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Published on: 12/04/2021

On being a storyteller

One hot summer afternoon in the month of May 2020 amidst the lockdown in India, I came across the application for IRC's Ton Schouten Award for storytelling on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

I am Srilekha Chakraborty from India. A pre-COVID normal day in my life would include travelling to communities, and conducting training sessions around gender, sexuality and reproductive health with adolescents and women. On other days, I would be collecting stories on menstruation, maternal health and malnourishment among the youth and adolescents in Jharkhand. At the time I applied for the award I was also running a campaign called "PeriodsPeCharcha" (Let's Talk Periods), a menstrual hygiene programme and was working on creative projects on the ground around Sexual Reproductive Health and Sanitation.

Reflections on applying for the award

For the award application I needed to fill out the number of initiatives big or small that I had undertaken using storytelling. Especially those of change or narratives of health and WASH for the masses.

While I was jotting down the events and putting them in chronological order, mid-way I started to feel overwhelmed. I have been working in communities for ten years and I have applied for several fellowship programmes with the help of a structured questionnaire. For the first time I received an application form that was so different from all of the others.

It was a framework which asks you to showcase your milestones in whatever format you want!

For a moment the imposter syndrome kicked in. Also, being a woman and growing up in a patriarchal setup has taught me to subdue and share less of my own achievements. For the first time while I was filling in the application form I started to realise that over the last couple of years - with support of my community - I truly did so many things on the ground. But I never took the time to sit down and reflect upon them. I revisited stories from the field and videos brimming with a hope that this creative work will continue again post lockdown.

Winning the award

For years now I have mostly worked independently with the remotest organisations, reaching out to isolated communities. While most of the smartest organisations and start-ups are high impact data driven, what IRC was doing was celebrating the storyteller in you.

Yes! It is great that awards like this in the social sector exist where technically everyone fits in. Because everyone is a storyteller.

There is a famous quote by Margaret Mead, "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever had".

This award reinstated the belief that small scale stories which touch people's lives and bring the smallest of impact are equally commendable and need to be appreciated. And that there are people out there ready to listen to your stories. I received this award last year on the 2nd of June, Ton's birthday and in the middle of an uncertain world. At that time several projects on the ground were shut down and there was a lot of uncertainty around adolescent health and sanitation in the communities that I have been working with. I got the award in one of the darkest times of our lives where every little milestone achieved on the ground seemed to be falling apart. This award recognition was a ray of hope which gave me strength to believe that we shouldn't doubt the change we bring in the world, not even the tiniest one. We should never doubt or think that we are incompetent and not worthy of an opportunity or an award.

How I have continued telling stories after winning the award

Enhancing the storytelling skills of adolescents in Jharkhand

Last year around August, I started collecting stories on how COVID-19 affected the communities I worked with. I prioritised stories on how the pandemic was affecting sanitation and hygiene in marginalised communities - a not so often discussed topic amidst issues like unemployment and food security. I found out that, when we say 'We are all in this together' on the one hand, how on the other hand people struggle to buy the most basic things for proper hygiene, like sanitizers and soap as a trade-off to buy one day of food for families. IRC gave me a platform to write about the experiences on the ground, stories which otherwise I wouldn't have prioritized. I later published the article on their website.

While I was working on this story on sanitation, NEEDS, a community-based organisation with whom I have been working in Jharkhand approached me with a project to enhance the storytelling skills of adolescents in the community. About forty youth and adolescents from four organisations were selected for the project. The next few days I worked with a film maker and organisational heads of department on coaching these youths on script writing, story building methodologies and character building with a hope to develop a short movie, written and directed by them. After about two months of training and editing the storyboard and planning of the shoot, finally the girls and the boys from the organisation shot the video with a local cameraperson. The sheer joy of passing on the legacy of storytelling to the future generation and seeing them prepare a story on how these youth and adolescents have been fighting to combat child marriage in their community is beyond words.

Enhancing the storytelling skills of adolescents in Jharkhand

Why I encourage you to apply

Many of us who reach out to the masses and work with them using stories in one way or another, rarely revisit all their outputs. The Ton Schouten Award gives you a chance to prioritise the storyteller in you and celebrate it. It's a challenge to yourself to showcase the tiniest change that you have brought with your work as a storyteller and it's time you start valuing it because everyone at IRC truly wants to encourage you to do so.

Good luck with your applications and creating more 'not so spoken about' stories around health, water, sanitation, and hygiene thereafter!

Srilekha Chakraborty in Jharkhand, India

The Ton Schouten Award 2021 is now open for applications!

Read more about eligibility requirements and how to apply



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