- Prashan de Visser on 15 years of Sri Lanka Unites
With Christmas behind us, we are fast heading into 2022, and while we may have mixed feelings about 2021 and what 2022 is likely to bring us, it is, at the end of the day, a new year and a point at which to start afresh with new hope.
Hope is the order of the day for Sri Lanka Unites, which in 2022 will be celebrating 15 years of quiet inspiration and change-making among Sri Lanka’s youth. Sri Lanka Unites is a youth movement for hope, reconciliation, and youth leadership development. Over the last 14 years, they have tirelessly worked to build unity and overcome prejudice among Sri Lanka’s youth in hopes of building a new generation that can move past the wounds of the past and into a brighter future together, united as one.
The Sri Lanka Unites movement is made possible by the incredible commitment and hard work of nearly 1,000 volunteers and 50 staff members serving across eight centres in eight districts. In 2021, they passed an important milestone of 30,000 members and a total engagement of over one million youth since they started 14 years ago.
With Sri Lanka Unites celebrating 15 years next year, Brunch chatted with Sri Lanka Unites Founder Prashan de Visser on how the movement has grown over the last 14 years and what his hopes are for 2022.
Sri Lanka Unites’ origin story
As a student growing up during Sri Lanka’s civil war, de Visser was one of the lucky ones. Studying at Wesley College, he was in a school that had all three language mediums – English, Sinhala, and Tamil – he was also surrounded by diversity and came from a progressive family that taught tolerance and inclusivity. But despite this, he was still prejudiced by his experiences of the war, seeing friends lose loved ones to the conflict and equating the North of Sri Lanka with terrorists. This, however, changed when de Visser made friendship with those in the North, leading to a personal transformation, and, after completing his studies (de Visser studied foreign policy and economics in the US and even interned on Capitol Hill), he came back to Sri Lanka with a clear goal – to build a countermovement – what would eventually become Sri Lanka Unites.
Sri Lanka Unites didn’t pop up overnight. It began small in 2006 with groups of students from Gampaha and Vavuniya meeting each other and interacting. “We saw amazing results because many of them had never seen anyone outside their own communities,” de Visser explained, adding that this pilot exercise highlighted how the right transformational opportunities could help create a new generation of youth that could focus on healing and solving problems non-violently through unity. The year 2008 saw groups of young professionals with various backgrounds coming together to expand on the concept, and by 2009, a fully fledged organisation was formed, working mainly on youth leadership, character development, and reconciliation, and working towards an inclusive Sri Lankan identity.
“Our ultimate question is what if this generation can create a just and thriving nation, and how can we help make that happen?” de Visser said.
Sri Lanka Unites today
Today, Sri Lanka Unites spearheads over 20 initiatives focused on reconciliation and youth development.
Chief among them are the Future Leaders conference, which is a platform that brings student leaders from all 25 districts to learn how people from different backgrounds and communities can have meaningful engagement and overcome mistrust and hate ingrained in them from an early age; a network of clubs in schools across the island that delve deeper into the meanings of justice and reconciliation, and how the new generation and ordinary people from the grassroots level can bring about meaningful change through a 10-module curriculum; a countrywide by Sri Lanka Unites members speaking at all these clubs and at other platforms on the importance of youth unity in a bid to help youth embrace the mandate of being the catalyst that turns things around; and a network of reconciliation centres in Sri Lanka’s poorest regions that work towards fostering entrepreneurship and building skills in youth that would allow them to become more engaged and productive members within their communities, and in turn allow them them to more effectively drive change.
The Future Leaders conference also sees awards made to “Outstanding Role Models”, a calculated move to show today’s youth what success looks like. “There is a desperate need for role models. A lot of young people are following the wrong types of people, or simply do not have positive role models,” de Visser shared, adding: “Future Leaders’ ‘Outstanding Role Models’ highlights extraordinary Sri Lankans and how they have overcome their challenges.”
This year, to further highlight the power of youth, the Future Leaders conference presented a new award for “Young Outstanding Role Models” as well as a new award that recognises Sri Lanka Unites alumni who first engaged with the movement as students and have now gone on to excel in their relevant fields while continuing to serve our nation.
Sri Lanka Unites has also gone on to inspire a global movement for youth-led conflict transformation, named Global Unites. The movement engages in 13 nations on four continents with a global membership of over 65,000.
2022: A year of increased unity
With 2022 marking 15 years of Sri Lanka Unites, de Visser shared his hope that 2022 would be less impacted by the pandemic than the last two years have been, adding that in 2022, Sri Lanka hopes to resume their nationwide tour again, going to all 25 districts and engaging with school students, university students, and communities. Through the tour, de Visser also shared that Sri Lanka Unites hopes to work to uplift at least one school in each district by giving them access to fundamental resources like running water and IT labs.
Another initiative de Visser is also excited to be expanding on in 2022 is the Sri Lanka Unites Shark Tank, a programme where underprivileged youth from all around Sri Lanka will be able to compete to pitch business ideas to a panel of Sri Lankan and diaspora investors. Sri Lanka Unites Shark Tank took place in 2021 with only youth from Sri Lanka’s four poorest districts (Mullaitivu, Batticaloa, Monaragala, and Nuwara Eliya) participating, going through a six-month entrepreneurship development programme before pitching to investors, but for 2022, de Visser hopes to open the platform to youth from all of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts.
Another Sri Lanka Unites platform that will be widening its reach is the musical platform Beats of One Nation, which will see its third season taking place this year featuring young singers and songwriters from all around Sri Lanka, before going on to become Beats of One World, a platform that will include musical talent from all Global Unites member countries and see the production of a launch album to show the world just what kind of talent these countries torn by conflict have to offer.
Last but not least, de Visser hopes to grow one of Sri Lanka Unites’ latest ventures, Sri Lanka Unites Kids, a younger platform that sees children from the ages of eight to 14 from across Sri Lanka engaging with each other, learning each other’s languages and customs, and developing friendships that can transcend all boundaries of prejudice and help build a united Sri Lanka.
“Our newest generation is eight years old today,” de Visser said, adding: “And they will grow up to be vibrant Sri Lankan citizens capable of making an impact. My dream for Sri Lanka Unites’ 15th year is to help build this next battalion of peace builders.