Yuwa Moments, Part II: Storytelling for Impact

Clockwise from top left: Chhath puja scenes at Rukka dam, Mount Gargari with Yuwa students, my student’s Final Economics project, and Neha enjoying Thanksgiving dinner.

I didn’t expect to publish a Yuwa Moments Part II, but November was so filled to the brim with moments and experiences and stories that I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a follow-up.

Some highlights include attending Chhath puja, spending the day visiting girls’ homes, stuffing my face with prasaad, and watching colorful cows run through the streets. I danced at the annual Yuwa talent show, where over 20 teams performed and were recognized for perfect attendance, sportsmanship, and attitude. Puja, Pinky, Neha, and I climbed a mountain to their family mandir, tucked away in the Gargari Hills. My economics student Aarti submitted a perfect final project, which we proudly hung on Yuwa’s wall. I witnessed family violence and alcohol abuse, which shook me to my core. My housemates and I cooked an amazing Thanksgiving dinner for Yuwa staff and their families, and last week, we adopted a kitten!

I could go on and on sharing my stories and moments with you, but in this month’s edition of Yuwa Moments, I am ecstatic to share a story from one of the girls I work with, Riya Rani. She created and edited her story herself. Take a look below.

This month, several Yuwa girls applied to a summer program abroad, and staff supported them by writing recommendations, editing essays, and filming video submissions. Regardless of the outcome of their applications, the process was a fantastic opportunity for the kids to discuss their core values and try out videography, and for me, a chance for me to observe the nuances of using imagery for storytelling in social work.


What is storytelling?

What do I mean by storytelling? Storytelling is how an organization tells the world about the challenge they’re trying to solve, and how they’re doing it. When I think about storytelling in the context of social work, though, words and phrases such as ‘poverty porn,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘empathy,’ and ‘sensationalism’ immediately come to mind. This points to the darker side of storytelling; that too often, storytelling in social work forms a narrative about people that they themselves played no part in composing, or can reinforce ‘single story’ stereotypes [1].

Storytelling Evolves

The conversation on the ethics of international development and aid is constantly evolving. One of the organizations at the forefront of change that I’d like to highlight is #NoWhiteSaviors.

#NoWhiteSaviors is an advocacy campaign based in Kampala, Uganda, and doing essential work in forcing organizations and individuals to recognize the dangers of storytelling in reinforcing racism and colonialism in low-income ‘developing’ countries. In a recent post, @nowhitesaviors criticized a Senegal-based UNICEF-funded shelter for survivors of sexual violence for allowing Gigi Hadid, an American model-cum-philanthropist, for posting photos that clearly disclose the identities of women they claim to be keeping safe. Hadid’s photos include a lengthy caption describing the abuse and challenges these women have faced, as well as the work the shelter is doing to support and prepare women to return to their communities.  “It’s irresponsible,” @nowhitesaviors’ writes, “for [this] organization to NOT have strict social media policies in place that protect the identity, dignity & worth of the communities they claim to be helping” [2].

To an outsider, Hadid’s post could seem benign. She seems passionate about her work with this organization, highlighting the staff’s hard work and tireless efforts that keep the organization operational. But as @nowhitesaviors’ points out, the story she shares is one that she curates, with her and her fundraiser at the center, and exploits images of women who are staying there for protection from the outside world. By sharing their images (likely without their consent) and location with people who could potentially try to harm them again, she has risked their safety and well-being at the shelter.

Storytelling done ‘right’—or at least better

There are many ‘right’ ways to tell a story to create social impact. Individuals hoping to spread awareness for a cause can share images that highlight consenting individuals with dignity, or re-tell stories shared by social workers working directly with beneficiaries. But better yet, why not just share stories and images told and chosen by beneficiaries themselves?

Yuwa does just that, demonstrating what dignified story telling looks like in practice. Whenever Franz Gastler, Yuwa’s CEO, is invited to give an interview, speak at an event, or receive an award on behalf of Yuwa, he refuses unless the publication or event is willing to hear from a Yuwa girl. The result? Over 12 Yuwa girls have publications, Ted Talks, and features made on their lives and stories across internet [4][5][6]. This powerful example not only effective highlights the strength and resilience of the Yuwa community, but it also centers the focus of advocacy on the kids themselves– exactly where it should be.

Instead of hearing Yuwa stories from me, why not watch Riya Rani tell her own in the video you might have skipped at the top of my page? 😉


[1] Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TEDGlobal 2009. TED. July 2009. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

[2] @nowhitesaviors. “What About the Organizations Who Allow Exploitation of the Communities They Claim to Be Protecting?” Instagram. 11 December 2019. https://www.instagram.com/p/B55uDIyhcFw/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[3] @gigihadid. “Visit to UNICEF Supported Shelter in Darkar, Senegal.” Instagram. 10 December 2019. https://www.instagram.com/p/B52rbTPHgVT/

[4] Nayak, Nicolai. “Footballer, Coach, Student, Role Model: 17-Year-Old Monika Kumari Battles Prejudices in Jharkhand.” Scroll.in, Scroll.in, 8 Aug. 2019. www.scroll.in/field/933119/player-coach-student-role-model-17-year-old-monika-kumari-battles-prejudices-in-jharkhand

[5] “Using Football to Educate Girls: Franz Gastler & Kusum Kumari at TEDxGateway 2013.” Featuring Kusum Kumari, and Franz Gastler, YouTube, TED-Ex Gateway, 26 Dec. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ2elbOGPCg.

[6] “The Inspirational Konika and Yuwa: Changing Football for Girls in India.” Featuring Konika Kumari, YouTube, Laureus Sport for Good, 6 April 2019. www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5462v-hTrI

Jane is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Yuwa in Ranchi, Jharkhand. For her Fellowship project, she is developing a life skills curriculum for adolescent girls from vulnerable backgrounds around sports-based training to enhance education, build confidence, and improve health. As a student of economics and politics, Jane has been captivated by the beauty and complexity of India throughout her college years. She first traveled to India in the summer of 2017 to work with a social enterprise in Delhi. She has participated in a variety of India-based projects, including working as a research assistant at her university’s Delhi Jal Board Yamuna River Project in New Delhi, co-launching an apparel brand with young female entrepreneurs in rural Uttar Pradesh, and working for a Delhi-based environmental action group to evaluate sustainable solid waste management practices. She interned with the United Nations ESCAP to research women’s entrepreneurship in the informal sector, and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi in Jaipur. She is ecstatic about better understanding localized approaches to gender equity and development by serving on the AIF Clinton Fellowship. Ultimately, she hopes to become an expert in poverty alleviation in South Asia and to work in policy implementation by identifying best-practices, promoting accountability through monitoring and evaluation, and collaborating with governments to improve social protection for the most vulnerable.

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