Project Update: Brown Girl Rise

From a deep-rooted appreciation for cultural competency and community-building, Fulbright U.S. Student alumna Allie Dyer shares how her project Brown Girl Rise has brought young girls of color together in Portland, Oregon to learn the histories of their bodies in conjunction with their communities. Her project has brought body-positive reproductive and nutrition education to girls of color while shedding a powerful light on their intersections with history, race, gender, and culture.

You can read more about Allie and other U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant recipients from her seminar, “The New Frontiers of Global Public Health,” in our previous post here.

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Honoring Community in Health Education

Amidst health education strategies that often overlook the historical and cultural aspects that influence health in communities of color, Brown Girl Rise is piloting a program that honors both the histories of resilience and wellness. Brown Girl Rise leads workshops for 3rd through 9th grade girls of color in Portland, Oregon to access health and cultural education that reclaims their connection to body, community, land, health, and creativity.

Brown Girl Rise began in June 2017 with a month focused on building relationships and sisterhood. As we set up to develop a culturally-inclusive model, organizers for Brown Girl Rise knew that relational worldviews were common across many communities of color. In dedicating our June sessions to building relationships, we led discussions with participants on sisterhood, making a safe space, and honoring the importance of our cultures in how we move about in our relationships.

With this strong foundation, we started July with food and land in mind. We spent time with a local farm, Mudbone Grown LLC, and discussed the importance of our relationship with land and food from Black and Native perspectives. Participants were able to harvest fresh vegetables and begin a photovoice project exploring their perspectives on how their community connects to land and what food is part of their cultures. Through this project, Brown Girl Rise participants critically analyzed their historical connection to food and land and the ways in which this influences current realities of health and wellness in our communities.

Our third month was focused on body-positive health education. Girls learned about the importance of mindfulness and movement on our health through a yoga workshop that included the history of yoga. During this “body” unit we also spoke about how racial and gender stereotypes impact our self-images and came up with ways to empower ourselves against situations that negatively impact our self-esteem as brown girls and women.

Our 3rd–5th grade cohort in goddess pose during our yoga workshop!

August also included our camp outs with each cohort. During this time, we traveled to a nearby farm and continued to explore the role of nutrition and food education. We were able to harvest and cook dinner together. While we talked about the importance of nutrients from whole, vegetable choices, we also shared cultural food stories around eating with the seasons. We also spent this time learning about female-bodied parts that included body parts taught in health class like uterus and eggs but also included vulva education. While some might expect the middle school cohort to shy away from these topics, our participants were eager to learn about their bodies, particularly when given in the context of historical and present reproductive injustice. When we spoke of the “Father of Gynecology” and his experiments on enslaved African women, the participants began to put into context the imperative of being informed about our own bodies in order to have autonomy.

BGR Leader, Allie Dyer, discussing vulva anatomy and histories reproductive injustice with some of our 6th–9th grade cohort.

While organizers believed a large part of the success of the program would be tied to sharing of culturally-rooted health practices, what we’ve learned is the holistic power of community — that community itself can be healing. Not just sharing of culturally-rooted practices, but collective space to foster and share the experience with girls that look like them. Space to speak frankly to the ways in which their experiences as brown, black, and indigenous girls, impacts the way they think about their bodies and therefore should be addressed when talking about bodies. With each workshop, organizers reflect together and continue to learn about how to develop workshops that serve both the education and community goals of our program.

Our 3rd–5th grade cohort learning about yarrow as a wound healer from Taina Latinx herbalist, Lara Pacheco, of Seed and Thistle Apothecary.

This month we are exploring medicinal and healing practices with indigenous frameworks as well as culturally-relevant healthy relationship workshops. Participants will deepen their understanding about the importance of community and connection to individual and population health. We look forward to continuing to evolve in holistic and culturally-rooted health education that empowers girls of color to lead our communities. And we look forward to continuing to create space for girls where they can, as one participant summarized, “be with other girls that understand my experience and learn truths that aren’t talked about in school.”

Written and contributed by Allie Dyer.

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