Taking Charge of Their Own Narratives
How Mumbai's Marginalised Young People Are Claiming Recognition and Respect Through Curated Walks
Introduction by: Sabah Khan
Doel Jaikishen’s submission introduces us to curated walks as a means of narrative change in Mumbai, India. In collaboration with the non-governmental organisation YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), Doel is a member of the team which conceptualized curated walks (through a slum and a resettlement colony) to shift how the city’s middle class interacts with and changes their assumptions/biases about the city’s poor.
Like many other metropolises, Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is highly unequal in terms of living standards. Nearly 60% of the population lives in slums (areas with little or absent basic services such as water, toilets and electricity, in one room tenements). Government policy has attempted to rehouse people living in slums into resettlement colonies, which many planners describe as vertical slums because of their poor planning and lack of services.
The walks are led by people from within the community and have participants from colleges teaching city planning and public policy as well as working professionals in the formal sector. Youth leaders are trained to ensure the walk does not lead to a romanticisation of poverty but provokes participants to rethink the anti-poor development trajectories of the city. These walks challenge the stereotype of the poor who live in marginalised neighbourhoods and aim to change the anti-poor rhetoric dished out by the mainstream.
Does anyone know what ‘tadipar’ means?
(A few confused/blank faces; a girl raises her hand.)
Yes, it instantly evokes a criminalised identity…
The people of Ambujwadi have been stigmatised with this tag for decades. Our walk, led by youth from this area, will share how they are resisting so that they can reclaim their identity.
Are we ready to go?
As these words went around our community centre in Mumbai on a cool January morning in 2022, I searched the curious faces of my fellow walkers joining me for the day. We were following the orientation of our curated walk ‘Sharing Housing and Identity Journeys,’ co-facilitated by the Malvani Yuva Parishad1 youth group… and now it was time to go!
In another city suburb, young leaders of the Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan2 children’s collective were deep in discussion. At a quick glance, their resettlement colony (Lallubhai Compound), in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, may have seemed more developed, more secure. Yet, housing and identity challenges were equally stark, even if often invisible to the unhurried viewer here. Tomorrow, these young people would lead a curated walk, ‘Growing up in a Resettlement Colony.’
Both these walks have grown from nearly four decades of social transformation work at the non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) where I work. They are located in Mumbai—India’s financial capital—a dazzling urban centre that promises growth. However, this densely populated city is also witness to stark inequality, divide and discrimination. The city’s marginalised people often need to contend against prevailing narratives of othering and bias.
This is what the walks seek to upturn through the alternative narrative of people’s own stories, of living, resisting, advocating for dignity, justice and peace. The curated walks are primarily targeted at students (especially of urban studies, planning, sociology, youth studies, etc.), and young to middle-aged formal sector professionals in the city.
This segment, referred to as ‘the middle class’ in later sections of this article, is often keen to partake of new experiences in the city and are open to exploring new neighbourhoods. The walks have been a novel vehicle to shift their perspective on the urban poverty in cities and help forge a stronger civil society. From the curated conversations and sensorial experiences, they have allowed marginalised young people to assert their identity and reclaim recognition in the city. While our first walks began in 2018, over the years we honed their narrative capacities to leave a stronger imprint on participants. Here’s how…
What Stories Do We Share?
Our stories are the specific experiences of marginalised children and youth. They are rooted in everyday realities of struggle, resistance, and inadequacy. Yet they are not without hope. Neither do they lack energy or reflectiveness. Often playful, still forming … they are waiting to be heard!
Mumbai’s informal settlements3 are teeming with resistance, hope and collective action. Each arriving migrant has their own unique origin story. The struggles of each community for rights and justice weave in richer threads of nuance and complexity. Ground-up campaigns and advocacy initiatives formulated and led from community spaces inspire change, even if often challenged and/or constrained due to resource limitations and systemic pressures. Despite the seeming messiness and chaos of people-led action, which may often take more time to yield results, they offer transformative learning and insights about the power and potential of collaborative action.
However, people’s stories from the grassroots often remain unknown to anyone outside their circles. For the city’s middle class, which contends with none of these realities and is unfamiliar with notions of collectivising for change, informal settlements and community spaces could be rich spaces for interaction, learning, shedding of biases, and co-creation. Current social systems of interaction hardly offer any space to enable such dialogues or collective engagement. Worse, sometimes such interactions are mediated by external parties who organise ‘slum tours’ and the like, with little sensitivity to the local circumstances and people’s own journeys of hope and resistance.
Our curated walks are designed within these settings to be a direct link between the city’s middle class and the marginalised young leaders. They offer glimpses of growing up while negotiating identity and housing issues in low-income neighbourhoods. Children and youth share their everyday realities while focusing on what they have been doing in their collectives to access rights and justice.
Who Tells the Story is Key!
We strongly believe in जिनका सवाल उनका नेतृत्व (Solutions and approaches are best determined and led by those facing the problems themselves.) This guided the way we designed the curated walks as well. It was critical that people of the community lead these interventions. When children and youth collectives we’ve facilitated decided to take up the idea, we knew we had a team!
When marginalised children and youth are in a position to share stories that have shaped them and bring their everyday realities to conversations in honest and creative ways, the experience itself is empowering for them.
Youth leader and walk facilitator Asma Ansari says: ‘The act of sharing our community and its stories through a curated walk reacquainted me with predominant narratives in the city and the bias through which urban poor neighbourhoods are seen. Against this, how would our stories endure and what impressions would it generate? This was a key consideration.’
By shifting the narrative towards questions of identity and citizenship through the voices of children and youth leaders—who share how they have collectively worked for better communities and societies—the walks serve as channels of empowerment and hope.
While sharing their stories, young leaders also field questions that come in. This is not only the most vibrant and unpredictable segment of each curated walk, it also highlights what impressions participants take away from these encounters. These interactions help us gauge how successfully the walk is able to shift stereotypes, fill gaps in people’s understanding, and seed new ideas and questions in their minds.
The act of facilitation by young leaders who are active changemakers has itself been a powerful lever. While offering their feedback on the experience, most participants share their appreciation for direct interactions with young leaders, unmediated by other stakeholders.
Why Walk, When We Could Just as Easily Sit and Share?
When you walk with us, you agree to come and meet us where we are. You not only give us your time, but your attention, openness and curiosity to new narratives of the city which you may/may not have heard before. You also lend your senses to the experience—watching, hearing, smelling, and touching the many sights, sounds, flavours and site specificities of the area.
We have been curating walks as a part of our annual narrative change festival ‘ComplexCity’ since 2018.4 Walks were a natural choice to further the festival’s goal of inclusive city building, given how easily it allows the sharing of stories from the community to the people. This gives agency to marginalised persons, who may otherwise have no spaces to share their journeys with those not in similar circumstances.
On the other hand, when a participant registers for the walk, they consent to their bodies being a part of an immersive experience. They are open to experiencing realities which may be far from their own. Walking through new neighbourhoods outside their comfort zones, participants often suspend judgement and bias, overwhelmed as they are with the new sensory experiences around them. Narrow alleyways, uneven terrain, newer forms of housing … the experience is as novel as it is at times unsettling. This creates the opportunity to share what young lives growing up in these spaces experience and desire and what they are doing collectively to achieve what they want.
Where Imbues Choice in Identity Placemaking
The walk neighbourhoods themselves, which are otherwise outside the mainstream depictions of the city, gain legitimacy when people show up to listen to the histories and contemporary realities emanating from here. Just the act of locating the curated walk within the city’s marginalised neighbourhoods is political. When it becomes the site of shared stories, which further grow and spread from there, reclaiming power via narrative change is possible, even probable.
We intentionally designed walks in marginalised neighbourhoods of the city to experientially highlight the identity issues when growing up within varied housing typologies. With over 60% of Mumbai’s housing stock being informal settlements, and the nature of housing varying within this segment too, exposure to this reality is a critical imperative. One of the walks takes place in historical settlements, even containing pockets of tribal communities. Forced evictions and displacement over the years have been a cruel reality for many inhabitants.
People gained strength to resist injustice collectively as methods of community organising grew when YUVA’s work in the settlements began. Participation in larger housing networks offered support and built people’s capacities. Even today, some parts of the settlement are notified, while others are non-notified5. Participants at the walk can understand the increased threats experienced by the latter, just by looking at their far more temporary housing structures.
Against this background, when children and young people share their identity journeys, not chronologically or journalistically but through their lived realities and in their own voices, the narratives of resistance acquire new urgency and significance. Youth additionally share how they seek to overcome stigma, both within the larger area they are in and from the more well-to-do areas of the city. Whether in access to education, jobs, or even public transportation, often they are discriminated against on the basis of where they live. Yet, their collective resistance and campaigns for change push back against every injustice. They are determined to seek and inhabit the change they want.
‘We led a Missing Identity campaign as the city’s Master Plan showed our area to be a No-Development Zone—as if we don’t exist here! With constant advocacy, the state government changed the reservation to a Special Development Zone. We are still advocating for a Residential Zone reservation,’ says Asma, as the group stops in front of a wall painting on #MissingIdentity in the community, made by the youth.
The resettlement colony in Mumbai where another curated walk is conducted presents a seemingly contrasting picture. Families affected by upcoming developmental/infrastructure projects were rehabilitated in this area, from different parts of the city in the early 2000s. While they gained a state-provided permanent housing structure, they did not gain an adequate habitat.
Saraswati Pagde, a child leader and walk facilitator, says: ‘When we arrived here, there was no school, no public health infrastructure, no grounds for play. Many families resettled did not know their neighbours, who had been shifted from different areas. Where we relied a lot on community support within informal settlements, in the towers where we were rehabilitated we were shut in our own houses. Safety and lack of privacy were key concerns.’.
This walk highlights how the absence of sensitively designed public housing can intensely impact the living experience. Through the narratives of child leaders, it foregrounds the impact of rehabilitation on children, who are the most affected but often the most voiceless group.
Samreen Shah, walk facilitator, says: ‘As children growing up in the community, getting to know our rights, and the power of collective action, we felt energised to lead efforts ourselves. We worked on child protection through various forums—developing and performing street plays in communities and beyond to raise awareness, through workshops and consultations, and even via advocacy with government representatives and through the local Child Protection Committees.’
‘What you see today is a reflection of our collective efforts,’ adds Saraswati, as she shares and acquaints walk participants with the safety they advocated for around a local school that has come up in recent years. The children have also claimed grounds for play within the resettlement colony (as they had no prior playing space), and have advocated for children’s access for transportation to school, among other change initiatives.
When Does It Start? Narratives Begin Even Before They Are Shared
Our walks aim to share diverse realities on housing and identity across class groups. To enable this, we helped interested facilitators undergo detailed training on narrative design to build and implement impactful change strategies. From tools and elements of narrative change, to its application and testing, facilitators experienced the range of possibilities through their own efforts.
Although many youth facilitators were avid storytellers, to better curate walks they needed a deeper understanding of narratives and how they can impact. We designed a series of workshops with a testing process to help facilitators get acquainted with and test different narrative tools and strategies.
Asma Ansari says: ‘Our detailed learning process helped identify how some parts of our narrative needed a closer relook. We had to build a larger narrative from the individual stories and reflections. The mindfulness with which we iterated helped us frame a strong narrative.’
Right from developing a strong value base for narratives, the team identified different ways to simplify yet retain nuance in their sharing. Some of the questions they asked ourselves during this process included: What would be the overarching narrative? How would it be shared via people’s journeys and experiences? How would the concrete and abstract both find space in experience design? When would the personal stories decentre to larger narratives? How would the experience not only empower marginalised children and youth, but help shift the power towards a reclaiming of their identity and recognition? How would the walk celebrate narratives of resistance and collective action and invite people’s support for such efforts?
With a broad scripting of each walk, and by testing it through preparatory rounds with different audiences, walk facilitators realised which parts of their narrative stuck, and where emerging challenges lay. They engaged in a detailed feedback and continuous learning process to ensure that their facilitation shaped a stronger narrative. This process continues.
In 2021, the team also participated in a detailed revisioning and design process, led by a renowned national festivals curator and applied arts professional, to further sharpen the narrative design and delivery.
How Does a Story Invite Collective Action?
The narrative discourse emerges from a constant cycle of deliberating, creating, sharing and learning. Each time a story is reshared, its legitimacy grows. When participants ask questions and share reflections, the narrative shifts further and takes on newer shapes.
By placing the narrative power in the hands of community children and youth, we sought to overturn the existing order of who typically tells the story. By locating it within marginalised communities of a city and inviting the middle class to partake of these stories, we sought to change where the narrative is shared and between whom. A curated journey was created for each participant to help them individually grasp the significance of these stories within the larger narratives of the city and the country.
The focus on experiential learning, critical questioning and inquiry created space for participants to enter these narratives. They often shed biases and shared ideas for further collaboration. Walks were an entry point to larger narrative change questions introduced by the ComplexCity festival, which also included competitions, theatre, youth conventions, film screenings, and other creative formats. In each of these presentations, we sought direct engagement among different sections of society. In an environment of misrepresentation and othering, the festival curated platforms for authenticity and dialogue, towards respect and cohesion.
Some feedback included:
‘This walk made me better appreciate nuances in living. On many accounts there has been progress within marginalised sections. Parents are investing more in daughters’ education, living conditions in homes of tribal families are better than before. Yet, much more needs to be done. The lack of municipal water connections in many slum neighbourhoods was stark! The youth shared gaps in public policy and implementation in tangible ways, seeding interesting questions in our minds.
A walk of this nature opens up one’s eyes to so many areas of Mumbai which are typically unseen, which the larger public is ignorant about.’
- S. Kishore Kumar, retired banking professional
‘I always wondered why waste accumulates in slums. But today I am able to place this in context of larger systemic failures. If there is inadequate waste collection, how will the community stay clean? Against this backdrop, the efforts of the youth for change are doubly inspiring’.
Umang Manchanda, development sector consultant
Where Do We Go from Here?
Four years after we began facilitating curated walks, we are still uncovering newer layers of the narrative and seeking ways to sharpen impact. The small but engaged and growing group of 150+ people who have walked with us so far have shown us the promise of this initiative. When young people take charge of and become the narrator of their own stories, it can help them assert their identity, be recognised both individually and collectively for their resistance and changemaking, and shift the way the city recognises them. Once this takes root, and appreciation and acknowledgement is built among different people, further change is possible.
Many of our learnings and reflections from curated walks so far are specific to the contexts in which they are located. There is no doubt, however, about the power of this medium to shift narratives on the urban poor for long-term change. A patient investment in the process—how it can empower young people and change the way they are perceived and interacted with—holds the key for an inclusive tomorrow.
We hope our intervention and learnings inspire other changemakers to invest in similar initiatives for narrative change. Our long-term dream is for such walks to be designed in newer neighbourhoods, facilitated by trained youth in those areas. If their combined insights can be brought to the city-level, it will help design a new and inclusive urban future.
In the past few months, our walk facilitators and the festival planning team have shared their experiences and learnings from curating narrative change initiatives at different forums, such as the Comic Relief Community of Practice conference, attended by participants worldwide. Some of the walk audiences have shared their takeaways as blogs, photo-essays and video testimonials. The walks have received strong media coverage,6 and one of the walk facilitators also published her experiences.7 Plans for creatively documenting the impact of the walks and teaser films on them are also underway.
The Malvani Yuva Parishad is a youth collective facilitated by YUVA. Formed in 2014, the youth group operates independently today, leading its own campaigns and localised initiatives for change. Their journey has been documented through a case study in this volume (see Chapter 1.2): https://cdn.azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/apuc3/media/publications/Stories-of-Change-Compendium-2020.pdf
Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan is a children’s collective facilitated by YUVA across different areas of Mumbai. Since its formation over two decades ago, children have led numerous community-based rights issues. Read more about them here (chapter 6): https://yuvaindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Toolkit-webversion.pdf
Often referred to as ‘slums,’ but we avoid using this term
ComplexCity is YUVA’s narrative change festival to co-create an inclusive city with diverse stakeholders. Read more here: https://complexcity.in/
Notified informal settlements are those that are recognised by the local government, while non-notified settlements are not. In the latter case, people are more vulnerable to forced evictions and may be denied access to basic services.