As an artist and owner of the creativity center Mijiza (Swahili for “she works with her hands”), Niambi Jaha-Echols did not always have the dream of founding a nonprofit organization devoted to the transformation and personal development of girls and women of African descent. However, when presented with requests from multiple organizations to work creatively with girls of African descent, Jaha-Echols found harrowingly few resources available to help her understand the development of these girls. Jaha-Echols took it as an opportunity to create her own resource, Project Butterfly, a guidebook for young women of African descent written from her experiences working with groups of African-American girls. With Project Butterfly as a guide, she founded Camp Butterfly, a sleep-away summer camp with expanding year-round components. ACA spoke with Jaha-Echols, currently a member of ACA’s National Board of Directors, on the topics of reaching out to nontraditional campers, nature involvement at summer camp, and transforming the lives of children and adults at summer camp.
Interest in a camp for girls of African descent was stirred after the grassroots release of your book, Project Butterfly. Can you talk a bit about that?
The book had made its way to different parts of the country. Women were excited about the content and wanted to know how they could get their daughters involved. I hadn’t really thought beyond that.
I came up with the idea of camp because I had had some positive retreat experiences and knew the value of getting out of the [everyday] environment, separating yourself, and nature. And so I decided to start Camp Butterfly. From the very beginning, we’ve attracted women from various backgrounds of African descent who want to give back to our girls to help them create positive cultural identities and self-images and also know the value of the camping ex¬perience and how it can be transformative.
When I was working as an artist I was using the symbolism of the butterfly and I would create sculpted figures of women with butterfly wings in this whole series of art shows. It was very much a part of my artwork. I love the symbolism of the butterf ly and the caterpillar, so we use that symbolism in the camp. Of course, it’s “Camp Butterfly.” But the reason we use it is not just because butterflies are cute, but because they are such a symbol of hope for girls and women that where you start off doesn’t have to necessarily dictate where you will end. And just like the caterpillar, transformation is not something that is instantaneous or automatic — it’s a process.
What we’ve created at Camp Butterfly is a wonderful opportunity for girls to be surrounded by butterflies — women who have done their personal development work and who now surround these caterpillar girls who are now in a transformative state. We create a safe space so they can do their physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual healing and growth.
What specifications have you made to your program to attract girls to camp that are not traditionally campers?
One of the pieces that is really unique about us is our program is very holistic. It’s not just a summer experience. We’re connected with the girls and women throughout the year.
We’ve created a family atmosphere. From the very inception, we understood the importance, particularly culturally, of family and familial connections. All of the women have titles of Mama, Auntie, Big Mama, we have Grannies, and the girls address us in that way. All of the girls come in as cousins. Looking at the general statistics about girl-to-girl violence and all of those things, we’ve never had any kind of physical altercation between girls, or fighting, or any of that. And I think it’s because we set the tone at the very begin¬ning: “This is your cousin from Ohio — get to know her.”
I see these girls who have to wear a tough exterior all year for survival or pro¬tection — an “I don’t want to get punked” kind of thing. For them to come, and for the first time in many years, be able to just play — to just embrace their inner child and creativity — is truly inspiring for me. To see them allow themselves to just be girls and to offer a safe space where they can feel free enough to do that is the part that keeps me going and keeps me wanting to expand so that other girls can experience the same thing.
That’s been our challenge. It’s a chal¬lenging opportunity because we now have to become very creative in this economic period on how we can expand and grow this experience for more populations — particularly for girls who typically don’t go to camp or share the camp experience.
What’s unique about Camp Butterfly is that we serve girls ages seven to seventeen, and the biggest waiting list we have are girls ages fifteen to seventeen. And now that we’ve been around for eight years, that age group has expanded. Our alumni are now in their twenties and still want to have the camp experience, so we’re expanding that to include them.
Camp Butterfly is actually made of many different components. Can you talk about each one and how it addresses the needs of girls of African descent?
We have year-round programming. And our year-round programming culminates in our summer resident camp, which is the Chrysalis Project, our residential camp experience. We also have year-round Cocooning Circles, which is our personal development program, and it emphasizes self-awareness, acceptance, and responsibility. It continues that personal develop¬ment work through group discussions and peer activity at our headquarter location in Chicago. We also have another component of our program, which is the Green Butterfly Project. That’s a program that fosters personal development while educating girls about the preservation of the environment and our relationship to the planet. It’s really about environmental literacy. We encourage our girls to look at themselves, the community, the city, and the world through an environmental lens of awareness, advocacy, and action. We do that by understanding our inherent connection to the earth and we learn that caring for her is honoring our own responsibility of caring for ourselves. From this understanding, each participant or girl gains the tools necessary to play an active role in facilitating change in her community environmentally.
The third component of our program is the Roots Project. In a nutshell, it’s a program designed to increase the knowledge of African ancestry and cultural identity, utilizing genealogy, science, and technology — tools to uncover our physical connection to our origins. We have many women and girls who are of African descent who come to us from various parts of the world. And culturally as a people, we have had that part of our identity lost. We don’t know where we are from culturally. We know Africa, but that’s a continent. So helping us connect to our origins is the Roots Project, and we hope that it will not only serve as a positive mechanism to compel more women and girls to explore their ancestry and to deepen their connec¬tion, but also to help us be more concerned globally about what’s happening in other parts of the world.
How can a broader camp program reach out to girls of African descent?
Camps should operate with a strength-based approach: working from a positive perspective, building on girls’ personal and cultural strengths, and providing opportunities for girls to be successful (both individually and with each other). Camps need to create opportunities where proficiency doesn’t matter.
Camps that have a broader program can work on creating a “safe” environment through staff selection and program development that reflects an understanding of the realities of girls’ lives and is responsive to their strengths and challenges.
And finally, camps should look for community investment. In order to get community support, camps should be visible in the community, focused on building relationships, and should maintain trans¬parency in the motives and goals they set for their camp.
What role does nature play in the transformation of the girls at Camp Butterfly?
At residential camp, the participants garden; and one of the beautiful things about Camp Ronora (where the residential camp is held, located in Watervliet, Michigan) is that the girls are able to work in the garden, pick the vegetables, and then eat the vegetables and fruits they’ve picked in the garden. It’s something as simple as that, but for someone in the city whose concept of where you get food is the local grocery store, you don’t have the connec-tion that it actually comes from the earth. By the time they get it, it’s all packaged and pretty in a store — it’s important to have that physical experience of actually picking the food and eating food that is not tampered with in any way — not shot up with pesticides and those kinds of things. It tastes different. So girls realize the connec¬tion of the earth and actually seeing it come out of the ground is a powerful piece.
We use nature and we conspire with nature for our personal development. We are nature, so to really understand our connection, that we collectively need the earth to breathe and be sustained, helps us to own our own power. But it also gives us a global connection with a sense that we’re all connected. That’s what we hope to sustain with Camp Butterfly: helping our girls and women understand their connection to nature and the earth.
Look at it statistically. Out of all of the children and adults who attend camp annually — if you say there are 11 million — less than 10 percent of them are African Americans. That paradigm has to change. So this is our way of creatively engaging this population so that we can increase that number. It’s helping our girls and women to really look at their communities so that having that experience creates a different model for them when they go back home.
That’s why we love the butterfly — it’s about transformation; it’s about changing minds, hearts, and spirits. Not just for that one, feel-good camp experience, but it’s something that’s sustained throughout their year and their life.
What can camps do to help all girls soar?
I think one thing that camps can do is to really listen to our young people. The world is so very different from when we grew up and their connections are with Facebook and social media. With all of these different things, kids have so much access to information. What they need is support from adults to help decipher this world — this adult world that bombards them.
It’s critical to create experiences where they are respected, and I think being culturally sensitive is important, too. We need to understand that the way they experience the world is not the way we experience the world. We need to be looking through their eyes.
Part of the way of doing this is to really listen to them and incorporate some of the things that they see as fun or exciting. They have a lot of intelligence and they truly do want the creative support, we just have to give them opportunities to express that. One of the things that I think Camp Butterfly does very well is that we create opportunities for our girls to express themselves. When they have ideas, we try to incorporate them, not from the fact that they know exactly what to do, but more so to respect their ideas. Creating safe spaces for them to be their highest selves in situations; giving them opportunities to lead and to support one another. I think what many of our girls love is that when they come into camp, they don’t have to ascribe themselves to the typical cliques. They’re embraced as a family, so that automatically sets up a different tone. They understand: “It’s not about competition; I can just be myself.” And that’s what all of us are thinking — it’s more about finding ourselves and being more authentic in who we are.
How do you define a “safe space”?
I define creating a safe space as one in which there is minimal bullying and that kind of thing, where you truly are safe to express a difference of opinion, to be culturally different. That’s where safety comes in, and that’s where change can happen. If you create an atmosphere where there is safety, we believe, and it’s our motto, that’s where true transformation can happen. If you look at a caterpillar, what does a caterpillar need? A caterpillar doesn’t need you to do the work for her. It doesn’t need you to do anything, except to provide a safe space for her to do her own transformative work.
Even the struggle of coming out of the cocoon is necessary in order for the blood to get into the wings of the butterfly. So for us, it’s not about telling kids what to do, but creating a safe space for them to figure it out and want to transform — to be their highest selves. Then, the real, true, lasting transformation happens — and not just change. Change is inevitable, but transformation is optional.
For more information on reaching out to girls of African descent, read Jaha-Echols’ Project Butterfly (2008). Look for Jaha-Echols’ new book, Widening the Circle: Engaging African American Girls in the Camping Experience, coming soon. For more information about Camp Butterfly, visit www.campbutterfly.org .
Originally published in the July/August 2011 Camping Magazine.