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What I learnt about wellbeing at Nlighten ‘23

Anjali Hans

It was a bright and balmy afternoon in Kochi. My colleagues Sanjay, Vyjayanthi and I had travelled for Nlighten ‘23 – a retreat for civil society organisations supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. 

I had been talking to change leaders all morning and was buzzing as much with stories I’d heard as from way too much coffee. Stories of joys, challenges and striving for a better world for everyone. I couldn’t help but wonder when, if at all, these change leaders found the time to take a breath, sit back and reflect. 

Did I say retreat? Unlike other events I had attended in the past, Nlighten aimed for something unusual. For people who do ‘people work, taking a break ranks lowest on their to-do list. Especially as they engage with vulnerable communities, solving their problems often takes precedence over individual wellbeing. 

However, solving these problems rests on us working together. And, a big part of working together is cultivating safe and supportive spaces for wellbeing. These can look like holidays, organisational self-care, collaboration and even embracing failure as much as celebrating success. Nlighten ‘23 was one such space.

We kicked off Nlighten with the Golden Coconut Awards – a fictive celebration of all that’s absurd and amusing in the work we do, from the whimsical requests of funders to the humble jholas that seem to be a part of an NGO dress code. We felt immediately connected, laughing at ourselves and at each other. It was this feeling of safety and levity that we carried with us for the next two days of Nlighten. 

While we are undeniably tied together in our vision of a world where everyone enjoys agency, dignity and choice, the retreat asked us to look beyond, to get to know each other as people first. I was struck by how attentively it had been curated to draw out the ‘people’ in us. People who gasp as they see dolphins during a boat ride at sunset on the Arabian Sea. People who meditate and bird-watch early in the morning. People who listen to and tell stories. People who talk about the future and its many possibilities. And, of course, people who hunt for coffee every fifteen minutes! 

Nearly a month has passed since Nlighten ‘23. I am back to attending meetings, zipping through Bangalore traffic and obsessing over how we may enable exponential change. But I often find myself reflecting on some of the learnings I gathered from the event:

  • Ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, if we are co-explorers! Our journey towards inducing impact at scale can feel lonely, long and hard. But, if we walk together, we can co-create the future we envision faster and better. 
  • We don’t just come by safe spaces. They are gently and deliberately nurtured to make sure we are all included, heard and recognised. 
  • It’s okay to take a break! This is why we are part of communities – for support when we are struggling, for accountability to our shared values when we feel stuck, and to distribute the ability to solve when the problems feel overwhelming. 

If you would like to think about and begin your collective wellbeing journey as a change leader/organisation doing ‘people work’, here is a pool of resources to get you started!