- Mangala Samaraweera’s Freedom Hub
By Naveed Rozais
‘The youth are the future’ is an often touted sentiment but for youth to be our future, or rather, the future we want, they need to be given their best chance to thrive today. This means the skills to make a mark for themselves, not just locally, but globally, for if the recent crisis has taught us anything, it is that for us to be truly resilient, we need to be able to effectively compete on the global stage.
The late politician Mangala Samaraweera was someone who believed firmly in empowering youth. In fact, a month before his death of Covid-19 in 2021, Samaraweera launched what would be his final project, Freedom Hub, in a bid to empower youth in the long term to build a better Sri Lanka.
This project, Freedom Hub, has just been relaunched, with the support of Samaraweera’s family and friends to stay true to his vision of an empowered youth building a better future, and with it, a better Sri Lanka.
The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with Samaraweera’s niece and Mangala Samaraweera Foundation Trustee Chanchala Gunawardena and Freedom Hub Programme Manager Miranthi Pathirage for more on the Freedom Hub and how it is hoping to live up to Samaraweera’s last vision.
The vision of Mangala Samaraweera
Samaraweera’s firm belief in empowering youth led the long-time liberal democratic champion to unexpectedly step back from parliamentary politics and align himself instead with youth advocates, changemaker creatives, entrepreneurs, and innovative professionals. Samaraweera, who also foretold much of Sri Lanka’s current crisis before his passing, also believed strongly that the way out and forward from Sri Lanka’s cyclical history of crises was in partnership with youth, and he was indeed prescient, both when it came to the crisis itself and the role the youth could play in helping drive change.
A once brilliant fashion designer and design teacher at University of Kelaniya himself, Samaraweera’s conception of Freedom Hub as a digital and creative content and skills development and collaboration hub based on the 20 values of a ‘Radical Centre’ spoke to his cognisance of how creativity and freedom of expression are vital and vibrant tools for the communication of people’s needs, struggles, and hopes. More so, they are one of the fundamental modes through which people imagine and craft the opportunities and world they hope for.
“We always let him lead his things,” Gunawardena explained of the foundation’s role in setting up Freedom Hub. “This was an initiative primarily focused on youth but meant to go across ages. It would be a welcoming space for everyone based on the values of liberal democracy, regardless of what your title was.”
Gunawardena also shared that Samaraweera formed Freedom Hub after a period of deep introspection following Covid-19 and the pause it gave everyone knowing about the impending crisis and emphasised that everyone would need to pull together regardless of political affiliation.
“I was aghast when he said it,” Gunawardena recalled. “But he said it’s not about them [the political factions] but about the country and all of us. Given where we are now, that is definitely something that has been replaying in my head.”
Freedom Hub was initially set up with a team of young people and based in Colombo, and Gunawardena herself became more involved with Freedom Hub from last year, taking on the role of managing outreach and grants, working with a team of youth including a strategic advisor to create a base to execute Samaraweera’s vision of an empowerment base for Sri Lankan youth. Now, as part of its relaunch, Freedom Hub has moved to Matara, Samaraweera’s hometown, to conduct a pilot programme of sorts.
The Freedom Hub platform
The Freedom Hub relaunch in Matara in 2023 will be led by a team of youth who have worked across branding and arts and the SME sector, and are supported by Samaraweera’s family and friends. This team has been in Matara since October, listening to the ground-level needs and aspirations based on which they have crafted a ‘Creative Enterprise’ Programme aiming at bringing together activities that foster and broaden a creative mindset and expression together with entrepreneurship skills and economically empowering projects.
The five-month long Creative Enterprise pilot will be broken down into:
- Three-month foundational English language programme taught by a TKT-certified instructor who is a graduate of the internationally recognised Asian University for Women and has previously taught ESL in both Maskeliya and Batticaloa.
- An interwoven and focused two-month-long Creative Enterprise Programme brought to life by a list of visiting subject experts who will hold sessions and workshops with programme participants, and in some instances, with the general public at large.
At the end of each programme cycle, Freedom Hub will also host a creator market and showcase where products and content created by participants during the Creative Enterprise Programme are shared with the general public too.
Freedom Hub’s reset in a new location is a considered move to increase accessibility, with Freedom Hub Manager Miranthi Pathirage noting that one challenge that youth dealt with was the Colombo-centric offering of resources. “One of the biggest barriers youth outside Colombo see is that everything is available in Colombo but not where they are [in this case, Matara] and this is something we want to bridge by decentralising these resources and increasing exposure.”
On the importance of the foundational English language programme, Pathirage noted that one of the biggest obstacles to youth empowerment was English. “The lack of English knowledge and the fear of speaking English, of facing people, and going for interviews is one of the gaps we wanted to address first and that starts with the basic English programme.”
The Creative Enterprise Programme will also focus on creative and soft skills and give youth tools to build careers for themselves, Gunawardena shared with Brunch. Coming from a background in creative communications herself, she said: “Giving young people something tangible and real, that’s the movement we need to get us through this economic crisis, to rebuild and innovate, and that’s the reason behind planning this.
“The idea is that the creative component gets embedded at this stage through the speakers – we have a roster of speakers coming in either for a day or staying over weekends and doing workshops, sharing stories, and leading discussions. This builds up to things, language exposure to English (many youth just don’t have the opportunity to practise and socialise in English at home), and creative exposure and discourse simultaneously.”
The various speakers contributing their expertise to the Creative Enterprise Programme include a lineup of Samaraweera’s creative contemporaries such as esteemed handicrafts, textiles, and fashion designer Senaka de Silva; internationally-renowned Sri Lankan contemporary artist and Matara native Pala Pothupitiye; award-winning filmmakers Bavaneeda Loganathan and Chinthana Dharmadasa; internationally-known Sri Lanka travel content creators and influencers Shenelle Rodrigo and Shehaan Thahir; Matara-based hospitality culture-makers Team Dots Ceylon Hotels and Smoke and Bitters; RCA graduated canvas and digital/NFT artist Bilaal Raji Saheed; wildlife and ecotourism hotelier between Nepal and Sri Lanka Tim Edwards; talk show host, performer, and trans-rights and LGBTQ+ advocate Bhoomi Harendran; artist and arts educator Minal Naomi Wickrematunge; award-winning duo music director and composer Madhun Dissanayake and creative director and filmmaker Nayani Dissanayake; as well as screenings of the films of animator Irushi Tennekoon, and more.
“This isn’t something we’re doing alone, we’ve applied for grant funding to be able to expand its reach and scope. Many of these people have come on board because of their interest and engagement with Mangala [Samaraweera] and others are those who we have met along the way. We’re tapping into people who have dual aspects of creativity and are using the 20 values of a ‘Radical Centre’ – the centrist, inclusive concept of the world and that creativity, vision, and systems can be made to include people,” Gunawardena said.
The larger goals of Freedom Hub
Gunawardena and Pathirage shared that their biggest goal was staying true to Samaraweera’s goal of empowering youth by providing them with skills and resources they can use to advance themselves and their country. “We hope that we can give them the tools and capabilities to continue on their own, to feel brave and pursue new opportunities, and to show communities and businesses in Matara as well that they have young people building the skills they need and that they don’t need to go elsewhere.”
Of course, Gunawardena wants the Freedom Hub to grow to help youth all over Sri Lanka, and this is part of what she will be personally working on over the next year through grant applications and outreach initiatives that can allow Freedom Hub to impact youth islandwide.
Applications for the Freedom Hub Creative Enterprise Programme are now open at samaraweerafoundation.org/freedom-hub till 31 January 2023. The programme itself will begin in late February 2023 and is for aspirational creatives and entrepreneurs and early-stage practitioners – particularly artists, graphic designers, craft and product artisans, brand builders, visual storytellers (filmmakers/commercial videographers), content creators in digital media (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram), and those interested in building creative and communication skills for stronger issues advocacy.
To apply you must be between the ages of 17-35 and live in Matara or the greater south, and commit to attending multiple weekly sessions on weekday evenings and over the weekend. Select applicants will be invited to take a placement test and interview. However, Freedom Hub’s public programming will be open to all.
To learn more about Freedom Hub and how you can join its programmes and public events follow it on Facebook @FreedomHubLK or email email@example.com.