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News & Events

Wellbeing Clubs for girls: from Wisconsin to Uganda to Southern California

Large pieces of paper laying on a checkered floor. The papers are shaped like flower petals and are arranged in a circle to create a flower shape. The petals each have a phrase on them, such as Belonging, Sustenance and Body Soverieigty

By Susan Lampert Smith

This is part of a story series highlighting the impact of investing in women-led wellbeing projects around the world.

The 4W (Women & Wellbeing in Wisconsin & the World) Engagement Grant Amy Bintliff received as an Emerging Scholar in Educational Psychology has created programs for girls at risk from San Diego to Uganda.

Bintliff received the grant as a doctoral student at UW–Madison in 2018, using it to create a model “Well-Being Club” for middle school girls with histories of family stress.

“Amy’s grant led to a theme for her dissertation,’’ said Lori DiPrete Brown,’’ 4W director. “For graduate students, the idea is to get people funded early, to get them on the track they want to be on. It’s a catalyst.”

Photo of Amy Bantliff sitting in front of a bookcase with her hands resting on books in front of her.
Amy Bantliff

Today Bintliff is on the faculty at the University of California-San Diego, where she recently won a $10,000 “Change-maker Faculty Fellowship” for her community-engaged programs.

“The work is going forward quickly,’’ said Bintliff, who has created an online training in trauma-informed art therapy for teachers who want to start well-being clubs at their own schools.

Bintliff took foundational well-being concepts by Carol Ryff and enriched through engaged research in seven countries by 4W researcher, creating a feminist perspective on issues such as bodily sovereignty, voice, and the capacity for mutual care. Bintliff came to her doctoral program with 13 years of teaching at-risk adolescents.

“If you teach students what well-being is, it actually increases their own well-being scores after 6 months to a year,’’ Bintliff said. She wrote a curriculum that incorporated 11 dimensions of well-being, taught through an after-school art club.

Bintliff and her lab of 12 undergraduates, piloted the project in 2019 at a Wisconsin middle school.

“It was a place that girls at the school really loved, because they weren’t getting art during the school day,’’ Bintliff said. And the art the girls produced was amazing. Some did body-sized self-portraits, showing what well-being meant to them. Another girl illustrated a graphic comic about sexual harassment she was dealing with at school.

“It gave them a voice, and their pictures included drawings where their mouths were taped or zipped shut or missing entirely,’’ Bintliff said. “That was really powerful, you can see how adolescents deal with dimensions differently than adults. The girls had histories of family stress, anxiety, depression, and a lot of that stemmed from feeling unheard or voiceless.”

Afterwards, guidance counselors shared stories of the girls advocating on their own behalf with parents and teachers. Learning about well-being, and being part of the club helped them find their voice and express themselves. At the end of the pilot, the girls asked to invite their families in to show them what they had learned.

“They presented their art to their families and it was very powerful,’’ she said. “There was not a dry eye in the room.”

Bintliff has continued the work with a non-profit partner that runs a school for refugee children in Uganda and in San Diego at a charter school for Latina youth. There her undergraduate students are running a “mini well-being recess club” for girls in grades 2 through 7.

“Kids come running to our table at recess to make art,’’ she said.

Bintliff created a 200-page curriculum for teachers with lesson plans and mindfulness scripts that connected directly to well-being.

In Uganda, the girls made art about their daily risks, and their fears of HIV, pregnancy, the loneliness of COVID. The girls cleaned the largest marketplace in Kampala, hanging educational signs about hand washing, and COVID prevention. Bintliff said the campaign helped them feel empowered and learn leadership skills.

Group of students holding up self portraits.
Self portraits completed at The Wellbeing Club in Kampala, Uganda. Program provided by Dr. Amy Bintliff (University of CA, San Diego) in partnership with Africa ELI executive director, Zahrah Namanda, and board members Norah Nalutaaya, and Dr. Beinomugisha Peninah

“One of the things I learned from Lori (DiPrete Brown) was the importance of community-based work,’’ Bintliff said. “Asking, ‘How do we engage with the community in a way that is reciprocal?’ The way 4W works has been the foundation of everything I do.”

DiPrete Brown says that Bintliff is a great example of the strengths of 4W.

“At 4W, we form leaders who go on to lead at other institutions’’, DiPrete Brown said. “She’s carrying on the work, mentoring the next generation and moving it forward.”

Women & Wellbeing in Wisconsin & the World (4W) leverages the strengths of UW-Madison to be a convener and leading voice in education, applied research, and impactful engagement to promote gender equity, global wellbeing, and the full participation of women in society. 4W grants are made possible through annual support from the University of Wisconsin Women’s Philanthropy Council and gifts from our supporters. Grant recipients become part of the 4W network, where they have access to mentorship, collaboration, leadership development, and resources to deepen their expertise related to gender analysis and wellbeing.

Read more in this story series about the impact of investing in women-led wellbeing projects around the world: