Teens Learn Sexual Violence Prevention Via Art Therapy

July 29, 2010

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Teens from Girl/Friends work on their art project.
This summer a group of teenage girls on Chicago's West Side is learning about sexual violence prevention while they draw. The idea is to get the girls talking about and confronting sexual violence through yoga, dance and painting.

In a classroom at North Lawndale College Prep High School, 15 girls mix paint for their latest art project.

Each teen has a pair of white canvas gym shoes in front of her - literally a blank canvas. One of their instructors explains:

ambi: How can you use dress for communication. We're using shoes. What are some of the things we talked about?

Hope, respect, the girls say. The program is called Girl/Friends and it's designed to shore up hope and respect in these students and help them pass the message on to other girls.

There are many reasons girls can become victims of sexual assault, and it cuts across racial and class lines. Nationally, one in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18.

But Chicago police statistics put North Lawndale eighth in the city for criminal sexual assaults in the past year. Their neighborhood faces a lot of factors that contribute: lack of parenting skills, domestic violence and the stresses of unemployment.

CHERRISH: Growing up, watching my mother get abused by her boyfriend. Father wasn't really around because I guess he had other priorities. I was molested as a child.

High school senior Cherrish is tall, brown-skinned and has almond-shaped eyes. She wears a pair of funky zipper earrings. Cherrish says coming here this summer has helped with what she calls her “attitude problem.”

CHERRISH: I usually just keep things bottled up inside. I wouldn't talk about it or whatever but now I'm more open. During the program I've taken some art therapy sessions and they showed me how to show the way I feel through art and paintings. And since I really love to draw and paint, whenever I feel sad or down, I feel like I can't handle certain situations, I paint or draw.

Didrus Woods is drawing flowers on her shoes.

WOODS: And on my tongues I have, "I am in control of me."

That's the kind of statement Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet want to bring out of their students. The Tillets are the sisters behind Girl/Friends.

Scheherazade has a masters in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also works as an art therapist at the YWCA Chicago Rape Crisis Center.

SCHEHERAZADE: Art becomes a very accessible tool for a lot of people when sometimes words or verbal can't communicate those things. I also think it's a universal language tool.

Girl/Friends is part of Tillet's nonprofit A Long Walk Home. The sisters founded it after Scheherazade began documenting Salamishah's rape recovery more than a decade ago. They continue to tour a multimedia performance around the country.

Last year the sisters decided to try working with adolescents. This is the first full year. Through donations and grants, they pay the girls a $600 stipend for the three-week class. They bring in speakers, including former prostitutes, to talk to the girls about sexual violence.

But Girl/Friends isn't a treatment program and it doesn't just draw girls who've been abused. It's goal is prevention. Experts in the field say what makes the small nonprofit unique is that it's survivor led and supports African American females.

SALAMISHAH: It's this combination of advocacy and then also offering them both artistic and therapeutic skills to help them deal with their own individual experiences.

Last year Cherrish helped spread awareness about sexual violence to her school. Teens wore wristbands that read "Got Consent?" They made announcements over the intercom. Part of Girl/Friends' mission is to help create peer leaders.

Cherrish is prepared to wear her shoes out in the community. She's painting a labyrinth of mazes on the white space.

CHERRISH: The maze that I'm drawing on my shoes is basically saying that no matter what obstacles you go through there's always an end.

Then she adds that you never know how that maze will end.

The Girl/Friends art exhibition is Saturday, July 31 at 2 p.m. at Murphy Hill Gallery. It's located at 3333 W. Arthington Ave. in Chicago.