Kavindya Thennakoon, Sri Lankan Activist

“A fearless mind is a product of waging resistance and resistance is a daring act, worth doing, but often, comes at a price. Where men have lost their life to it, women have lost their bodies. But, it’s also a state of mind, to resist, you need to be acutely aware of what it means to give in or agree. I believe it to be a weapon of the uncommon.”

Today’s story is very special. It’s about a young girl who lost her father to resistance, resistance to injustice, and the same resistance gave her a fearless mind. She grew up to create Without Borders, an organization with a core vision of empowering individuals and communities to become nothing but their best through innovative education and training models. She is also 2015 Queen’s Young Leader and Asia’s #LCJB16 winner.

Thank you Kavindya Thennakoon for sharing your story with me for Women to Watch. To stand up and get counted is the quality of the brave.

Kavindya Thennakoon 2

We know that, you belong to Deraniyagala which is a town in the Kegalle district in the Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka, tell us more about your humble beginnings… and, what made you shift from Economics to Anthropology?

I was raised by a hardworking single mother; her story amazes me with every passing day. We’ve braved the unimaginable over the past 21 years and everything I am today is because of her grit and resilience. My father was a police officer and he waged a valiant struggle against a thriving drug trade that was infiltrating the country at that time. He worked to the rule and was a man with such a large and giving heart. A few months after I had turned two, he was assassinated by two underworld thugs on his way home. To him, the price of justice was his life and it was from him that I learnt the importance of standing up for what I believed in.

In school, I took up a job that covered my school fees. Growing up, I knew too well how it was like to be raised in the face of inequality and the lack of opportunity and I believe it was what I had seen and experienced that has made me do what I do today.

I came to Wellesley convinced that I wanted to major in Economics. I got selected for an early advantage program at a well-known investment bank. I flew to Chicago, checked into a super high-end hotel and everything was just too upscale but, those two days were torturous, I met some of the most pretentious people in my life and realized that the company website’s focus on social good had absolutely nothing to do with what happened inside. I came back to Wellesley and immediately dropped my Econ class. Anthropology made me realize what it feels to do what you love. It just completely shifts your life over but taking that first leap can be scary.

You designed a project to improve education and prospects for disadvantaged youth for which you were awarded – Harvard Global Trailblazer Award and the inaugural Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2014. Was it just after that you conceptualized ‘Without Borders’?

In fact, we won the Harvard Trailblazers Award for Without Borders, but the design of our model and the kind of projects we run have really evolved since then. By the time we won the Queen’s Young Leaders Award we had already expanded our center and had a more clearer vision of the kind of change that we had envisioned.

Share more about your organization – ‘Without Borders’, how does it aim to help diverse communities in Sri Lanka?

Everything we do at Without Borders is based on the simple philosophy that individuals and communities can envision their own notions of success and what constitutes their quality and standard of living. We run two main programs at Without Borders.

  • Idea Labs are focused on repurposing run down community spaces in to learning facilities where we offer a five-staged curriculum focused on language skills, creative thinking and leading change. Currently we have three up and running centers that has catered to over a 1600 students and teacher trainees.
  • Our second program, the Inspire Lab is a year-long leadership accelerator that we launched in partnership with the Pan Asia Women’s Association. The accelerator comprises of 18 workshops revolving around themes such as digital literacy, community leadership, sex education and mentorship. The accelerator handpicks a cohort of young women who will be provided a personalized training and mentoring opportunity as they go through the accelerator.

Both our programs are heavily grounded in a participatory approach where our beneficiaries have equal control in revamping the design and structure of the projects. This helps us ensure that our projects offer the communities with what they want instead of prioritizing on organizational or donor needs.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while trying to work for various communities at the grass-root level? Also, highlight your key learning…

I think one of the biggest challenges is funding. From the inception, we were supported and mentored by an incredibly generous donor who invested in us in return for the social impact that we generated. Besides this, expansion is a very tricky balance to hit. Many large grants and corporate sponsorships come with heavy strings attached and in many instances, we’ve had to say no, since, it’s more important for us to deliver programs that are tailor made to the needs of the communities and are truly community owned and led instead of serving an irrelevant corporate mission or development agenda.

It’s hard to pick one but looking back at the past three years there are three life altering lessons I’ve learnt:

  1. Keep your community at the very heart of every decision you make. The community is the expert and you’re simply learning from them, it’s not the other way around.
  2. Some projects collapse and things don’t always fall in place but what’s more important is to reflect, learn and move on.
  3. Whether it is at a personal or organizational level, the goal is to become the best and the most vibrant version of yourself.

What do you aspire to achieve by the end of 2020?

Over the next couple of years, we hope to keep innovating upon our curriculum and program design and to have a robust curriculum that could be expanded across Sri Lanka and beyond by 2020.With regards to the Idea Labs we’ve always had a burning desire to ensure that we take our methodology into the local school system. We’ve taken a small step forward with this where we were invited by a national school in Sri Lanka to implement our curriculum within their classrooms – the aim is to take this beyond one classroom to integrate this approach at a national level. Without Borders is fueled and run by an incredibly driven and passionate team who have all made numerous sacrifices to make Without Borders what it is today. Without them all of this would have remained just a dream.

A message you would like to give away to our readers….

Live fearlessly and have your conscience and values at the heart of everything you do and more importantly be true to yourself and do what you love and everything will fall in place.

For more information regarding Kavindya, check out the links below!


Written by Manvi Pant

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