Climate Change Activist Kehkashan Basu On Creating a ‘New Normal’
Kehkashan Basu is a climate change activist and human rights champion, who at the age of twelve founded Green Hope Foundation, a global organization working with people around the world to make sustainability education more accessible. She has been widely appraised for her work and was given the winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2016 and is one of Forbes 30 under 30.
D: Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.
K: My name is Kehkashan. I am from Toronto, Canada. I am the Founder-President of Green Hope Foundation, a global social innovation enterprise working across 25 countries with over 140,000 young people. I am a strong advocate for the sustainable development goals of the UN, which through my organization, we implement in the world’s most marginalized communities. So we focus on implementing the mandate of leaving no one behind and ensuring a life of dignity for all. By working with the children and women in the Syrian refugee camps, homes for children of prisoners in Nepal and Kenya, children in orphanages in Bangladesh, Suriname, Liberia, really bringing them to the forefront of sustainability.
At the same time, we work with children in urban environments to [partner] with the Toronto district school board, imparting education for sustainable development through formal education. In places where we don’t go through formal education, we use non-formal and creative modes of communication, such as music, art, dance, drama, sport, fashion, and writing to spread awareness. It’s especially effective in communities that we work in where children don’t know English. Most often, they’ve never had an education, so they don’t know how to read and write, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be involved in this process. Our lens is that of education for sustainable development and looking for a bottom-up grassroots approach towards realizing a sustainable world.
D: What are some of your long-term goals of your own work and of your foundation?
K: My ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone has a sustainable way of living, and to have Green Hope Foundation in every country of the world. And once we do achieve a sustainable world, we help to maintain that, so that we don’t fall back into normal but create a ‘new normal’, that is our ultimate goal.
Currently, we’re slowly and steadily progressing, ensuring that we are able to rebuild from this pandemic, which has proven to set us back on a lot of our goals.
Ensuring that we are able to get back on track and not go back to that normal, but actually create a new one where no one’s left behind.
D: Do you feel like the climate crisis had been pushed away during the coronavirus pandemic?
K: To an extent, yes. With so much a focus on vaccine same distribution, the sudden dismantling of our health systems, and as we realize that there are so many cracks that hadn’t been addressed. Maybe not the final crisis, but so many other sustainability issues suffered a setback. Especially in countries like Bangladesh and Liberia, communities within are being marginalized and forgotten, no one was talking about getting the vaccine to them. Forget the vaccine, you don’t even have water. But I think that we are using the online world as a tool to ensure that we continue to dialogue. And just with Green Hope Foundation out we were able to reach out to 65,000 people just during this pandemic through our online webinars bringing together heads of State, as well as civil society members, and really continuing the dialogue.
While I do think that at the level of policy-making some of these issues are being ignored, I think as a civil society we are doing quite a lot. Progress is happening, what I do think is important for people to recognize is that this is a disease and is brought about by the harm that we’ve put on the environment. Rebuilding the economy and rebuilding our healthcare systems, has to also involve taking care of the environment and the society. One of my greatest fears is that the economy will just go back to normal and we will forget about climate and biodiversity, about sanitation.
D: How has being online this past year has affected your work?
K: It was a very big change as an organization working entirely on the ground. And specifically with communities where they don’t have access to tech, how do we continue to involve them?
In certain communities where it is safe to go out, members have continued their work, but we had to devise new ways of communication. Our webinars definitely helped out and we covered a range of topics, from diversity conservation, desertification, nuclear disarmament, interfaith, harmony, sanitation, children’s rights, and all of these other dialogues that have really helped to get the tools to create this new normal.
I consider ourselves to be very fortunate that we were able to switch to online almost immediately. I wouldn’t say that it has not been hard of course, but it’s been a different way of reaching out and I’m glad that we were able to adapt in that way.
D: Are you confident that the Biden administration could make significant change? And in a broader sense also what can leaders and politicians can do to help the climate change crisis?
K: Biden signed the executive order for rejoining the Paris agreement, and while I think that is a huge step, policy is one thing but implementing that policy at the ground level is a totally different thing. That’s where you need all sections of society to work together. So while the new US administration provides us hope in not just in climate, but in other areas of work as well.
I have hope, I’m an optimist, so I do have hope for all of these countries creating a better world. But I think that now it’s time to focus on what is being done at the ground level. With the signing of such policies and the passing of such bills, it’s very easy to become complacent and say “The government is doing it so I don’t have to do anything anymore.” That is not true. It is now on us even more so to continue to act and probably do even more to ensure that these policies are implemented at the ground level.
So I think it’s a positive start, but I think that it’s definitely not the end of the journey, we have to work on implementing these policies at the ground level.
D: Who or what were your influences growing up?
K: I’d say my parents were definitely my biggest influence. I grew up in a household of empathy and love for the society and environment. I remember my parents going out every weekend to distribute food and clothes to the underprivileged. I always thought that this was normal, but then I realized it wasn’t.
I wanted and still want to be exactly like [my mother] because she, for me, is the embodiment of someone who has literally achieved and always fought for what is right.
D: What are you looking forward to this year?
K: There’s a lot I’m looking forward to this year. I am looking forward to the vaccine reaching every part of the world, especially marginalized communities. There is a problem where the rich and the elite countries are taking the vaccines, whereas there are people who are left behind and more vulnerable. That’s probably the thing that foremost we need to address.
I also am looking forward to 2021 being the year of the new normal, where we create harmony amongst our economy, our society, and our environment. Where we understand that we as human beings are part of the environment, we’re not separate. And the continued advocacy, despite the pandemic really gives me hope.
D: What are your hobbies and what do you like to do in your free time?
K: I am an avid reader, I am a musician, so I sing, I play the piano, guitar, and drums. I’m into art, drawing and painting, and sports. The best part is that all of these things I get to do in my work with Green Hope. For instance, Green Hope has a band, so I compose songs for our band. We beatbox, rap, play different instruments, and that for me is a wonderful way to mix all of my realms together.