story | Xie Yihui, Contributing Reporter
photo | Yasmine Messaikeh
On October 31, five Yale-NUS students and alumni gathered at Elm Common Lounge to share their initiatives under Social Impact Fellowship (SIF), a small grant issued by the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE), intended to fund Yale-NUS students’ short to long-term initiatives that raise awareness of a social issue, or advance a solution to a social challenge.
Among the many ways to drive and navigate social impacts, Yale-NUS students chose unconventional routes. Yasmine Messaikeh ’22, who led “The Girls Dance Movement” with her friend Éloïse L’Her, used dance to build a safe space for young women in a refugee camp in Lebanon that enables the development of body awareness and sharing of stories.
Specifically, Messaikeh led regular urban and contemporary dance lessons, accompanied by a participant-led conceptualization and execution of a final dance project.
Why dance? Messaikeh explained, “I think dance combines physical exercise with emotional expression and storytelling in a way that not a lot of activities do.” She emphasized that “sharing of personal stories is a form of empowerment but a lot of the girls [in refugee camps] don’t really have a space for the sharing of stories for its own sake.” Through story-telling, Messaikeh hoped to pave the way for everyone to undertake a shared physical and emotional journey.
In line with Messaikeh’s appreciation of the arts as a driver of social change, Sebastian Cortes ’18 tapped on the expressive potential of photography – he designed and implemented an educational initiative that partnered with grassroots organizations to teach photography and storytelling techniques to migrant communities – Afro-Ecuadorian youth in Quito, Ecuador, and female victims of forced displacement in Bogota, Colombia.
“The project tried to provide historically marginalised communities with visual literacy tools that could strengthen their collective and individual identities and support ongoing community initiatives, such as political activism, art and entrepreneurship,” said Cortes during the panel.
As a recognition of his innovation in revitalizing education, he was awarded a fellowship by World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a global platform for sharing of creative solutions to solve challenges facing education.
As part of the WISE Voice Learners Fellowship, he developed a language learning toolkit for young refugee learners. “Instead of directly addressing trauma, [we] combined literacy and psychological approaches that gave [the community] ammunition or resources that would that would strengthen their ability to cope,” Cortes noted.
In any social impact endeavor, we see a relatively privileged group intervening and driving changed in an underprivileged community. It is therefore crucial to be cognizant of this power dynamics and be careful not to adopt a condescending and patronizing attitude of a charitable giver.
Both Messaikeh and Cortes ensured that the targeted communities are free to make decisions about their creation. Messaikeh said that “the final project was conceptualized by the girls themselves. They choreographed bits and pieces of both the performance and the video project.”
Similarly, when working with female survivors of war and sexual violence, Cortes allowed them to “[develop] a booklet of photo essays on their experiences as forcibly displaced women, with no themes given.”
The intriguing alignment of Messaikeh and Cortes’ methodology is no coincidence due in no small part to Yale-NUS’s liberal arts education, a curriculum that prides itself for cultivating the cultural, aesthetic and rhetorical literary needed for students to become sensitive and compassionate readers of human experience.
Mariel Chee ’17, one of the co-organizers of “Another City”, concurred with the view. “When we were reflecting on our education experience [in Yale-NUS], we realized that one of the things that [we benefited] from was the focus on nurturing compassion and empathy.” By developing a four-day Arts and Design Thinking Education Initiative, “Another City”, Chee, along with her friends Jezamine Chua and Nicole Ng, hoped to apply her learning and bring forward her educational experience to the wider community.
“Another City” aims to nurture empathy, compassion and self-reflexivity through an arts and design-thinking curriculum based on investigating a real-world issue in Singapore. Partnering with CHIJ Kellock Convent in June 2016, Chee’s team conducted a programme for 15 students to investigate the social issue of urban poverty.
The students were encouraged to use art as a tool to experience and understand the urban condition, including photography, free-writing, mapping and role-playing. This empathy-driven learning allows students to appreciate the needs of the neighborhood in order to ideate and prototype creative solutions.
Kingfishers’ social impact journey definitely goes beyond the realm of the arts. Sakshyat Khadka ’22 led a project “Sambridha Nari (“Capable Women” in Nepali) to develop financial literacy campaigns for entrepreneurs and small business owners who are primarily women. The one-month project ran in three different communities in Eastern Nepal. The team aimed to tackle two social challenges: the lack of knowledge and experience on how to run and grow a business and the lack of an inclusive environment for women to run and operate businesses.
Through his project, Khadka wanted to inspire and facilitate more women to start and run businesses in local communities of Nepal. Besides running workshops, Khadka explained that they “brought in female entrepreneurs and female bankers working in micro-finances, and they come in and tell them about their own struggles, how they got through it, and then we help them connect together.”
By connecting them with sources of funding, along with the toolkits essential for starting a business, Khadka hopes to create a platform through which small businesses can thrive. The project funded by CIPE eventually became a pilot program for Khadka’s start-up Khudra Asia, to continue his endeavor to stave off financial illiteracy and lack of exposure to financial institutions in Asia.
Other panelists echoed with Khadka, noting that SIF has been useful in supporting their work. Many of them highlighted that the planning stage and the guidance of CIPE advisors had helped to clarify their purposes of doing the project.
On creating social impacts, Cortes stressed that while being aware of the power dynamics was crucial, aspiring change-makers should dare to experiment, “the way to drive social changes is not to read a book, not to do an MBA, not to take a class, but to go out and try to and try to really talk to people and interact with them and understand their needs.” Tan Yock Theng, Programme Manager, Leadership & Global Citizenship, also encouraged action, where “social impact is about the doing, … and the values that are embedded in how you engage with people”.