Kavindya Thennakoon – Empowering youth and communities in need

For the third part of our Woman of the Week series, we are truly delighted to feature Kavindya Thennakoon, a young, vibrant community development & youth activist who works tirelessly to empower and transform communities and youth across Sri Lanka. Kavindya has served in both Youth Service America and the United Nations Advisory Panel, and in 2014, she won both the Harvard Global Trailblazer Award and the inaugural Queen’s Young Leader Award in recognition of her outstanding efforts to improve the educational prospects of disadvantaged youth. Read the Q&A below to learn more about Kavindya’s inspiring story and journey:

Q) Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into community development and youth activism.

A) I was born in Kandy as my dad was from Kandy and my mum is from close to Avissawella. My dad was a prison officer and he passed away when I was very young. There was a thriving drug trade in Sri Lanka during that time, in the late 1990s, and my dad,  a very brave and righteous  officer who was loved by many but also hated by a few, was killed on his way back home by a group of underworld thugs, about two months after my second birthday. So I was raised by a single mother and it was a really tough twelve years, going to school and surviving everything that came my way.

I think the reason I became interested in doing what I’m doing today, is that though I was schooling in Colombo, I would always return to my home in Deraniyagala, my mum’s ancestral village, where I was able to see the huge gap between what the kids in Colombo are getting and what the kids who school in these rural villages are getting. I observed the lack of opportunities in these villages, and it was really hard growing up witnessing this inequality. So I always asked myself how I could make a difference and how I could give back, from what I have learned and from the way I was raised. I think it was the fact that I was able to have that experience of schooling in Colombo whilst growing up in a village that inspired me to do what I could do to bridge the gap between the educational prospects of students who school in urban areas and those of students who school in rural areas. My parents weren’t well-connected or anything, so everything that I am and have achieved today is a result of my mother’s hard work and my talent.

Q) What inspired you to start Without Borders and can you explain a little about what it is and the difference that it’s making?

A) We started Without Borders three years ago, in 2014 April. A very good friend of mine, Sakie and I, were inspired to start Without Borders when our village monk suggested that it would be great if we could do some sort of English teaching programme for the kids. So we agreed and we called it “Without Borders” which was a spur of the moment thing. Our intention at the time was never to start a full-on organization, but to merely serve the community. Over the years, it has grown to what it is today and we now focus on empowering, enriching and enlivening individuals and communities through innovative models of education and training.

We’re working on two main projects, one is called Idea Lab and the other is Inspire Lab. Idea Lab offers a five stage curriculum focused on English, creativity and leadership. We work with children between the ages of 5, to adults who could be as old as 50 or 60 years. The curriculum is designed to help them unleash their full potential and become their best version. We currently run three centres, in Deraniyagala, Dehiowita and Colombo.  Inspire Lab was launched this year and it’s basically a leadership accelerator, where we work with young women from at-risk communities and backgrounds. The year-long leadership accelerator offers a series of workshops focused on areas such as leadership, career development and community organizing.

Q) What are some of the challenges you have faced and continue to face in establishing and managing this organization?

A) One of the biggest challenges we consistently face is funding. This is mainly because every programme we run is tailor-made to meet the requirements of each community and we give the community complete ownership over how these programmes are designed, what the aims of the programme are and other such things. So finding donors and sponsors who understand that is very difficult. Most of these large corporate sponsorships and grants come with strings attached and they’re mostly inclined to work towards their own motives rather than the needs of these communities. We struggle to find donors and organizations who truly believe in what we do and whose motives align with ours. So I think funding is one of our biggest issues and also handling government bureaucracy is another challenge.

Q) Apart from being engaged with Without Borders, are you currently working and/or studying? Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

A) I’m currently studying and I just took a gap year. I started my Bachelor’s degree extremely late, mainly because I could not afford college. I had totally given up on the idea of going to university abroad because it’s just so expensive and my mum and I couldn’t really afford it. However, things fell into place- I worked for an alumna at Wellesley College, and from her, I got a full scholarship to pursue my higher studies. So I’m currently studying at Wellesley College, following a degree in Anthropology, and I’ll be moving to the University of Oxford in September for my junior year.

Ten years from now, I hope to be pursuing my career as an anthropologist and I definitely see myself working more with Without Borders, hopefully growing and expanding it and working towards our vision of truly tapping into the local education system, impacting every school in the country and reaching and transforming the lives of as many individuals and students as we possibly can.

Q) As a young individual who is actively involved in empowering and improving educational prospects for youth, what is your opinion of the current education system in Sri Lanka?

A) Well, I have lots of opinions, but mainly a couple of things- the first thing is that, the local education system is made to cater for a student from 20 years ago and it does not prepare a child for the world that it is today. Secondly, I think that our education system is very passive and rigid- it falls short in teaching a child how to be bold, confident, how to express an opinion, and children go through their school lives not realizing that there’s so much more to life than their grades, their scholarship exams and their A Level results. I believe we need to move towards a more values-based education system and we need a significant shift in our curriculum soon.

I understand that most teachers across the island work in tough conditions and they don’t quite have the resources to do as much as they would like to. When we think of the fact that every person in Sri Lanka goes through a school or some form of education at some point in their lives, we realize that there’s just so much potential to transform the entire nation, just by crafting a better education system.

Q) If you could give the youth of Sri Lanka one piece of important advice, what would that be?

A) I would say, live fearlessly and always be connected with your inner vision and stay focused on what you want to do and become. It’s also very important to always have your conscience and your values at the core of whatever you do. We should all have a set of values that keeps us grounded and defines who we are as people.


COPYRIGHT NOTE: All images in this article are the property of Kavindya Thennakoon and cannot be used without her permission.