Yana Buhrer Tavanier: Can social activism be playful? We might think of activism as far from playful. That's not the case for "playtivist" Yana Buhrer Tavanier. Her incubator lab, Fine Acts, encourages whimsical solutions for social change.

Yana Buhrer Tavanier: Can social activism be playful?

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On the show today, the power of play, especially during the toughest times.

YANA TAVANIER: I had a bit of a difficult childhood, partially due to the fact that I grew up in Communist Bulgaria.

ZOMORODI: This is Yana Tavanier, and as a child in Bulgaria, some of her family members were targeted by the communist government. But Yana remembers the more joyful parts of her childhood, too.

TAVANIER: I actually had a lot of play and happiness and fun in my childhood. Something that was very difficult back then when I was a child was that you would wake up and the doorbell would ring, and it would be your friends, and they would just ask you to come out and play. And then anything could happen.

ZOMORODI: Yes, totally.

TAVANIER: I loved this.

ZOMORODI: But as Yana got older, she lost touch with that playful side of herself. Her work as an investigative journalist and then a human rights activist was absolutely draining.

TAVANIER: I spent years investigating institutions for people with intellectual and mental health disabilities across Eastern Europe. I would go to these places undercover. And specifically, we were focusing on the number of children who died in these institutions. And I was wondering, like, this is this horrendous, how do I tell the public these tough and horrible facts? And how do I make them understand the gravity of the situation? I was trying really, really hard, but at a certain point, nothing seemed to make sense or to matter. And when I was experiencing burnout - and these were months and months of this feeling - it was waking up, going to work because you have to, doing some work because you have to, but not really having a sense of real meaning, of real impact, of real value. I felt that I don't matter at all.

ZOMORODI: Yana Tavanier continues from the TED stage.


TAVANIER: Numerous studies, including a recent one published by Columbia University, show that burnout and depression are widespread amongst activists. Years ago, I myself was burnt out. In a world of endless ways forward, I felt at my final stop. So what melts fear or dullness or gloom? Play. From this very stage, psychiatrist and play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown said that nothing lights up the brain like play, and that the opposite of play is not work, it's depression. So to pull out of my own burnout, I decided to turn my activism into what I call today playtivism (ph).

And I know it is weird to talk about play and human rights in the same sentence, but here's why it's important. When we play, others want to join. Today, my playground is filled with artists, techies and scientists. Together, we seek new ways to empower activism. Our outcomes are not meant to be playful, but our process is. To us, play is an act of resistance.

ZOMORODI: So, Yana, you learn about the research into play, and you decide to put it into your activism. You call it playtivism. How did marrying those two things change you?

TAVANIER: I felt, yeah, I felt joyous. The moment you find a way to bring back the joy, this is when you can successfully start to beat burnout. I strongly believe now even more than before that activism shouldn't be a lonely business. And in this process, I came up with a concept playtivism which refers to creating these spaces for play and experimentation in activism.

ZOMORODI: OK. So tell me how this works and how your organization, Fine Acts, does this out in the field.

TAVANIER: So the way that this works is that we pair one artist and one technologist, and then they have two days to come up with a concept. And then they present these concepts in front of a jury and audience, and it is decided which one Fine Acts will produce. There is some sort of direction, but at the same time, almost no rules.

ZOMORODI: And just to give us an example, one of the projects that you've produced is about beating misinformation or fake news. And I have to say it is really funny. Yeah. It was a fake bakery, right?

TAVANIER: Yeah. It was a pop-up bakery that teaches about fake news through beautiful but horribly tasting cupcakes.

ZOMORODI: Yana and her team called their bakery Fakery, and they launched it with an enticing press release full of lies that got a lot of attention.

TAVANIER: We created the fake news story that we sent to media all across Bulgaria. And the story stated that Jamie Oliver, the famous cook, comes to Bulgaria, and we were inviting people to come and try these recipes out. I would say tens and tens of media outlets published this story without, you know, ever putting a second thought or trying to reach us out for confirmation.

ZOMORODI: So they opened their pop-up bakery.

TAVANIER: It was in an actual restaurant, all decorated in pink.

ZOMORODI: And one at a time, guests were invited into a special room for a taste test. They sat down, and then...

TAVANIER: A lid would be lifted, and then the cupcake would be unveiled, and the reactions would be, oh, my God, this is fantastic. Oh, I can't wait to taste this. This is incredible.

ZOMORODI: They looked delicious. But these beautiful cupcakes had some unusual ingredients like crumbled stinky cheese...

TAVANIER: ...Fish sauce...

ZOMORODI: ...Salami...

TAVANIER: ...And a lot of Tabasco and things of these sorts. And then the moment they would bite into the cupcake, it would be the moment of truth.


TAVANIER: There were some actual tears...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

TAVANIER: ...Because of the unexpected, horrible taste.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TAVANIER: Every single person laughed afterwards when they realized how they had been tricked by the fake news they consumed.


ZOMORODI: Do you feel like - like, I'm chuckling and laughing because it's funny. It's a little bit of a prank in some ways, but do you feel like there is something about this kind of activism that makes people think differently about very hard and serious problems in society?

TAVANIER: I have spent the last several years trying to understand better what makes people care. Human rights campaigns are very often trying to convey information in either a very serious way or a way that is designed to trigger guilt or sadness or fear. And this is why I believe in the power, A, of art and, B, of the feelings of hope. And humor also is a really important tool to get people to care about something.


TAVANIER: A recent study published by Stanford University about the science of what makes people care reconfirms what we have been hearing for years. Opinions are changed not from more information, but through empathy-inducing experiences. When we play, we learn. So learning from science and art, we saw that we can talk about global armed conflict through light bulbs or tackle the lack of even one single monument of a woman in Sofia by flooding the city with them, and with all these works, to trigger dialogue, understanding and direct action.

ZOMORODI: Can we talk about one of your more recent projects? Deck-Tators is a board game that puts players in the shoes of a dictator, so they get to really grasp the tools and tactics of oppression. And I'm saying it in that voice because it sounds so ludicrous. So people have different opinions when it comes to mixing politics and humor. Where do you feel like you draw the line? Is it pushing it just far enough?

TAVANIER: In terms of hitting the right balance between seriousness and humor, I would always vote more for the humorous side, but overall we need to believe that the idea will have a real impact. There are games that are kind of waving a moralizing finger and are trying to talk about oppression but in a way that is very serious. People don't want to engage with the topic because it's too overwhelming. And we think that by designing a game that puts you in the shoes of a dictator, obviously you would be more willing to open up your mind and to actually learn the different ways in which dictatorship works because there are steps towards a dictatorship. And we want, through this game, to make people recognize specific tactics that are perhaps being implemented by their own governments. Thus, we think that through the playful component, we would have people, yeah, play and learn.


TAVANIER: Sometimes when I talk about taking risks and trying and failing in the context of human rights, I meet raised eyebrows, eyebrows that say how irresponsible or how insensitive. People often mistake play for negligence. It is not. Play doesn't just grow our armies stronger or spark better ideas. In times of painful injustice, play brings the levity we need to be able to breathe. When we play, we live. I cannot overstate the value of experimentation in activism. We can only win if we're not afraid to lose.

ZOMORODI: That was Yana Tavanier, the co-founder and executive director of Fine Acts. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Today on the show, Part 2 of our series Work, Play, Rest. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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