Empowering women through the arts: Meet women’s NGO the Fagun Foundation, led by actress and activist Fagun Thakrar

Here at Voice of Salam, we’re passionate about empowering women and helping them to overcome a range of social, cultural, political, economical and spiritual barriers. With this is mind, we were recently contacted by a flourishing new NGO based here in the UK: the Fagun Foundation – a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering girls and women across the globe to overcome barriers in their educational, professional and personal lives through the transformative power of creativity.

Founded by acclaimed British actress, writer-director and activist, Fagun Thakrar, it was clear to see that there was much artistic passion and experience behind the project. As an arty type myself (and my debut poetry collection now being published this side of 2019), I certainly believe in the power and importance of the creative arts. With that in mind, I caught up with Fagun to find out how utilising creative arts can help vulnerable women grow become greater empowered and to find out more about this new project. Here’s what I discovered!

VoS: Hi Fagun. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with Voice of Salam. At Voice of Salam, we’re passionate about women’s empowerment and are interested in finding out how arts and creative tools can empower and inspire women.  

Back in 2017, you set-up the Fagun Foundation (FF) to empower women through the creative arts. What inspired you to create this movement and could you tell our readers a little about yourself and the work you’re doing?

F: I was inspired to set up the Fagun Foundation based on my own experiences of using creativity as a tool of personal empowerment. As a child, I experienced certain setbacks which I was able to overcome using creativity.

All too often, women and girls across the world are inhibited from reaching their full potential by barriers caused by learning difficulties, poor education, financial instability and other obstacles. But there is incredible power in creativity to empower women to overcome these barriers. I founded the Fagun Foundation to provide women and girls from all backgrounds the space and the tools to develop their own outlets in the pursuit of educational, professional and personal empowerment.

VoS: How have creative arts been a tool of empowerment and self-expression throughout your life?

F: I have experienced personal transformation through the creative arts since childhood. I learned to use creativity to overcome barriers, taking me from school, through to high school, college and on to my degrees. I now continue to use it in my personal and professional life.

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Storytelling, dance, poetry, drawing and painting are a few of many art forms which allow freedom of creativity and self-development

VoS: What are some of the practical creative elements involved with the work at FF? How are your sessions carried out? What are some of the activities you’re running?

F: We have a team of trained creative practitioners and mentors at the Fagun Foundation, who offer a unique variety of arts-oriented programs and workshops covering multiple disciplines, across the visual, literary and performing arts. We regularly hold programmes, workshops and general outreach gatherings to enable disadvantaged people to learn more about the foundation and its aims. We run creative practitioner workshops over the course of several weeks, taking part in deprived areas throughout London.

At the same time, we also offer participants one on one mentorships. Activities range from storytelling, performing and dancing, in which participants learn to use their bodies as a means of expression, to creative writing workshops, and visual art classes in which we teach drawing and painting. Our next workshop is a performance and storytelling class taking place in Camden on the 27th of February. This workshop is open to all new participants.

VoS: Lovely! What do you see as the major benefits of this approach and your work? How have the women you’re working with developed in confidence and their ability to express themselves? Could you share some of their stories?

F: Through our unique approach, the women and girls we work with become increasingly independent, confident, and open, whilst learning how to feel more comfortable in their bodies. A touching story that springs to mind is that of a young woman who we began working with a few years before the Foundation was officially established, who was recently accepted by a university, becoming the first member of her family to do so.

One of our mentors had been working very closely with this participant on a weekly basis, building her confidence, and coaching her throughout high school. Upon securing her place, the young woman and her family were moved to tears, and extremely grateful for the opportunity.

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By working with creative arts, vulnerable women have been able to grow in confidence and independence, with one FF participant becoming the first member of her family to be accepted into university (not pictured)

VoS: Fantastic! You mentioned that you offer mentoring support to women and girls in need of one-to-one support. What’s your selection criteria? How do you assess who can join the programme?

F: As well as working with creative practitioners who are academically and/or professionally trained in what they do, the Foundation offers women in need the opportunity to join our mentoring programmes. Mentorship programmes offer one-to-one long-term guidance and psychological support. For this reason, we don’t expect our mentors to be formally trained in any creative discipline. Rather, we expect mentors to meet two main criteria: the proven passion and ability to help people in need and the availability to work with us in the long-term.

While a background in social work or psychology is preferred, we welcome applications from whoever has a passion for humanitarian work, an interest (or skill) in a creative branch and the willingness to commit to work with us for at least one year. Once the mentor is on board, we try to match mentors and mentees based on the participant’s specific interests, creative profile, needs and location.

VoS: Overall, what’s been the most positive outcomes throughout this two year process?

F: The most positive outcome is when we see a transition in a participant. Over the last two years, we’ve seen many women and girls grow in confidence, develop new motivation and gain new skills. Watching these transitions unfold is always very positive and rewarding.

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Over the last two years, the Fagun Foundation has witnessed women grow in confidence, motivation, independence and develop new skills

VoS: And what have you found most challenging?

F: During the past two years, we have faced several obstacles. Experience has taught us that there are two main crucial challenges that we must face.

The first challenge has to do with the current reputation of artistic exercise. Even though increasing recognition has been given to new and original artistic practices, there persists a misplaced opinion that art is simply for leisure or entertainment and should not been granted any educational status. On the contrary, we believe that creative exercise has the full potential to work as a powerful tool of self-exploration and self-understanding, therefore granting tangible benefits to those who practice it. Sadly, many still think that the only skills that are worth transferring are more pragmatic skills, e.g. IT skills, and would therefore not support our project. We are working hard against this obstacle to push ahead with our work.

The second big challenge that we face has to do with outreach. While we have a team working on social-media outreach and another team working on outreach in newspapers and radio media, we are currently trying to reach those disadvantaged women and girls who, for example, may not have any internet-connection or news media available at home. We strongly want to reach out to these women. As such, we are starting a dialogue with local councils, community centres and public libraries.

VoS: Moving forward, your hope is to launch a selection of schools across Africa and Asia where creative arts can be incorporated into the main-criteria in a more holistic fashion than they currently are in “traditional” schooling. Could you tell us more about this?

F: The idea is to use creativity as a baseline. Instead of focusing on traditional subjects such as Mathematics and Science, we would inject some life into the children’s educational experience using the power of creativity. We want school to be a powerful environment for self-motivated learning and discovery, which we believe will be achieved most effectively by incorporating creativity into the way we teach, and the way children are encouraged to learn.

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Incorporating the arts more widely into mainstream education, could further encourage self-motivated learning and discovery – which is incredibly important for young boys and girls

VoS: That sounds very inspiring indeed. So, how can creative practitioners get involved? What can they bring to FF?

F: Getting involved is very easy! We welcome people all year long. Trained creative practitioners, as well as caring individuals who have a passion for creativity can become mentors by emailing us at info@fagunfoundation.org.

We also warmly welcome any applications to volunteering opportunities for a one-off project. If you have creative abilities – for example, skills in graphic design, app creation, event photography or programming, we would love to hear from you!

VoS: For us creative bodies or free spirits at home, how can we build creativity into our lives, work and practices?

F: There’s plenty of room for introducing artistic practices into our daily lives. We teach some very easy and viable ideas, such as: writing without stopping for three minutes, going for a walk and taking a photograph, putting on some good music and dancing for as long as the song is playing, or picking two words at random from the dictionary and using them as an inspiration for a poem or short story.

I would also suggest that you have a look at The Fagun Foundation’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages. There’s plenty of material there to reflect and work on!

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If you’re looking for creative inspiration, why not try writing? At Voice of Salam, we couldn’t agree more about the power of the written word!

VoS: Great stuff! Finally, in 2019 we’re sadly still facing widespread sexual/gender-based discrimination, and misogyny. How can we all work to empower the women in our families, communities, nations and lives?

F: The gender-based discrimination issues, which we sadly still hear about, have to be tackled from many different, while still combined, points of view. For our part, we believe that education has a great potential as a means to overcome such barriers. Providing women with the guidance and the skills they need will help them gain a clear awareness of and confidence in their intrinsic value as human beings. Our work aims to encourage their curiosity and stretch their ambitions, not only professionally, but also and mainly personally.

We feel strongly that for such work to be fruitful, all individuals should pay increasing attention to gender-based discrimination. Every kind of discrimination needs to be clearly identified before being addressed. It’s therefore important to talk about the discrimination-episodes that we may face ourselves with our loved ones in our own homes, to share our stories with other people and to create awareness of the problem as a real one. Action can only begin once the problem is clearly identified.

VoS: Indeed. Thank you for taking the time to speak to Voice of Salam and all the very best for the future and with the Foundaton!

About Fagun Thakrar:

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Fagun Thakrar is a critically acclaimed British actress, writer-director and activist, based in the UK and the US. Having served as spokeswoman for other non-profit causes and foundations for several years, Fagun witnessed the transformative effects that fostering creativity in others can have in their lives. Following this, she founded the Fagun Foundation in early 2017.

Fagun has appeared in a number of Hollywood and international cinematic productions and as an artist and writer-director, uses filmmaking to educate people’s perspectives on the world. Her films and creative output focus on narratives featuring strong female leads and advancing women’s rights.

Fagun studied Medicine at University College London and later trained in Classical and Contemporary Acting at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Alongside her film career, she completed a master’s degree at the London College of Arts and Fashion and established her own fashion line.

Most recently, Fagun’s artistic passion expanded to directing, that she studied at a world-renowned directing school in the USA. Her latest project is a documentary exploring the intersection of meditation and neuroscience: ‘How Our Brains Are Affected by Meditation’. In addition to her philanthropy and cinematic profession, her career achievements also span a wide range of industries and passions including fashion, business and teaching.

If you’d like to find out more or get involved, check out The Fagun Foundation’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages, or drop the team an email at: info@fagunfoundation.org.

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