. In one popular exercise, the sisters pretend to be in their mothers’ shoes, receiving from their role-play daughters a piece of delicate information that is actually a true piece of information about themselves. For example, one sister shared that, after she had sex for the first time, she told her mother she was late coming home because she had detention at school. Now, as her role-play daughter confessed this untruth, the role-play mom (who, remember, was the one who actually had had sex and told the lie) had a hard time understanding how her "daughter," whom she loved so very much, could put herself in danger and then lie about it, rather than seeing her mom as a friend.

Now that the "mothers" have this delicate information from their "daughters," we ask them to respond to their daughters in writing, still in their role as mothers. They usually go through several versions, trying to choose the right words to communicate standards and boundaries while presenting themselves as friends their daughter can trust and believe.

Eventually the girls transition back into their real selves and write a letter to their real mothers in which they share something personal, keeping the role-play in mind. The sister whose role play I just described wrote her mother about the truth of this experience and apologized for hurting her. In this sister’s words, "That exercise helped me to see my mother as a human, and it was the first time that I began to empathize with her."

When the letters are finished, the sisters can choose to mail them to their mothers—but we offer that choice only if the mother has participated in the parent workshops. If not, the sister can mail her letter to the North Pole as an exercise in self-expression.

Whether the mother receives the letter or not, the sisters come to understand the healing effects of sharing themselves in writing and develop a level of compassion for their mothers. This exercise not only helps the sisters create a bond with their mothers and improves their ability to communicate in writing but also develops their selfhood.

The Page Turner, published electronically by The Robert Bowne Foundation, focuses on literacy development in afterschool programs. Contents copyright © 2005 by the Robert Bowne Foundation.

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