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Two Storytellers, One Mission: Sharing Narratives to Build a Better World.

Updated: Apr 17

Girl Rising Board Members Shabnam Mogharabi and Nikhil Taneja share their insight on the power of storytelling to create transformative change.

Nikhil Taneja: Shabnam, your work at SoulPancake has had a huge impact on my work at Yuvaa. I’m gonna try not to fanboy too much!

Shabnam Mogharabi: Well, I’m a huge fan of what you’re doing, and I’m so grateful for this conversation. Can we start with Yuvaa’s origins? 

Nikhil Taneja: Sure. I spent the first decade of my career in mainstream media organizations in India, but on weekends, I taught college journalism. I was also trying to create safe spaces in my classroom for students to speak up without judgment. And listening to them, really hearing what they had to say, changed the course of my life. I began to understand their feelings of loneliness and the real-world challenges they faced. And I saw the huge gap between the struggles of young people in reality and the unrealistic portrayals of youth in the media. Even at the film company where I worked, stories about young people that were pitched to us involved one of two things - love or murder. Nothing else. 

So I wanted to start a platform for young people to share their stories. Yuvaa began as a mental health platform to address this epidemic of loneliness among young people. I've always felt that storytelling can make people feel more heard, more seen, more represented. Today we’ve transitioned to a Gen Z-driven media and impact organization focused on mental health, gender, sexuality, climate change - basically every urgent issue that young people face. You did something similar with SoulPancake, right?

Shabnam Mogharabi: Yes, and our story mirrors so much of Yuvaa’s path. I started SoulPancake with Rainn Wilson from The Office. He regularly performed live events at colleges and many students opened up to him about their feelings of isolation and anxiety. Clearly, they wanted to open up. And yet, when he looked online, there was no place for them to connect over things they shared in common. Things like love and grief. The need to belong. The desire to laugh and feel loved. 

SoulPancake was born out of that need. Our mission was to chew on life's big questions and create compelling storytelling about the human experience - everything from love, loss, health to art, hope, family - and we made the stories personal.  We fell into social action by accident only when comments started pouring in with hundreds of people asking “How can I help?” We saw so clearly that people wanted to engage and so we started connecting our work to social action campaigns, fundraising for important causes, and special events. We saw that when you lead with a story that connects people to issues they care about, you ignite their inner activist.

Nikhil Taneja: Organizations like SoulPancake empowered me to dare to think Yuvaa was possible! 

Shabnam Mogharabi: Are there any specific examples from your work that show how storytelling impacts people’s lives?

Nikhil Taneja: There's so many but one is really close to my heart. Five years ago, we launched the Yuvaa Roadshow of Kindness and since then I‘ve traveled to over 150 Indian colleges leading open mics for young people to speak up in safe spaces. We share many of these stories online, with consent of course.  

Our first open mic was in Ahmedabad in 2018. A student named Mo slowly approached the mic, sweating and shaking, and they quietly started reading a poem. After just a few lines, they stopped, looked up and said simply, “I am bisexual.” After a beat, we let out a small cheer. Mo’s face completely changed. They looked at us quizzically and asked, “did you all just cheer for me?”  And when we answered, “Yes!” they said, “This is only the second time in my life that someone's been OK with my sexuality.”  Mo asked, “Instead of reading this poem can I just tell my story?” And we said, “that is exactly why we’re here.”

So they shared their story. The bullying at school. The isolation. Being kicked out of their home at 17, because their father believed bisexuality is an illness to be cured. They spoke of the one friend who supported them and made them feel they would be all right. It was such a moving story, leaving us all in tears.With their consent we posted the conversation on-line and because of Mo’s authentic voice, the comments were just incredible - people saying, “listen, I don't understand what LGBTQ is, but I think you're an honest person,” and “if you need anybody, I'm here for you,” and “do you know that in Ahmedabad, there's a massive queer community and we welcome you.” One of Mo’s tormentors reached out saying, “I saw your story. I'm so sorry.” 

And there’s more. Mo created a scrapbook of all these wonderful comments and went back home to their parents. When their mother answered, they handed her the scrapbook and said, “You kicked me out saying ‘what will people say.’ Well, here's what people say.” Their mother invited them in and held their hand as she read every single comment. And since then, Mo and their mother have reconnected. That's the power of stories.

Shabnam Mogharabi: That’s so beautiful and it makes me think of a story from SoulPancake. One of our team members grew up without her dad but her stepdad had always been there for her. And her experience sparked an idea for a SoulPancake story. 

We found an incredible blended family - parents Jamey and Tara who had one child before they divorced and both remarried and had additional children. The parents and step-parents Natasha and Jason had a beautiful unifying co-parenting approach. We pretended to invite the two step-parents to speak on a panel about blended families. What they didn't know was that it was actually an opportunity for Jamey and Tara to surprise them with a thank you letter expressing gratitude for the role Natasha and Jason play in their son’s life. The resulting video was beautiful, but we were not prepared for what happened next. 

The video went viral with more than 30 million views, and tens of thousands of comments saying things like, “I wish that my parents had been able to figure out a relationship with my step-parents”, or “I love the role my step-parents play in my life, and yet I don't talk about it because it feels like a betrayal of my parents.” So many people were connecting through the comments and exploring how love is an infinite resource. You never run out of love! 

Many people told us that the story completely changed the nature of their relationship with their step-parents or parents. And I think it speaks to the power of stories in bringing together diverse communities around a shared experience. 

Nikhil Taneja: I've always thought, Shabnam, that the more specific the story, the more universal it is. 

Shabnam Mogharabi: So true, because they show the power of connection and empathy, right? It's like that African concept of Ubuntu - 'I am because we are.' And I think we are at a time in history where we need more of this - and to move beyond connection and empathy toward compassion. Compassion is empathy plus action, not only do I feel with you, but I want to show up and help, too. 

Nikhil Taneja: I love that - compassion is empathy plus action. 

Shabnam Mogharabi: Which is hard to do, if you never hear those stories that move you to compassion. Do you find that to be true, even in digital storytelling?

Nikhil Taneja: Yes, to me the greatest challenge is that young people aren't given the opportunity to be heard. India is the youngest country in the world. The average age here is 26. But the average age of our members of parliament in India is over 60. Young people aren't part of decision-making at any level. Their ideas, their needs, their emotions are either dismissed or manipulated.    

Young people are constantly being distracted by polarizing opinions to get them caught up in petty issues. And it’s our responsibility as a youth organization to give a platform to youth voices and amplify their stories, ideas, and aspirations. 

Shabnam Mogharabi: And beyond giving them a voice, we also have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the story. Of course you edit and give it a storytelling look and feel. But sometimes a person's authentic story can be watered down in the creative process or because of business decisions. The challenge is to always honor the storyteller’s voice. It’s sacred.

Nikhil Taneja: That comes down to the people you work with. I saw a recent post of yours that said you never hired “brilliant jerks.”

Shabnam Mogharabi: Ha! Yes, “No brilliant jerks,” was our number one hiring policy. You have to always collaborate with good people. It’s the only way to move humanity forward. It’s why I’m so glad you’ve joined the board of Girl Rising. What drew you to the Girl Rising Board?

Nikhil Taneja: I met Nabila Aguele at a Goalkeepers event and we connected over our love of Bollywood. When I learned she is on the Girl Rising board, I went to the website and saw so many people I admire including Holly Gordon and you. And then I learned more about the mission and the work. I know that our world cannot become better unless we invest in young girls and women.  

There is a wonderful book called "Invisible Women" that taught me that every space in our society is made of men or made by men. I occupy these spaces and I want to use my privilege to make a difference. Whenever we talk about gender, it’s so important to include men in the conversation because girls' education is a human issue, not a women's issue. For men to truly grasp this they first need to see how traditional understandings of gender also hurt them. There’s this quote: “Patriarchy benefits men, but it oppresses all genders.” My show, Be a Man, Yaar!, is about positive masculinity. The work that Girl Rising is doing is so aligned. 

Shabnam Mogharabi: I don't think it's a coincidence that we're both wearing Barbie pink as we talk about patriarchy and Girl Rising!

Nihkil Taneja: I've got the Ken-ergy!

Shabnam Mogharabi: And we are glad to have that Ken-ergy on the board! For me, there were two things that drew me to Girl Rising. One is the idea that storytelling can create change, because it represents what I believe about the world. And second, the mission of empowering and educating girls aligns so much with my own personal experience. I'm the oldest of four girls, children of Iranian refugees who escaped a revolution and started a new life from scratch. I'm very aware that if my sisters and I had been born in Iran, we would not have had a college education, I could not have started a business, and many of the joys in my life would not be possible.  

I am a Baha’i, and in my faith, there is a quote that says if a father can only afford to educate one of his children, he should educate the girl. Because when he educates a girl, he educates a family, a community, and an entire village. 

Nikhil Taneja: My role model is my mother. She’s a force, but she's also compassionate and kind. But growing up, I was bullied for being sensitive. It was seen as a weakness. And now I want those qualities of kindness, compassion, empathy to be qualities that all genders value and work to possess. 

Lightning Round

What’s In, What’s Out

Shabnam Mogharabi: Isolation in the name of Self-care is out. Showing up and Other People-care is in.

Nikhil Taneja: Gender Rules, Gender Boxes are out. Positive Masculinity and Gentle Masculinity is in.

A book or film that profoundly impacted you?

Shabnam Mogharabi: Mine is easy. The film "About Time." It was marketed as a rom-com, but I think it’s a profound story about the importance of being present and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments. The main character can travel through time and - Spoiler Alert! - learns that the best use of his power is to experience every day twice. The first time, he deals with all the normal stresses. The second time he experiences that same day, he stops to enjoy the moments of beauty and connection along the way. 

The film inspired me to start “Beauty Emergencies” with my son. We'll be driving, and I’ll see a beautiful mural or a tree overflowing with flowers - and I will call out “Look, a Beauty Emergency!” and we will stop for 30 seconds to just appreciate the beauty around us.

Nikhil Taneja: Big Richard Curtis fan here, too! And I love "About Time." Movies have shaped me. Shah Rukh Khan's films were childhood staples. But it was Dev Anand, another Indian great, who really got me. Dad and I bonded over his movies. For a book, I’ve been digging into "The Anthropocene Reviewed" by John Green. Such a gem of a book, honest and hopeful, touching on all things human.

Two things that give you hope. 

Shabnam Mogharabi: One is looking at history. Justice is a multi-generational effort, and sometimes you don’t see the fruit of your labor. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And I see hope - and patience - in that history. People who fought for women’s suffrage and never got the chance to vote. Or people who fought for civil rights and didn’t live to see a Black president. It’s a powerful reminder that the work of social justice matters. 

The second thing that gives me hope is my kids. They are incredibly joyful and pure, and they motivate me to keep working for a better world..

Nikhil Taneja: Girl Rising gives me hope. That's one of the reasons I joined the board. I think there is just such powerful work underway, particularly the stories of the Future Rising Fellows. And the second thing I'll say is Yuvaa, because Yuvaa means youth. It is the youth that give me hope. 

A phenomenal woman leading change today.

Nikhil Taneja: Dia Mirza, UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, climate change awareness advocate, actor, and one of the kindest people I know. And a second - Shabnam Mogharabi!

Shabnam Mogharabi: I’m very humbled. But I’ll say the women of Iran. I am Persian and have closely followed the “Women. Life. Freedom.” movement. I just watched a documentary about Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist who is in and out of jail for fighting for women's rights.  

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