Hurford Youth Alumni Interview
Nishchhal Kharal Recounts His Youth Democracy Activism to Marwa Galaleldin
In this podcast Hurford Youth Fellowship 2021 Cohort Alumni Nishchhal Kharal was interviewed by a member of the 2022 Hurford Youth Fellowship cohort, Marwa Galaleldin. The interview describes Nishchhal’s career in youth activism in Nepal, founding multiple human rights grassroots organizations, and offers advice on tactics CSO’s can try to connect with young people in their communities. Read the full transcript of the interview below.
To learn more about Nishchhal’s Hurford Youth Fellowship and other Hurford Youth Fellows, check out the gallery of Hurford Youth alumni HERE.
Marwa: Hello everyone and welcome to this podcast. My name is Marwa Galaleldin. I’m from Sudan and I am currently a Hurford Youth Fellow here in DC for the year 2022. I am working on a project titled Redefining Democratic Space in Post-Revolution Sudan. Today we will be talking to Nishchhal Kharal, a Hurford Youth alum from Nepal. Nish is a youth peace activist based in Katmandu. He leads the creative company called Freedom Studio. He’s also a co-founder, researcher, practitioner who is associated with the Center for Social Change since its foundation in 2015. Okay, Nish, let’s kick this off with you telling us how your Hurford Youth Fellowship impacted your work.
Nish: Thank you. Thank you, Marwa, for the invitation. As you mentioned, yes, I’m a Hurford Youth Fellow of 2021. This virtual engagement with the team was so powerful it motivated me to rethink my activism journey that I was doing in Nepal. Actually, Hurford Youth Fellowship came in a very crucial moment of my life, where I was in junction of expanding my activism journey in a new way that no other changemakers had even thought of starting in Nepal.
I want to thank the fellowship team. It literally provided me a unique platform for me to start a new movement of artivism, that is integrating art and activism for social transformation in Nepal. The period of fellowship, I was constantly thinking and was encouraged to imagine, to innovate solutions for educating and engaging young people in defending and promoting freedom and civic space in Nepal.
Marwa: Thank you, Nish. More than ten years experience working with civic engagement and young people participation in Nepal, you’ve done very impactful work using art activism or artivism. I was wondering if you can tell us about an example of an artivism project that was impactful, and what elements of it that the people listening to this interview or podcast could try in their own work?
Nish: It has almost been two years that I, along with my colleague, have started Freedom Studio. Actually, we have done several activities to enhance creativity and solidarity of young and emerging artists and activists of Nepal. I want to share you with one example. This is of artivism fellowship. We bring young people for around six months. We train them on democratic values. We educate them on democratic values, democratic principles, and we’ll also encourage them to integrate their art knowledge, their art experience, their knowledge of democracy in their artwork that they do. We have a lot of musicians. We support them. Also, we ask them is to develop their fellowship plan, and then we provide them funding and mentorship support to implement their fellowship in their community.
Another example that I want to provide is of artivism project that we did on the theme of prevention from sexual exploitation and abuse committed by aid workers. You can see this doesn’t directly match with the democratic thing, but of course, it is part of democracy. You can see in a country like ours when there is some kind of big disaster, then a lot of aid agencies goes to that particular case for taking aid, and those aid workers exploit and abuse the people who are in need. We thought of using art as a means to raise awareness. We were developing a lot of motion graphics, cartoon videos, comic books, and spreading them out in the local community. It impacted hugely. We were able to raise discussion, interaction among school students. I believe this was another impactful project that we did.
Marwa: Thank you for sharing that, Nish. That’s really amazing. Thank you, Nish. Thank you for that. My next question is, if a civil society building nonprofit is looking to encourage young people participation, what is the most important thing for them to do from your perspective? What is the thing they should absolutely avoid doing?
Nish: Nice question. First and foremost, civil society organizations must be able to convince young people that their engagement and participation in civic and political issues will change their life, will save their future in different way than what they have thought to be. I personally believe this is the first task to do by a civil society organization to make young people believe that they personally will benefit maybe in long run from their engagement. That will I think motivate them to be engaged in their community. Therefore, I think the grassroots civil society organizations must organize this massive information and educational campaign in both virtual and physical space for young people to let them know how their engagement in civic and political life can change their own life.
Also, secondly, I want to say that we also need to be very clear that young people wants to grow. Young people wants to move ahead in life, but in country like ours, like mine, there are very few opportunities for young people to grow. We have very limited opportunities for skill-building, for leadership, for maybe job internship, which eventually makes young people frustrated and they will seek out to move from the country. They try to escape from their own country and the community.
I think as a civil society activist, civil society organizer, we must provide young people with different opportunities which will grow them as a leader, as a person, as a community leader, and which will make them believe that they can make a significant change in their community. This belief in themselves will encourage them to be engaged and be actively participate in their community.
I believe if we are thinking of youth engagement, then there should be a youth expert or young people who is leading this process. Or at least there should be youth staff who should be there so that the person, he or she, can really understand the agenda of young people, issues of young people in particular context. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in country like, mine, like ours. CSOs are often led by very elderly people. I don’t mean to offend elder people, but I know they have the range of expertise, which is very, very important for enhancing civic engagement. I mean, to say there must be some kind of youth leadership in several states of project development.
For example, like my rationale behind opening We For Change in 2012 was one of the honorability of such kinds of platform. There was no youth-led platform in Nepal. That’s why I decided to open a youth-led organization back in 2012. I was literally very young at that period of time. I decided, okay, it’s a youth-led organization led by young people between the age of 16 to 24. Above 24 you can’t be a member of that organization. Today, after 10 years, I’m not a member of that organization. Young people like the fifth generation are running that organization. I think that came because of the frustration. Ten years back, I was so frustrated by this bureaucratic hassle and discouragement that I decided to create a platform for young people to get engaged, to learn and to make mistake, and to grow together.
Also, when you said about the things that CSO should be avoiding to do is– a lot of what I see in Nepal is attracting youth is kind of easy thing. CSOs can use attractive social media contents to get young people’s attention. However, sustaining that attraction is a challenging thing. They need to be provided with opportunity, resources, and practice. Most of the time civic organizations just engage youth to whatever specific role they have. What is the demand of the project. I think CSOs also needs to make very clear in the first hand what are they expecting from the youth? What are their time engagement and those kind of things.
Marwa: Thank you, Nish. Thank you for bringing that up. Before we move forward, I want to ask you if you can repeat the name of the organization that you started in 2012.
Nish: It’s We For Change.
Marwa: We For Change.
Marwa: All right. Thank you.
Nish: You can check our website, weforchange.org for all the audience there.
Marwa: Thank you for that, Nish. I want to ask you why did you help start Freedom Studio?
Nish: The story of Freedom Studio starts with the born of We for Change actually. I had been this long-standing activist in Nepal. I was always thinking, like, “What can I do innovative? What can I do different?” In 2020 when this COVID-19 happened, everything was shut down. There was a restriction in civic space, and especially in Nepal, new laws and directives were being introduced to restrict, shrink the civic space of Nepalese people.
There was a populist, what do you say, movement or demand. We need a strong dictator leader who can lead this country and make economically very viable, economically developed country. That kind of populist isn’t ours coming up. I really felt that it was very crucial to develop some kind of innovative platform where artists and activist could come together and challenge and expand their imaginary power where they can also stand as a defender of civic space. A lot of artists were being arrested at that time, a lot of comedians, people who were tweeting were being arrested. I thought we need to stand side-by-side to those artists and activists who have been harassed or abused, arrested, and killed for raising voice.
Marwa: Thank you, Nish. I mean wow. In such a short time, you were able to achieve such results. I’m amazed and shout out to you, of course. Moving forward, as a young Nepalese activist, what have been some of the most effective tactics for engaging young Nepalese people in democracy-building activities? I know you mentioned some of these activities, but what are some of the techniques that you tried yourself through your organization?
Nish: I believe using creative approach has always been very effective tactics for engaging young Nepali people in democracy-building activities. I think it was this realization of using creative approach that encouraged us to create Freedom Studio back in 2021, which is serving as a creative movement in Nepal. Using creative movements, a creative approach of music, paintings, sketching, dance, drama, poem, and videography. There are so many things, have been very effective to educate and promote democratic values in Nepal.
Last year we brought around ten emerging artists and activists together to develop art products that reflect democratic values. It was very interesting project as there were so many things that we learned and experimented. Such art products were very effective to influence and convince friends and colleagues of artists and activists for civic engagement.
Similarly, I think cross-cultural engagement can be another effective approach to engage youth in democracy and peacebuilding activities. It was in 2019, I guess, we had organized this exchange program between Madheshi and Pahari youth. This Madheshi and Pahari are based on the political scenario of that time, they were considered as contested youth. We did this two-week-long exchange program named, “All Hands Together,” where we were able to get this youth experience and feel each other’s culture, beliefs, and values. They were able to interact with social leaders in the local level, visit community organizations, and participate in cultural activities, local campaigns, eat local foods, stay in host family. Once they were back to their community, they started their own podcast, radio programs, school lectures, and start spreading positive messages on each other.
Marwa: Obviously, using culture to mobilize people to engaging for democracy activities, or for young people to be more active, generally in a safe space and otherwise, it always delivers, I feel. Culture really touches everyone and young people specifically tend to really work well with that. You mentioned international platform, and we know that every year the fellowship brings people from different parts of the world. Can you tell us what things have you learned from other Hurford youth alumni from other countries and has the international alumni network been something that you’ve interacted with after the fellowship finished, and has it been a useful resource to you?
Nish: Yes, Hurford Youth Fellowship, actually, it has a strong network of young changemakers around the world where young changemakers like me, like you have this opportunity to learn, network, collaborate, and expand our critical thinking ability to challenge ourselves, the work that we are doing. Yes, I have been interacting with several Hurford alumni through virtual platforms. Actually, last year I was doing this podcast with Risham Waseem from Pakistan, who was a Hurford Youth Fellow of 2016 or ’17 if I remember correctly. She has been working in communities of Pakistan to develop creative contents like documentaries, films, music, dramas to replace the notion of extremism, and violence with hope and coexistence in Pakistan.
There were several other fellows that I learned from. I have been in regular conversation with my colleagues from Hurford Fellows of 2021. Patricia from Brazil who is an amazing lady who ran for Congress at very young age in Brazil, and Stefani from North Macedonia, and Marr from the Gambia. Both of them has their own organizations and they have been doing great work. We are actually in regular conversation, and I can relate a lot of things of what they are doing right now in their country.
Marwa: Thank you so much for joining us for this podcast. Given everything that’s happening in the world now, I know many people are saying that the bad guys are learning from each other. I hope that through this podcast, the good guys and young people can also learn from each other and can learn from your experience in Nepal, and the amazing work that you’re doing through Freedom Studio.
I know from my experience that the young people in Sudan are using and utilizing art for activism as well. Although our experience might be a bit younger, but I hope that in the future more artivists and art activists around the world can connect and network more and more. Thanks again. Thank you to everyone who’s been listening to us. I am Marwa Galaleldin from Sudan and I am a current Hurford Youth Fellow for the year 2022. It’s been great having you, and thanks again, Nish. I don’t know if you want to say one last thing.
Nish: Thank you, Marwa, for the invitation, and I want to thank the World Movement team for facilitating everything. Thanks so much.