Social entrepreneur, educator, and activist, Dr. Urvashi Sahni tells us why feminist research needs to consider, and include, how men think and feel.

Dr. Urvashi Sahni is a social entrepreneur, educator, and activist, who has been working to transform pedagogy for more than 30 years. She is the founder and chief executive of the Study Hall Education Foundation, a nonprofit that provides quality schooling for underprivileged girls and youth in India. She is also a fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and has a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley. After attending a Bellagio residency in 2015, Urvashi reapplied to the Center and was invited back to write her second book there in October 2022.

I have worked in feminist activity since 1983 and founded the Study Hall Education Foundation in 1986. My goal has always been for education to be transformative. After realizing that there isn’t enough ethnographic research about how to practice feminism in the classroom, I began working on a book called Reaching for the Sky: Empowering Girls Through Education. This is when many of my peers recommended that I apply for a residency at the Bellagio Center. I didn’t know what the cohort would be like, but of course, I was hoping it would be an enriching experience. It was a gift to have the time and space to explore my thoughts without the stresses of daily work and life.

I have been working on the ground for many years. I’d never been in a situation where I could step back, think, and talk. I value my Bellagio stay for providing a way of crystallizing, synthesizing, and analyzing my work. It was also a great learning experience about the effort it takes to write. When I arrived, I had already started collecting data. The aim for when I left was to have a rough first cut; I was determined to emerge with a clear architecture to guide me towards completing the book. And I worked diligently! Being at Bellagio was a precious opportunity, so I was not going to fritter it away.

Data crunching, researching, and writing can be tough work, so when you have that sense of calm from your surroundings, it enables you to work hard. So many interesting people were there. When I started the first chapter, I showed it to David Smuts [a judge on the Supreme Court of Namibia], who took it to read at a local village café. When he returned with feedback, it was mainly advice on the structure. He also told me which parts of the chapter worked well. It was really helpful to have this kind of support. Bellagio’s serenity is just one aspect of its impact: it’s the people who make it special. I had a sense of being a member of an international community. A few of us have stayed in touch since that time.

The experience was so instructive that I applied to be part of another residency and got it. I’ve been working with women and girls a lot, but I want to get the male perspective. How do they feel about feminist conversations? Do they feel threatened, or bad? Do they feel inspired to do something about it? I think it’s harder to give up privilege than it is to fight for it. Over the years, I’ve realized that men are as much the victims of social constructs as women. We need to have empathy when we talk. We also need to try and help men see that the patriarchy doesn’t work for them either, quite the opposite. I think Indian culture is still fraught with all kinds of prejudices. So, I want to look at sexual norms, too. How do men feel about women as sexual beings?

I don’t think enough people have written things about men, especially not in an empathetic way. So, I will spend my second time at Bellagio figuring out a clear framework for the second book. Bellagio has been so impactful on my work that I’ve tried to encourage as many people as possible to apply. If there’s anyone who feels they have something to say, they should apply.

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We’d like to thank Urvashi for her continued contribution to the network. To find out more about her work, explore the outreach of the Study Hall Education Foundation, or read Urvashi’s Brookings Institution blog posts, which include reflections on gender equality and sustainability.

You can also find out more about her 2017 book, Reaching for the Sky: Empowering Girls Through Education.

Or, you can simply follow her on Twitter.