Empowering expression

Project Girl encourages girls to trust their creative instincts

Last summer, when Katrina Knutson led her first classes during Project Girl, she looked at some of the girls and thought, “That’s me 15 years ago.”

Fifteen years ago, Knutson was a teenager growing up in Minneapolis, about to get involved in the city’s hip hop and graffiti scene — a scene dominated then and even now by men. Today she’s a freelance visual artist and instructor who works in the schools and has led a number of mural projects here and around the country.

When Intermedia Arts on Lyndale Avenue asked her to be part of its inaugural session of Project Girl, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “Project Girl is my dream project because it incorporates feminism and art,” she says. “I love working with kids. It gives me energy and keeps me young. I learn a lot, too.”

The weeklong day camp for teens and tweens is based on curriculum created by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Project Girl. Using visual and performing arts, Project Girl teaches girls to take a close look at the way the media portrays women and how that affects the way they see themselves. The national organization has created materials for half-day and longer workshops led by adults and by girls themselves, as well as a workbook, a traveling art exhibition, and other materials.

Using that curriculum as a starting point, Knutson incorporated her own experiences as an artist and a young woman. On a typical day at Project Girl last summer, the girls gathered at Intermedia Arts and divided into two groups. One spent the morning with Knutson working on visual art; the other with hip hop artist Desdamona writing and working on spoken-word pieces. In the afternoon they switched.

The girls started by examining music magazines: How many women were on the cover? Or covered in features? When you did see women on the page, how were they portrayed? Then they might cut up the magazines for collages or self-portraits, the whole time thinking about their sense of self and, as Knutson put it, “the way the world looks at you as a young woman.”

Some of the girls were already very involved with art, while others were just dipping their toes in for the first time. Knutson said her favorite moment came when, “One girl said, ‘I wish I could be an artist,’ and I was able to say to her, ‘Yes, you can.’”

Desdamona agrees that she and Knutson, who support themselves full-time as freelance artists, are unique role models for the girls. “I feel like growing up you’re not introduced to the idea of being your own boss,” she says.

Girls speak up

Desdamona, who has been involved with Intermedia Arts in various capacities since 1999, started her classes off by encouraging the girls to write for five minutes. “I try to get them to not edit before it comes out on the page,” she says. “Kids tend to want it to be perfect and I try not to restrict it.”

She got to witness several a-ha moments last summer when the girls began to find their own voices. “They want to give you the right answer,” she says. “And then they realize that their answer is the right answer.”

Like Knutson, Desdamona spends a lot of time leading workshops in schools in the metro area and in her native Iowa. She remembers thinking once, at a high school in north Minneapolis, “Wow, there are a lot more boys than girls here.” Then she counted and it turned out there were actually slightly more girls than boys in the room. “When you’re silent you become invisible. It’s a really profound thing.”

“As a person, you need to be heard and known. … [Project Girl] is creating that space for girls. Maybe when they go back in the classroom they are going to talk and they’ll be secure with what they’re going to say.”

Desdamona recognizes that body image, self-esteem, and media messages are all very powerful and perhaps difficult topics for young girls, so she follows their lead. “They determine the direction,” she says. “They decide how far.”

Girl-focused, girl-led

Project Girl was cofounded by Wisconsin-based artists Kelly Parks Snider and Jane Bartell. Parks Snider describes her experience seven years ago, when she had three daughters in middle school and a son in grade school. She started asking questions like, “Why are 80 percent of all girls dissatisfied with their bodies. Why do girls feel like they have to be sexy so soon? Where is all this coming from? What’s going on?’ There seemed to be an overwhelming attitude of ‘girls will be girls. This is just how girls are. It’s a rite of passage.’”

Parks Snider decided that, no, poor self-esteem and trying to live up to an unrealistic and appearance-focused ideal of womanhood did not need to be part of every girl’s experience, so she started talking to child development experts and people active in studying and reforming the media around the country, including Lyn Michael Brown, founder of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.

She and Bartell found a particularly useful model in Minnesota and Wisconsin’s anti-tobacco campaigns. She learned from them that kids don’t like to be lectured at — who does? “But if you flip that conversation and say, ‘You’re being played by an industry that has very little concern for you,’ that got them angry and that got them on board. Kids don’t like to be fooled.”

They brought together an advisory board of about 30 girls. “They taught us that girls are hungry for a chance to make changes in the lives of other girls,” says Parks Snider. “We want them to be the reformers in this.”

An exhibition called “Commercial Land” has traveled around the country (including to the Twin Cities) where local arts groups recruit girls to put their own special stamp on it, so that it becomes very much a local art exhibition.

The art is the hook to get girls involved. Meanwhile, Project Girl is working with local arts organizations to “train the trainers” — empowering groups like Intermedia Arts to use the Project Girl curriculum to get girls thinking about the messages they’re getting from the media.

“The conversations we have aren’t about ‘Don’t watch,’” says Parks Snider. “It’s ‘Watch carefully and be aware of the tricks and the false promises.’ “A lot of people get hung up on the body image stuff. That’s a small part of this. It really goes much deeper than that. When people are arranging their whole identities around what they can buy, that’s huge.”

Tricia Cornell edits Minnesota Parent.