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The power of a good story

26 Jul 2020

“Everystory Sri Lanka” is a unique collective of empowered young women who are attempting to drive change through feminist storytelling. Started in 2018 by Sharanya Sekaram and Widya Kumarasinghe, Everystory Sri Lanka looks at creating a space that is safe and friendly for young feminists to explore what the word and concept of feminism means to them, both individually and in the bigger picture, with the ability to make mistakes. The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with the Everystory Sri Lanka team to learn more about what makes the collective tick and how they’re driving change through storytelling.  

Building Everystory Sri Lanka

Everystory Sri Lanka began with Sekaram and Kumarasinghe, who had known each other for years, initially having met while carrying out community outreach programmes for organisations like the Unity Mission Trust and the Grassrooted Trust. While working together on issues relating to cyber exploitation and online gender-based violence, they realised just how in sync their values were, how they shared lots of the same frustrations, and how they were both going through the same cycle of “the world is horrible”. Having realised how rare it was to share such similar values and outlooks, Sekaram and Kumarasinghe decided they must do something cool and creative that worked with children.

“There is something inspiring about teaching children new ideas and seeing them grasp it,” Sekaram explained. “Working with topics like gender-based violence can end up being depressing and make you forget that there are good things in the world.”

Sekaram and Kumarasinghe had also wanted to build a space for young feminists to explore what feminism means to them, both as a word and as a concept. Because feminism and gender equality is such a sensitive issue, there isn’t always room to make mistakes and correct problematic insights. Everystory Sri Lanka was created to build a space for exploration for people who are afraid to talk about their views and ideas on feminism because it may not be seen as “perfect” or “correct”. The power of storytelling is something that cannot be underestimated, and the inspiring effect of a powerful story is something both Sekaram and Kumarasinghe have seen and experienced firsthand. This power was what they decided to harness in a more formalised concept and show what storytelling can do to help drive change, using unheard narratives to make people think of the world as being more complex, layered, and justice-driven than it is right now. Storytelling also allows children to connect with unusual narratives and develop wider and more balanced worldviews they could take out into the world and use to make a difference.

“By the time children get to primary school, gender roles and stereotypes are already framed in their minds,” Kumarsinghe commented. “So you need to get to them before primary school and the best way to do this is through storytelling.”

Through the grants they have applied for, Everystory Sri Lanka has been very lucky to receive flexible funding, which gives them more freedom with allocating funds to projects and resources than traditional funding, leaving them able to affect more change in the long run. Kumarasinghe explained: “Funds can cloud almost any perspective. You tend to design things around getting funding. Flexible funding is more value-based with the understanding and trust that you are doing your best. We can do things like invest in people and try new things. Creatively, this has really helped us open up.”  

Putting together the Everystory Sri Lanka team

Until recently, the Everystory Sri Lanka team consisted of just Sekaram and Kumarasinghe. On forming the collective, Sekaram and Kumarasinghe looked at ways to formalise and detail their vision and the core values of what they wanted to do. The pair spent some time conceptualising Everystory Sri Lanka, putting together an organisation built on feminist principles and equality as well as equity and the recognition of unique journeys and struggles and how to make the most impact on individual levels. While doing this, they had also wanted to create a safe and positive environment to work in. There can be lots of frustrations within social justice organisations, and while amazing work is done on an external level, internal team dynamics can often be bad. So this is something Sekaram and Kumarasinghe wanted to avoid. In late 2019, Everystory Sri Lanka received core funding from FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund. Having received this core funding, Sekaram and Kumarasinghe decided to forge full steam ahead, planning to start operations properly in April 2020. The pandemic ended up affecting these plans, but not as negatively as one would expect. With Kumarasinghe based in the UK, training to be a barrister, Everystory Sri Lanka would always have the kind of setting where remote work would play a role. With this in mind, Sekaram and Kumarasinghe began expanding the team in February 2020 to include other women who shared their values. [caption id="attachment_93234" align="alignnone" width="825"] The Everystory Sri Lanka Team: Co-Founders Sharanaya Sekaram and Widya Kumarasinghe, Programme Managers Bhagya Wickramage and Abilesha Segar, Admin and Finance Manager Rachithra Sandanayake, and interns Shreedha Hordargoda and Saravi Seravi Harris[/caption] The team now consists of seven women including Sekaram and Kumarasinghe; Programme Manager Abilesha Segar, Programme Manager Bhagya Wickramage, Admin and Finance Manager Rachithra Sandanayake, and interns Shreedha Hordargoda and Saravi Seravi Harris. All members of Everystory Sri Lanka are people who Sekaram and Kumarasinghe have previously met in their lines of work or those who have come recommended from family and friends. One of the many interesting things about the Everystory Sri Lanka team is that they have never all met in person. Some have met physically in different settings, but as a team, the group works exclusively remotely. Sekaram and Kumarasinghe have worked this way before with other feminist organisations that have not been based locally.  

How Everystory Sri Lanka is driving change

Everystory Sri Lanka is driving change through storytelling in several different ways. One of their first initiatives is a series of webinars. Segar commented that this was one of the most interesting things happening during the pandemic. The webinars are targeted specifically to parents of children aged three to seven and are conducted in all three languages. [caption id="attachment_93238" align="alignright" width="300"] Webinars organised by the Everystory Sri Lanka team[/caption] “There are no webinars in this sphere at all, especially in Sinhala and Tamil,” Segar shared, and with Everystory Sri Lanka’s mission of inspiring young children through positive storytelling, the webinars provide the opportunity to educate parents about early childhood education, featuring experts from different fields. Hordagoda spoke about addressing race and caste through storytelling and how this is something Everystory Sri Lanka will be addressing in its work. “Caste discrimination is a big thing. There are lots of resources for talking to kids about race and we want to adapt and use these to address caste by doing things like including a page in storybooks with questions for parents to answer and help create conversations about empathy, race, and differences.” Wickramage shared more information about one of Everystory Sri Lanka’s cornerstone projects – that of sharing worthy female-driven stories.

“There are very few women we hear about in a Sri Lankan context,” Wickramage said. “But there are so many stories that we haven’t heard.”

Everystory Sri Lanka is compiling these inspiring stories of women who have beaten the odds, fought, and resisted systems telling them what they could or could not do. Some of these stories have already been told and some have not. At present, the project includes some 50 to 75 stories, and the project has the overall potential to grow into something else. Sekaram shared: “It’s also about archiving and pulling from different sources, both physical and bring it together and also give other people the chance to use these stories.” Another initiative Everystory Sri Lanka is driving is a young feminists’ network. Sekaram explained that there are young adult females in schools who have lots of ideas but don’t know how to execute them. The network would be an initial step towards creating a platform that can change this. Sanadanayake and Sekaram are working together to compile a newsletter that can keep young feminists informed of events of interest, gatherings, and resources that these young adults can avail themselves of. The network will also look to help these young adults execute ongoing projects and ideas they may have. [caption id="attachment_93240" align="alignnone" width="825"] People and projects who have inspired Everystory Sri Lanka's vision[/caption] A regional project Everystory Sri Lanka is working on is in collaboration with the NoVo Foundation. Everystory Sri Lanka are to be the South Asian curators for the Resistance Stories Project, a larger storytelling project on girls’ activism and resistance on a global level. Everystory Sri Lanka is curating 15 oral histories on young women in South Asia who have started activism or resistance movements to gender norms in their country. These oral histories showcase women from all over South Asia covering every single country in the region. Everystory Sri Lanka is one of eight global curators for the Resistance Stories Project, with the curatorial team from CDCC on board as their curators. The end result will be a curated exhibition showcasing resistance stories from all around the world. The Resistance Stories Project is funded by a group of funders who identify as feminist and social justice funders who want to know more about the stories and nuances of gender norms around the world.  

Everystory Sri Lanka and the future

On the future of Everystory Sri Lanka and what they have planned, Sekaram and Kumarasinghe explained that when it comes to planning the future, they have two settings: the far future or the present day. Everystory Sri Lanka is concentrating on what they’re doing now and doing it well on executing, learning, and making an impact. Sekaram and Kumarasinghe commented: “On a personal level as well as a collective, it’s important that as we grow, we maintain our values and that people stay connected. We’ve been very lucky that lots of people want to do work on stuff like this.”

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