Shadhika Shadhika

In a world where gender justice requires new thinking, fun is mission-critical for Shadhika and its program participants to be effective.

Fun Is A Mission-Critical Ingredient To Achieve Gender Justice

By My Lo Cook, Executive Director

July 31, 2023

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This post is part of the Executive Director’s blog series. In this series, our Executive Director will be sharing insights on Shadhika’s mission, our gender justice work, and the impact of our programs in India. Follow our Executive Director on Instagram and Twitter for more!

Read more from The Executive Director’s Desk here.

It doesn’t matter what you are discussing with the Shadhika partners or the Shadhika Scholars. The conversation must start with a song and end with a song–if you are lucky, with dance too. And selfies are mandatory until your cheeks hurt.

I just got back from the Leaders for Change Summits and Partners Summit, co-hosted by Milaan Foundation and Sahiyar in Lucknow and Vadodara, respectively. So much learning took place over the course of two back-to-back weekends that my head is still spinning with new ideas. In the design of the Summits, in addition to the intensive learning sessions, we intentionally built time for songs, dance, and other unstructured fun activities because science tells us that fun is a critical ingredient to achieving our mission.

Our brains are anatomically wired by fun and play at a young age, opening new learning pathways. As we get older, fun releases oxytocin, dopamine, and norepinephrine; powerful hormones that improve motivation, learning, attention, and resilience–all essential for Scholars and organizational leaders who work to overcome complex barriers in hostile environments. Fun and songs are an effective emotional outlet, and often an act of defiance and resistance when communities are oppressed into silence.

In a shared experience, fun creates a deeper bond between people because scientists believe that fun and laughter is the most primitive way a species recognizes its kin. From an evolutionary standpoint, playful people are favored by natural selection because they are more likely to develop new strategies to adapt to changing environments. Fun and play awaken a sort of exceptional thinking that sets the stage for discovery and advancement. 

Simply put, fun is a child’s word for adults’ ideas of creativity and innovation. So in a world where gender justice requires new thinking, fun is mission-critical for Shadhika and its program participants to be effective.

So, our Leaders for Change Summit in Vadodara opened with a dance performance by the Scholars of Sahiyar and closed with dinner and a dance party with strobing lights and a DJ. In Lucknow, the Change Leaders from Shadhika’s Men Against Gender-Based Violence Initiative funded by DAWN danced until their clothes were soaked in sweat. The Partners’ Summit closed with an impromptu song, after a long day of defining success in our communities. Any group bus ride is an excuse for sing-alongs. 

And the results are entire walls of ideas, strategies, and feedback to continue to refine and do our work better–and to cultivate collective action.

But it is not enough to tell people they can have fun. Otherwise, fun can become performative in an effort to please and conform. So we must create an explicitly affirming environment where people feel emotionally safe to be fully themselves. So the joy they feel in the laughter is a visceral one; one that creates a genuine bond and curiosity.

This year, Shadhika welcomed the most diverse cohort of Scholars in the organization’s history: married Scholars, Scholars with children, transwomen Scholars, and Scholars from some of the most marginalized caste, tribal, and religious groups in remote areas of India. They found a community of peers and allies in each other through learning about each other’s experiences, but also through fun and the explicit message that they belong. For some of them, it is a type of belonging that they have never known before in such an open and public space.

This is why Shadhika is committed to nurturing a fun and affirming environment of work because we believe wellness and belonging are the keys to excellence. This principle of growth is grounded in science and supported by empirical evidence we collect at our gatherings.

So the Scholars took endless selfies with each other. Those selfies will become constant reminders that that community exists for them, no matter what others tell them–a community that will affirm and support them.

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