Julia and The Art of Growing Up

Written by SIT Study Abroad alum, Julia Katz. Julia participated in the SIT Study Abroad program Ghana: Social Transformation and Cultural Expression. Upon returning to the US, Julia started an after-school program based on a rite of passage ritual that she researched in her Independent Study Project. Julia uses art as a way to empower adolescent girls in the rite of coming of age.

Women's rite of passage ceremony in Ghana

When I first learned of the traditional puberty rite, called Dipo, I was participating in the SIT Study Abroad program, Ghana: Arts and Culture.  I was interested in a way of life where art played a vital role in daily existence.

I remember watching the women sing, dance, and cheer while their daughters walked from the house.  The initiates were adorned with pounds of beads and wore white cloth around their waists to symbolize victory.  Some faces looked nervous; all were proud and serious as they walked to the shrine.  They had become Krobo women.

During my semester with SIT, I chose to live in the Krobo hills to do a month-long field study of the Dipo ritual.  I spent my days with Queen Mothers, teachers, and young girls, observing the elder women teaching the young girls how to prepare traditional meals, perform dances, care for their bodies and control their sexuality, among other important lessons on Krobo womanhood.

Julia and The Art of Growing Up

I have always believed strongly in the power of art to teach and empower youth. I was drawn to the role of art in the rites of passage. In Dipo, initiates learn that they are connected to a bigger picture of life and society. Participants learn that they have control over their future, health, and community. The ritual has built-in risk prevention by creating protective factors to counter the girls’ vulnerability to AIDS and teenage pregnancy. It teaches girls not only about the hardships and responsibilities that come with womanhood, but also about the magic and power that all women embody, as protectors, leaders, and creators.

Reflecting on how many American girls are never taught this, I was excited and intrigued by the potential of this tradition to be adapted into a powerful experience for youth in America. Returning home, I watched my younger sister as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah. More and more I began to realize the value, significance and even necessity of ritual for coming of age.

For my senior thesis, I developed a pilot program of the Art of Growing Up and administered it at an after school center in the Spring of 2005. I now implement the program in partnership with the Arts & Spirituality Center, in Philadelphia. The Art of Growing Up seeks to create a positive and life-affirming rite of passage for urban, adolescent girls (ages 10-14) using a range of art forms inspired from around the world, such as mask making and dancing inspired by African traditions, and poetry writing, inspired by Apache traditions.

Student art from Julia's after-school program

Growing up is hard for everyone. I want to make it a little easier for the girls that I teach by giving them support, love, inspiration, and tools to figure out who they are and show it with pride. I also teach to learn. Working with young women to make art and create change inspires my own art to no end.  To me art and ritual are both about finding and creating meaning. Recognizing my own connection to all women and making room for ritual and celebration in daily life has helped me in my own continuous coming-of- age. Beginning with my time in Ghana, multicultural art and traditions have inspired me to teach for social justice, and to build community, so that my students might do the same.

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5 Responses to Julia and The Art of Growing Up

  1. Julia Katz Terry says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Sorry it has taken me a while to reply to your comments. Your encouragement and support means so much. Your involvement and collaboration is welcome with open arms by myself and the Arts & Spirituality Center. We are at the threshold of some major growth and expansion, so I will have a better idea of what this promises for building relationships and partners in other regions soon. Feel free to contact me with specific questions and ideas at Jkatzterry@artsandspirituality.org


  2. mizanu says:

    what a great thing you are doing! I am curious to know more about Dipo ritual. Julia, if and when you have time, do send something to read on it,

  3. Jennie says:

    I also studied abroad in Ghana with SIT back in 2005, and wrote about Dipo as a rite of passage (although that was not the main subject of my project). I am now studying public health in Atlanta GA and your program is very inspiring as I wonder how to incorporate my passions into a new profession. Atlanta could be a good candidate city to expand the Art of Growing Up, I would love to be involved!

  4. Carla says:

    Wonderful,creative idea Julia, and even better that you are following through to share this. You are right that it is hard for young women (in any culture) to gain positive self images, but it is so key to the future of the human race. Keep up your very creative efforts!

  5. Jen from Reading says:

    Julia, I commend you! I have long thought to do something like this, and we know it is incredibly effective and needed! I would love to talk with you. Please feel free to email me and I can ask questions – maybe collaborate? – about your program.

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