Portraits of the mind - Why you should join the next Gender Lab

The Gender Lab as an experiential tool for self-reflection, intellectual empowerment, and collective action.

Harvesting from the last Gender Lab retreat: "what are we learning?" (by Sketchy Solutions/ Filippo Buzzini)

Harvesting from the last Gender Lab retreat: "what are we learning?" (by Sketchy Solutions/ Filippo Buzzini)

Eleven years ago, I made a conscious decision to wear my permanent Gender glasses.

Despite pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies, Rhetoric and Public Discourse at the time, when my influential university professor, Shira Tarrant, introduced me to the field of gender justice, my entire worldview drastically changed.

I suddenly found new avenues for intellectual development through the fascinating lenses of feminist theory. It was then when I decided to shift my professional journey to fit my career as a Gender Policy Analyst. My work allowed me to look at Gender from a global perspective in Colombia, the United States, Asia Pacific and most recently, western Europe.

Throughout all contexts and levels of policy and ethnographic/fieldwork in which I engaged, a consistent set of patterns emerged:

Gender is an emotional topic;
Gender is controversial;
Gender is context-bound;
And Gender is genuinely complex and subjective

Two years before joining the Gender Lab, I experienced, what our brilliant Gender Lab Colleague, Lisa Domenghino, calls, ‘a Gender burnout.’ I felt that I had no motivation left (at the time) to continue working on the Gender Field. I was tired of the monolithic discourse that prevails in the weary world of gender justice.

Even though, as an idealist and positivist, I celebrated every progressive milestone, I encountered a lot of negativity and backlash in my day to day work.  

After the burnout, I left the field and dedicated many extracurricular hours to decoding the art of navigating difficult conversations. I started asking, why is there so much discomfort around the topic?

The more I immersed myself into the world of social change through my current work in migration and entrepreneurship, the more polarised opinions I encountered.  Therefore, as I started to do personal market research on innovative spaces and organisations which are revolutionising the world of diversity, I was referred to collaboratio helvetica's Gender Lab by several friends and colleagues.

As soon as I knew that Nicole, Nora and Osi were leading the Lab, I knew that this was the opportunity to re-enter the world of Gender through a safe space.

I was told that I was the first applicant! My heart was excited about it, and my belly was on fire. I wanted to be part of the Lab no matter what. I was selected to be part of the first cohort of Gender Lab Explorers, and I felt genuinely privileged.

The Gender Lab has been one of the most transformative experiences I’ve had. As we navigate life, specific experiences intersect your mind, body and soul profoundly. For me, this is what the Gender Lab embodied.

Not only did I meet brilliant peers from the same field, but I could also share and relate to the experiences and frustrations of others through the powerful tools from the Theory U.

Each Explorer of the Gender Lab from collaboratio helvetica represents the collective wisdom of extraordinary individuals who are out there, challenging the status quo on a daily basis. We are a unison of voices from diverse corners of Switzerland who are committed to transforming our current (outdated) landscape of Gender policies and practices into the gender-ideal country we would like to live in.

In moments of despair outside of the Lab, I think, what would my fellow G-Labers do? - My answer always guides me towards a sensation of kindness, inclusiveness, and proactivity. When outsiders ask us to describe our experience at the Gender Lab, we fall short on words. Words cannot possibly capture the magic we’ve built and the enduring relationships we've forged.

One of the most significant learnings from the Lab was to understand how to incorporate Gender back into the work I do while simultaneously interlacing the impactful work of the rest of the G-Labers. Apart from the deep introspective journey I went through to evaluate my own sets of judgements and assumptions, I incorporated the learnings from the Lab into the following aspects initiatives:

A. Intersectionality at work: Through an intersectional approach, meaning, through understanding how different segments of salient identity dictate the number of opportunities that an individual may have, we would like to incorporate Gender as a tertiary pillar of operations.

  1. At one of the proud co-founders from Capacity Zurich, a startup incubator for entrepreneurs with refugee and migrant background, we work at the intersection of Migration, Integration and Entrepreneurship. The Gender Lab gave me ideas on how to move forward and conduct research on barriers that refugee/ migrant women face as migrant/refugee entrepreneurs and while trying to enter the Swiss Labor Market (a real, current problem). 

  2. Apart from adding a gender-lens focus on equal access to opportunities for our entrepreneurs, trainers and collaborators (representation of sex and gender identity) at the organisation, we implemented a family-friendly approach at work and during any of our workshops/events. Parents can bring their children to any of our activities, and we have caregivers who make sure that the children are taken care of. We also implemented agile work models in which we take flexibility at work to the next level through multiple options for virtual engagement.

B. The Imperfct Circle (TiC): Doing battle with the binary, bias and blindness! TiC is an innovative dialogic platform for new thinking and acting in the gender space. As a co-initiator of the circle, we added an LGBTQ component to our discussion rounds.

  1. We opened up our sessions for any person who would like to come and use the platform to tell their story. Sebastian and Adrien, two of this year’s Gender Lab Explorers, did a session called, ‘Go queer or go home - Our lives beyond normativity,’ and kicked off a series of discussions on the topic.

We are currently prototyping another idea within the Lab, and we have unveiled it during the Collaboratio Festival, on June 18th. It was a day to connect, co-create and celebrate the Switzerland we want to live in!

Finally, I would like to close this reflection with one of my favourite quotes:

“It has been said that pessimists are usually right, but optimists change the world. Without optimism, political change is impossible. Only optimism gives us the courage to take risks... If we are to achieve a social revolution, we have to join forces and nurture our anger, imagine change, and be optimistic enough to believe that rewards will outweigh risks”
― Madeleine M. Kunin | The new #feminist agenda


The author:


Valentina S. Velandia is a social entrepreneur with a high dose of global perspectives and experiences and has been working at the intersection of Gender Policy, Migration and Entrepreneurship for the past ten years. As an avid social justice advocate, she is proud to be a member of the ever-inspiring collaboratio helvetica community and hopes to continue to co-create the colourful Switzerland in which we would like to live in.