Monday, October 16, 2017

Weaving Tales, Changing Minds

Tale Weavers, one of our most cherished partners, is all about telling stories to break stereotypes and
change mindsets. Between planting seeds of peace and changing minds, Sharda and Raghu, the founders have revolutionized the art of storytelling. Here’s their story.

Let's start with both your stories - what was/were your childhood / education / work / experiences like, to the extent that it culminated in the birth of the side of your lives that involves working for children?
Sharda: I was born and raised in Mumbai. My dad was self-employed and had his own consultancy practice while my mother used to run a daycare centre. So I literally grew up with 15 children around me (never felt I was my parents’ only child). While that exposed me to the socio-cultural and religious diversity around me, it also brought forward a lot of stereotypes that are often associated with different groups of people or communities. And I remember every time I questioned such generalisations, the responses only reinforced the stereotypes. I completed my undergraduate studies in Economics from Mumbai University after which I moved to New Delhi to pursue my Master’s in Ancient History from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). It was here at JNU, where I was exposed to the academic framework of gender which helped me deconstruct narratives that perpetuate stereotypes at every level. Thus, my keen interest in exploring gender within the domain of culture and media further encouraged me to pursue my Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture. Looking back, I see that both my universities have played a vital role in planting the idea of writing stories for children. As I began to understand the dynamics of gender, I took a close look at children’s literature. I found that it is not uncommon to find stories where caregiving and home care is associated with women, while men are the breadwinners who participate in all kinds of economic activities.  Stories for centuries have continued to influence the minds of children and youth and they often internalize these traits through such powerful narratives. And I began to envisage the ways in which storytelling could be leveraged to fuel change.

Raghu:  In the 90s, growing up in Hyderabad, one of the hotbeds in the country for coaching centers pumping out thousands of students for almost all of the major engineering institutions in India, especially the IITs, my childhood during high school was immersed in Irodov’s tricky questions. On the other hand, from a very young age, my parents allowed me to pursue my interest in performing it painting or music (...yes, is definitely a part of every tambrahm family!) Being a kid that always wanted to be outside running around, playing cricket, or hide and seek...or flying kites, I would dread my music teacher coming home to teach me to play mridangam. One could always find me hiding somewhere on the terrace or running away to a friend’s  house and telling them to not respond to my grandma who would come looking for me. But eventually the music bug (at home) bit me and I started taking genuine interest in it and accompanied my mom and my aunt performing at carnatic music concerts. The case was very different when it came to drawing and painting...I was always interested in creating visual images and that has been a constant inspiration for me throughout my childhood and eventually choosing architecture as a profession to continue translating imagery to reality. However, coming from a family of engineers, there was always a constant pressure to pursue a career in engineering. But despite the pressure and times where my family found it difficult to understand my choices, I had the privilege to follow my interests and as my dad once told me, “If pushed hard enough, I could have been an engineer, but a bad one.” And thus, I firmly believe that every individual must be encouraged to follow his/her passion and break away from the social norms that often come to be imposed on them. If you can find what excites you...just follow it! Eventually it will define who you are and what best way to share your passions...than giving it back to the community.

How did Tale Weavers come about?
Sharda: My passion for gender empowerment coupled with my interest in media and communications acts as the bedrock for starting Tale Weavers. I have always enjoyed writing and redefining narratives. But what really crystallised the idea was my visit to a park in the recent past. Right by our house where my parents used to live, there is a park where you can find children playing, people taking a stroll and so on. One day as I was taking my evening stroll, I saw this group of little girls place their hands against each other’s and asked which one of them had a lighter skin. The one with the darkest tone was immediately called ‘Kaali’, the word for Black in Hindi while the fairest amongst them jumped in excitement to be the ‘Snow White’ of the group. And I just could not believe what I had just heard. As I began to question the influence of media- literature, cinema, advertising and other sources, I was transported back to my childhood and could not stop thinking of the fairytales that always stripped princesses off their agency and placed them at the mercy of the princes who would come to their rescue. Thus, I strongly believed in the need to have more balanced narratives and started writing stories and began to create a platform to engage with children on issues around gender and equip them with the skills to question the status-quo.

Raghu: When Sharda shared this with me, the first thing that came to my mind was Tinkle. As a child, most of us have devoured Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha stories. Simple stories and visually engaging illustrations have enthralled readers for years. Give me a copy of Tinkle even today and I will happily become the kid that loves to read the stories for hours! So I was like, how about we come up with simple conversations and colourful illustrations that represent diversity and address issues around gender, race, ethnicity on one hand while equipping children with life skills such as empathy, sensitivity that are key in addressing the social challenges and building a community of changemakers. Thus, Tale Weavers came into being.

What were some of the key ideas / goals you had in mind when you started TW?
Sharda: Our primary goal was to shatter stereotypes. Initially when I thought about stories, it was all about breaking the stereotypes around gender. But my work in the development sector over the years has helped me understand the need to look at intersectionality even within gender. Thus, we decided we would write tales that break stereotypes around gender, race, ethnicity while also creating awareness on child sexual abuse, menstruation and other challenges key to achieving a gender just society.
Raghu: To add to that, we also wanted to promote girls in tech, financial literacy and entrepreneurial thinking through our stories. These are few other ideas that we have been working on. While writing stories was just one aspect of it, it becomes equally important to understand the impact of our stories and the ways in which they are actually translating change by changing mindsets. So together with our Chief Advisor- Ms. Kirthi Jayakumar we came up with an impact index wherein our stories will be followed by activities and exercises where students will be encouraged to offer expositions of their learnings, and their behavioural patterns will be tracked using indicators.

Being in the non-profit sector has its own challenges - to top it all, when you are working to change resistant mindsets, there are more challenges. Would you like to talk about these challenges and how you would like to overcome them?
Sharda: Like most nonprofit organisations and community engagement initiatives, access to resources has been a constant challenge. Especially given that our initiative aims to engage with children, it is vital to have volunteers who can translate complex ideas and topics in a simple way. Further, as the stories being written are for all age groups, it often becomes challenging to find volunteers with experience in pedagogy to help determine the reading levels. And like you rightly said, when you are working to change mindsets, the challenges are much more. Because when you talk about breaking stereotypes, it often involves challenging/ changing some aspects of culture. Hence, sensitivity and empathy become important while designing resources to ensure you are not imposing the change you want to see. And one way to address this is to work with the communities and involve people from the community to share their stories and create an inclusive space for dialogue.

Raghu: I think for me one of the major challenges has been translating the stories into colourful, engaging illustrations. Often the use of a character opens up questions around gender and race and thus, as a team it becomes key for us to represent diversity and be sensitive to the same. I personally feel it’s a great learning experience where we need to constantly unlearn.

Telling a story is an art. And some stories can be incredibly memorable. What's the secret ingredient in Tale Weavers'  recipes that helps keep these stories fresh, real and beautiful?
Sharda: The credit goes to our team of volunteer writers and illustrators. Each of them bring to the table a new idea and a fresh perspective which is at the heart of every Tale Weaver's story.
Raghu: Absolutely! Our volunteers come from across the globe. And this diversity is visible in every story and becomes a unique piece of art in itself.

Children today are open to a lot of influences and get a lot of false information in the process, which can be disparaging to them. There is a desperate need to keep them on track if we want a peaceful and bright future. What is your approach to that?
Sharda: Engage, engage and engage. Conversations are important. And storytelling as a platform can be leveraged to fuel the conversation and create a space to increase awareness and a space to empathise. Like I mentioned earlier, we will be exploring collaborations with schools and community centres to organise more on-ground workshops to engage with children. While using our stories as part of the curriculum, we will create an inclusive space to deconstruct myths, misconceptions and challenge stigma.

How can parents and teachers work with TW to bring their children the right information and mindsets to consume that information?
Raghu: We are actively seeking collaborations with schools as well as community centres to take our stories to a wider community of children and empower them with different life skills. Parents and teachers can connect with us and we can either have our volunteers conduct these sessions or train them to conduct the storytelling sessions. While all our stories can be applied to a global audience, we are happy to customise them.
Sharda: Yes, say for e.g. we can create a personalised story with your child as the protagonist and be the changemaker. This is a great way to inspire children and foster a community of changemakers when they see themselves in the tales.