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Inspire Lab: A participatory approach

Inspire Lab: A participatory approach

Getting participants to design the programme that makes their change

Inspire Lab is a leadership training programme for adolescent girls in Sri Lanka. Queen’s Young Leader and Co-Founder of Without Borders, Kavindya Thennakoon, tells Leading Change how it works.

“I have an amazing team of four people, including me, who really focus – who spent an entire week designing the workshop,” says Kavindya. “The attention they paid to every single detail is mind-blowing.”

Over 2017, Inspire Lab has set out to train two groups of 30 to 35 girls in digital literacy, storytelling, sex education, and leading change. But the need to involve the girls in the design of the project was inescapable.

“Somehow, in the midst of the study that I was doing at Wellesley about ethnography, and how do you create development project that’s participatory and all of that,” says Kavindya.

“And I’m writing about these things, and preaching to people about these things,” she says, explaining how it was only natural she would ask herself, “How do I make sure that Inspire Lab really follows a participatory approach?”


“At the first workshop we had sessions on goal mapping and vision boards,” says Kavindya, referring to elements of Module 1 of the Leading Change course, All about me: Taking stock.

After that, “half of an entire day was allocated to the girls to tell us what they wanted the workshop to look like”. The detail of this meant asking:

  • What are the sessions you want to see?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Who do you want us to bring into the workshop?
  • What do you envision this to look like?
  • What kind of change do you want to see within yourselves at the end of the workshop?

Plans for the next 17 workshops were then tweaked according to what the girls told the session leaders.

The girls wanted to visit media companies, so Kavindya reached out to media companies.

“The Microsoft Office Sri Lanka will be hosting the girls and next week we’ll be taking them to a Youtube creator space. They will learn how to use high-tech cameras and lighting.”

They also asked for things that weren’t in the original framework, but that was okay because Kavindya was happy for the framework to be flexible.

“They wanted a self-defence workshop, so we planned to schedule that next month. And they told us about the kinds of speakers they want to bring in, so we changed the workshop focus according to what they wanted it to look like.”

Ask again

The first Inspire Lab cohort started in February 2017, so the following July, the Without Borders team checked in with them.

“We did another mid-workshop review and asked them what has worked so far, what did you not like, what are the future workshops that you want to see.”

This was useful because it allowed the team to get some feedback on how the programme is working. And there was another, unexpected change in the girls, that became more apparent when they were asked for their views a second time.

“During the first workshop they were very silent and we had to really force answers out of them,” says Kavindya, “because that’s what the culture here is like. You’re taught to accept the result and be very ladylike.”

Woman talking with screen displaying advice on digital literacy

Inspire Lab workshop on digital literacy

But after a few months, the Inspire Lab girls had found their voices.

“Compared to the first workshop the girls were really critical, really expressing themselves. They were like, ‘Oh we didn’t like this facilitator, we didn’t like the focus. We really liked the one on sex education but we also want to cover these areas.’ And I was like, this is great!” says Kavindya.

“The girls were providing great feedback. And it’s just been life changing and the girls change by the day.”

Build confidence

To illustrate how the girls have changed, and become more analytical and confident, Kavindya shares a story from a session on staying safe online.

“We did this little activity where we gave the girls a controversial statement and asked them to debate about it. So we divided the room into three areas. We had ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘neutral’. And the girls had to kind of shift between these three areas and convince other people to join their area.”

The girls were given statements about gender roles in the family and issues like divorce.

“So, there’s this huge wave of revenge porn in Sri Lanka,” says Kavindya, “where there have been so many nude photographs of actresses being released onto the web. It’s been really tragic. So we asked them, whose fault is it?”

Kavindya describes the session. Most of the girls flocking to the same area of the room at the beginning, convinced that it was the actresses’ fault if their pictures were online. Most of them agreed, “Before giving a photograph to anyone, she needs to know how girls should behave in our society.”

The Without Borders team didn’t intervene, they just observed.

“It was so interesting how by the end of five minutes, everyone had shifted to say, no I realise actually it’s not the girl’s fault, she’s a victim here. They themselves argued and they formed their own opinions and realised and shifted towards a completely different spectrum.”

The first cohort isn’t even halfway through their Inspire Lab year, but already the girls are changing.

“One of the main changes I’ve seen is they’re beginning to form their own opinions about issues, and be able to speak up and defend those opinions,” says Kavindya. “It’s just been really nice to see them having that confidence. That’s been really encouraging.”

And, as with all the best projects, the benefits go both ways.

“It’s nice to see them building such a beautiful relationship with us. We’re not just teaching them, we’re learning from them too.”

Kavindya Thennakoon

"It’s just been life changing and the girls change by the day.”

Kavindya Thennakoon