You’ve heard of fighting fire with fire. You’ve heard that it takes one to know one. Now a really smart young woman is using culture to change culture; she’s challenging gender violence and discrimination by telling stories. Her name is Ishita and she’s telling women, just like you, to “Tell your story and change the world!”
Ishita Srivastava grew up in Delhi. Her father, who lived in Boston for most of her youth, sent her VHS tapes of Sesame Street, which she adored. Maybe that’s partly why she believes so deeply in the power of media to connect people, ideas, and cultures —even shift and expand the way people think. Today, Ishita is producer and deputy program director at the global human rights group Breakthrough, where she uses multimedia and pop culture tools (much higher-tech than VHS!) to drive change and promote gender equality. Recently Ishita spoke to Like a Boss Girls about her latest, biggest project—THE G WORD—and why she believes culture change is the key to social change.
What do you mean by culture change and why is it important?
I think of “culture” as the set of behaviors, attitudes, habits, styles, norms, and expressions—the stories we tell, directly or indirectly—that help us connect to a larger community and make sense of the world. Your family has a culture, and so does your school, your soccer team—and of course so does your country, your religion, and so on. So why does it need to change? Well, it doesn’t all need to change. But some elements can be harmful. Sexist and racist stereotypes are part of culture, for one thing. What’s so amazing and powerful is that culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It shapes us, but we also shape it. That means that when parts of it need to change, we can change them: by speaking up and taking action. And we’ll all be better for it.
What’s the G WORD?
THE G WORD is our new global transmedia storytelling platform. It’s where we collect and connect stories from people everywhere about their encounters with the part of culture we call gender norms: the expectations around how girls and guys, men and women are “supposed” to be, look, and act. If you think about it, they’re actually pretty rigid. In some ways, they can keep us from being ourselves, like if you’re the girl who hates dresses but has to wear them because you’ll get in trouble if you don’t. Or the guy who gets beaten up for acting “gay,” or the woman who gets harassed every day on her way to the bus. Or the trans kid who’s barred from using the bathroom they’re most comfortable in. We kept hearing so many stories like these in response to our earlier projects that we thought, “Let’s find a way to make the stories themselves power the change we want.” So I was able to use my digital and visual storytelling experience to lead the build of this amazing online space designed to grow into one giant new conversation about breaking down harmful norms and creating new, and better, ones together.
Why is storytelling important? How do stories make change?
The best, truest stories are about something primal, something that transcends specific identity or experience. That’s why stories, whether dramatic or funny or both, have such power to make people say “Me, too!”—or, at least, “I get it.” Add to that what we know about how social change works: that people don’t relate as much to “issues” as they do to other people. So when we begin to understand one another, we can see our shared vision for a better world and work to make it real. It’s actually not that big a leap!
Any favorite stories on THE G WORD so far?
One of the earliest submissions we got was a beautiful story from a young woman named Anne who wrote about her challenges growing up in a conservative religious household and developing a crush on a girl. Then we got…a story from her girlfriend! Hers is about growing up being shamed and bullied for not being the conventionally pretty, skinny girl she was “supposed” to be. Everything changed for both of them when they found each other and fell in love. It was so sweet—and so moving to hear about what they’d overcome, apart and together.
I also can’t stop thinking about Justin, who shared his struggles—first in the south, then in the north—to fit shifting norms and expectations around race and masculinity. Now, he says (spoiler!) ”I have succeeded in reclaiming my story.” That is awesome.
What made you want to get into media/culture for change?
I didn’t have one single AHA! moment. But I grew up surrounded, and totally wowed, by media. My mother, for example, started and ran the first photography archive in India. Growing up in India, also, I also had a strong sense of social justice. After finishing college, I knew my perfect path would be to merge my interest in visual media and storytelling with the goal of creating change. I went to film school, started making documentaries (including Desigirls, about two young gay Indian women negotiating life in New York) and never looked back!
What advice do you have for people who want to follow in similar footsteps?
Bring your personal story to everything you do. That doesn’t mean overshare! It just means that you should start with what you know, with what’s close to you, with what matters to you. Show up authentically with that as your guide, and others will want to connect—and make change—with you.