I have met Jigyasa Labroo on a number of occasions. Each time she wafts in like a beautiful memory – one that you cherish for eternity. Conversations with her are like a warm, soothing concoction of inspiration, determination and sheer power of belief and goodness.
Sounds too good to be true? That is Jigyasa for you, the founder of Slam Out Loud, a not-for-profit based in Delhi to foster voice in children with the vision that “every individual will have a voice that empowers them to change lives.” Slam Out Loud does this by using the transformative power of performance and visual arts to enable children from disadvantaged communities to find their voice through creative expression so that they can learn to imagine what can be, in the place of what is.
The softness of Jigyasa’s face belies the grit that lies underneath especially when she talks about Slam Out Loud which was co-founded by her and Gaurav Singh in December 2014.
Both started as Teach For India fellows, working with a low-income classroom for two years when Jigyasa realised that society’s dreams for children were limited to academic outcomes and the security of employment.
She recalls, “In our classroom was Preeti who needed to learn to form better relationships with her family to invest them into her education and arithmetic and literacy weren’t helping her learn that.
We, therefore, started learning through the arts in the classroom, using music, visual arts, theatre, dance and poetry. Gradually, in an attempt to be a part of the solution and get our students to develop 21st-century life and leadership skills along with the values of open-mindedness, tolerance, empathy and respect – we conceptualised Slam Out Loud.”
There is a silent strength around Jigyasa. I wonder if it comes from working with children day in and day out; when you help someone find their own voice to empower them, it is you who gets empowered instead.
Jigyasa reiterates that “As an organisation, we continue to believe that being able to express ourselves should not be limited to a privileged class. We believe that when our children are empowered to harness their voices, they can influence issues confronting their communities, bring about a more just and inclusive society, call attention to long-standing problems, or otherwise change the world.”
It is in taking this spirit forward that Slam Out Loud has started their flagship project – The Jijivisha Fellowship, a year-long program wherein they bring arts education to low-income learning spaces throughout Delhi. They scale their solutions to rural setups across the country through their second project, Voice For All, which is set up in association with the Pratham Education Foundation. “In the past, we have worked with 6500+ children, 100 artists, and are currently reaching out to about 50k children, in 950 villages across UP, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan,” she shares.
In less than 5 years, the organisation that took roots in the Teach For India programme has managed to make a significant impact. What is even more impressive is that Jigyasa was only 22 years old when she started. At an age when people are still trying to come to terms with their identity; thinking about next steps in their education; many-a-times confused about their career journeys, I wondered how she arrived at an entrepreneurial path.
But with her collected demeanour, Jigyasa says that Slam Out Loud did not come from a place of her desire to start an organisation of her own.
“I think in the journey of sharing what seemed to be missing in how we educate children, the idea very organically developed into a project and then an organisation. I felt and still do that I was more committed to the problem of solving the lack of engaging opportunities for children to build creative confidence, than creating another organisation. We’re far from solving the problem but our commitment only seems to get stronger as we see results from our work year on year.”
However, she adds that to become an entrepreneur full-time was both an internal and external struggle but she took her time to make that decision – it was one of the things she planned for. The fact that she didn’t have a lot of work experience before starting her journey as a full-time entrepreneur helped because she had little context and understanding of stability/being settled.
And she could take the plunge due to the emotional support of people that she had around her especially her co-founder Gaurav is something she is eternally grateful for. People around her showed immense faith in what she wanted to build and the fear of failure did not strike her. The journey, however, after joining full-time has been very challenging but equally rewarding.
Most of all, the act of enrolling others in the vision has been a tough one. The problem of deprioritisation of Arts in Education has been seen as a problem that is good to solve but not a must-solve. Jigyasa narrates her challenge to make a compelling case of why what they do is important and to enrol others including funders into their vision.
When I ask how they managed to overcome it, Jigyasa says matter-of-factly, that “realising that only creating excellence and bright spots in the work can speak loudest of the possibilities, we have kept our heads down and worked. On seeing the progress and development of the children in our program, we’ve been able to rally the believers to support us in our work.”
Like the case of Pooja, who a couple of years ago couldn’t raise her hand in class to ask a question but has now given a TEDx talk, performed in front of a 1000-strong audience, travels on her own in Delhi and strikes up the most interesting conversations. And that is just one story.
The other big challenge has been to build and manage teams. As a young entrepreneur, Jigyasa admits to being challenged by this task. “With little experience of building teams, I saw myself go through the cycle of getting so engrossed in the ‘doing’ every day that I was not creating spaces for reflection for our team members. I trained as a coach but didn’t prioritise coaching my team, until one day I sat after 3 months of the full-time role and drew up my calendar to understand where my role was going. We sat down as a team, did exercises on personal and professional vision planning, its alignment with the organisation and now have fixed structures every week for reflection, check-ins and coaching conversations.”
Jigyasa confesses that a lot of her learning as an entrepreneur comes from the daily grind. The lonesome journey of entrepreneurship, especially social entrepreneurship is about failing and succeeding. She confesses that being a woman entrepreneur only adds to the challenges – whether of rampant sexism at places she pitches, the glass ceiling, or the lack of other women entrepreneurs in the space.
“I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful book, called Men Explain Things To Me, and it could be the title of what so many women face at work every single day. How I’m trying to address this is through the community. By speaking to more and more entrepreneurs, sharing my journey and listening to theirs has made me feel less lonely in the journey. As far as sexism is considered, I have made a point to call it out every time I experience it or see it happening to another around me. I’ve also tried to check my own actions and words to avoid biases.”
When I ask her about what advice she would give to other entrepreneurs Jigyasa talks with a deep knowing that comes only by virtue of having lived the journey.
“I’d once read that all generalisations, including this one, are false, and deeply believe that all of us are on our own journeys as entrepreneurs. So while it might be important to keep our eyes and ears open to feedback and advice, we all need to discover our own truths, and sometimes make our own unique mistakes. As long as we keep listening deeply to our beneficiaries or customer, we are good. Additionally, having interests outside of work helps as a gentle reminder that we are but a speck in the scheme of things, and pausing to stop and smell the roses on this path hurt no one.”
At 27, Jigyasa sounds like an old soul with a young heart, much like the children she works with. “I think every time I see one of our children at SOL on a platform or stage, be it speaking in front of the class or to an audience of thousands, I know that their life from that moment on, isn’t the same. It gives me goosebumps every single time I see the artwork that children from the remotest villages, or from the most difficult backgrounds create. Seeing so many of our children take the journey of finding their creative confidence, making their voices heard is humbling and inspiring. It enables me to stay connected to our purpose.”
This conversation with Jigyasa makes me realise that while a lot of work has been done, a lot more needs to happen. That is why moving forward, Slam Out Loud is investing tremendous resources to create an ecosystem where children can attain access to arts education irrespective of who they are, or where they come from. The endeavour is to create arts-based learning modules that are vernacular, free of cost, and easily accessible – in order to build socio-emotional and life skills in children. The vision behind this idea is a country where every individual can experience the transformative power of art and use it to find their voices and enable change, in whichever little or large way they can.
Jigyasa’s rendition of her journey as an entrepreneur and as an individual comes with spiritual undertones as she signs off the conversation.
“I believe that the journey of becoming myself is an ongoing one, and the awareness of this journey is the most worthy of the pursuit. In my opinion, a lot of grief and suffering comes from a false understanding of self. It is a challenging journey, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything else.”
This article is a part of our series #BuildersOfIndia where we interview women who are bringing about a change in their lives, the society at large and in the country.