Here at MECCA, advancing equality through the education and empowerment of women and girls is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-POWER. In our MECCA M-POWERED interview series, fearless women from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of female changemakers.
Jacinda Richards learnt from a very young age that dance had the power to change lives. At school, dancing was the only thing that made her feel empowered. “Dance was something I excelled in,” she reflects. “I struggled with maths and English. I was never very good at sitting still. I gravitated towards physical activities and dance allowed me to move and groove,” she says. “I had a beautiful dance teacher who supported my journey and supported me to get my year 12 certificate. It was rocky there for a while.” It was the mentorship of this teacher that changed everything for Jacinda. “She saw the potential in me. She saw that I wasn't a naughty kid, I just needed different ways to learn. Her impact made me question how I could have that influence on other kids’ lives.”
Years later, she’s making an impact far greater than she ever imagined. Jacinda’s social enterprise L2R Dance started in 2009 in Melbourne’s west, with community-based hip hop dance workshops for young people. “I wanted to work with people who were having difficulties in the Western schooling system. Through the workshops, kids could use creativity to unpack life, to get out of their heads and into their bodies,” she says. “The freedom of dance and art allowed them to be themselves – to explore the world in different ways which weren’t really possible in a classroom environment.”
Jacinda also realised that while she’d had the opportunity to dance, many kids didn’t. “Local dance schools weren’t accessible for many reasons such as financial and social barriers,” she says. “I wanted to create a welcoming space for everyone. It didn't matter where you came from, because everyone was coming for the same purpose, to dance.” In 2015, L2R became a registered charity. “I had no idea about running a charity. I had no idea about governance. I had no idea about what I was stepping into - it was huge. I learnt a lot very quickly… I'm still learning,” she says. L2R’s offering is vast – the organisation provides free dance programs, arts leadership opportunities and employment pathways for children and young people who are traditionally underrepresented or absent from mainstream arts and culture.
Jacinda grew up in the Victorian town of St Andrews, just outside of Melbourne. “Back in the '80s, it was a pretty free-spirited community,” she says. “My parents always supported whatever journey I wanted to go on. It wasn't ever about the money; it was always about the joy.” It’s the word ‘joy’ that comes up time and again when you speak to Jacinda. Joy also happens to be the name of one the six shades in the new M-POWER X MECCA MAX eyeshadow palette. Each shade is named after character traits M-POWER wants to inspire in girls: confidence, courage, passion, strength, pride and joy. 100% of the proceeds from the palette go towards MECCA M-POWER, a social change initiative which supports over 20 organisations working to champion gender equity. “If you don’t feel joy, what's the point?” says Jacinda. “If something's not giving you joy, don't do it. You’ve got to ask yourself - is this going to make me happy? Is this going to make me feel good? And yes, you need to work hard, but there needs to be joy. On the flip side, having the courage to chase your dreams is really important. I try not to say ‘no’ to too much stuff, even if it's really scary. Be courageous, and make sure those courageous steps are going to invoke joy.”
L2R works with its artists to foster confidence and courage. “Once young people start to gain skills, they build their own confidence, which is demonstrated in so many different ways. Creating new friendships, dancing in the park, dancing in front of their parents. Dance helps people find their own identity – it’s a vehicle for self-expression,” she says. L2R is also where people connect to create heathier and more connected communities. “Some of the kids who come through L2R might've had difficult backgrounds, but finding a supportive community is life-changing,” she says. “Dance brings us all joy, but the community aspect is powerful. You're never on your own. There are always people around you. When you rock up, everyone embraces one another, and we work through life's hurdles and challenges together,” says Jacinda.
To further nurture talented young people, L2R also runs the Igniting Legends program, which is a paid internship for three young people every year, led by the organisation’s youth arts coordinator. “It’s a program that allows young emerging artists to unpack what kind of artists they are and what forms they enjoy. We go to museums, galleries, dance shows and theatre. It really allows them to explore art over the course of a year, specifically dance,” she says.
Hip-hop is a life-long love for Jacinda (and everyone at L2R). “Everyone can do hip-hop. It’s about embracing your own individuality and identity. Embracing your own physical limitations and abilities, and then using them to carve your own style,” says Jacinda. “Hip-hop dance is an inherently communal activity. Participants gather to perform, develop and socialise.”
At L2R, it’s all about bringing your unique self to the table. “It’s a part of hip-hop as well, bring your own flavour, bring your own identity. Don't look like me. Don't look like the person that you're learning from. Be you and have the courage to do that because you don't want to look like someone else. You want to stand out.”
Today, Jacinda leads a team of seven. “I often wonder, ‘how did we get here?’” she reflects. “It has been a bumpy ride, but I wouldn't change any of it. I feel very lucky to have so many young people in my life, who I've worked with for years.” When praised on her impact, she reveals just how humble she is. “They've changed my life,” she says of the young people she works with. “L2R wouldn't exist without them – they’re the voices of L2R. My leadership journey is to be always opening doors for people to be at the table. It's not about me, it's about them. I've built the organisation from the ground up, but so many of them have been on that long-term journey with me, and they're now professional artists. They're in the M-POWER X MECCA MAX campaign. We're all working together for a brighter future.”