August 23, 2017

Aditi Rao is a writer, educator, artist, and a dreamer who wants to break down barriers between teenagers in her native India through storytelling and theatre.

She is one of six World Learningalumni to receive an Advancing Leadership Award in 2016 to support her project promoting greater social cohesion through the performing arts. As a Fellow, she has received a $5000 grant and mentorship support to help her turn Tasawwur — a volunteer collective that combines her passion for the arts, youth-work, and social justice — into a full-fledged program for positive social change in New Delhi.

“India’s political climate is increasingly polarized against minorities,” Rao says.

“There’s a lot more violence again minorities and there’s a lot less understanding and harmony amongst groups,” she explains.

Aditi (left) facilitating a small-group breakout conversation on caste based bullying.

Her bold innovative project is designed to bring teenagers together from across lines of class, caste religion, gender disability, and refugee status, in order to give them a voice.

“One of the core objectives is just to get people from these groups or identities together talking to each other about their lives, becoming friends,” she explains.

Tasawwur, which means “imagination” in Urdu, starts with activities that elicit personal stories with the teens teaching each other about their lives and the challenges they face. Next, with the help of artists and musicians, their stories are woven together to create a theatrical production. The 100-hour youth and arts program culminates in a three-night theatrical engagement open to family, friends, and the public. The performance is intended to extend the dialogue and enable youth participants to advocate for the change they wish to create.

The project is a natural fit for Rao, who is both a peace activist and a widely published writer in India. Her first book of poems, “The Fingers Remember,” won the 2015 Muse India Young Writers Award. She is also a recipient of the TFA Creative Writing in English Award and the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize. In 2014, she was selected as one of the most promising emerging writers in India by Caravan Magazine.

“Growing up in New Delhi as a teenager, I realized I had no access to people who came from different income groups or different religious groups,” says Rao.

Aditi (top left) with the cast of her theatrical production, which involved 18 teenagers cutting across lines of class, caste, disability, gender, and religious minorities.

She spent the last decade working in youth development and peacebuilding across India, Mexico, and the U.S., including at Pravah, the Gandhi Fellowship, The Possibility Project, The Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education and SEDEPAC, and World Learning’s CONTACT South Asia program.

“For me, the biggest thing I got from CONTACT South Asia was just these amazing friendships from women from Pakistan, from Kashmir, from part of the world my country is constantly in conflict with, Rao says.

“I was really moved by just how transformative those friendships are.”

She says the program’s success will lead to greater dialogue and understanding between different communities as well as the personal growth and empowerment of the participating youth. Rao already sees lasting friendships among a diverse groups of teens from the program’s first cohort.

“They are still in touch and teaching each other about the issues in their lives,” she notes. “This is the lasting impact.”

Rao adds: “For me, Advancing Leaders is really about taking what we’ve piloted and tested as an idea and growing it into a sustainable program so we can create a curriculum to work with teachers and other youth programs.”