Hashendra Wijesinha is the co-founder of The Sparklers Foundation, whose mission is to empower young people with the skills and opportunities to build sustainable communities in Sri Lanka.
Earlier this year, the Foundation launched I AM INSPIRED, a collection of insights and reflections from a range of inspirational leaders with a Sri Lankan heritage, based in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. All proceeds from I AM INSPIRED will fund a textbook incorporating career-planning exercises in Sinhala and Tamil, to be distributed to Sri Lankan schools.
I spoke with Hashendra over Zoom, to learn more about his life and work.
Though we have lived much of 2020 on Zoom, it is still not the ideal setting for a conversation with a stranger. Yet we move on from the ordinary platitudes about life emerging from lockdown quickly, and I am struck by Hashendra’s warmth and easy charm. He smiles frequently as we chat, and speaks with the accent of someone who has lived in many lands – with rounded vowels, the ‘r’s of someone who has attended international schools, and a slight Australian twang.
As it turns out, Hashendra was born in Sri Lanka but spent his childhood and adolescence in Bangladesh, Singapore, and Malaysia – with his adult life between Australia and Sri Lanka.
Harshenda discusses how some of his Sri Lankan family members had been surprised by what he calls his ‘normal speaking accent’ during his book launch. Ordinarily, they would hear his ‘Sri Lankan’ accent, which comes out when he speaks with his parents, or when he spends more than three hours in Sri Lanka.
This form of code-switching is familiar to me. As a migrant from South Asia myself, I have seen and heard this in various forms over the years. I too slip into familiar Sri Lankan idioms with my family and save my more ocker moments for my Australian friends.
For Hashendra, his life lived in many cultures means he ‘blends in a little better.’ But then immediately, he notes that he also ‘sticks out’.
‘It’s fifty-fifty’, he concludes.
This to and fro would be immediately relatable to any migrant. Our identities are complicated by simultaneously feeling like insiders and outsiders, both when we are in the places we are from as well as in the places we call home.
But what becomes clear through our conversation is that his experience as a ‘third culture nomad’, as he calls himself, is that it has imbued him with a deep awareness of his own privilege and has grounded in him a sense of responsibility ‘to Sri Lanka, to the Sri Lankan community, and to Sri Lankan youth.’ He had come to realise just how lucky he had been in his own life, and that many of his travel and life experiences were not shared by those he knew in Sri Lanka.
Rather, he realised that most people in Sri Lanka were simply unable to access the opportunities and resources that he had enjoyed.
While living in Sri Lanka as an adult, Hashendra had the opportunity to travel around the country for work. During these years, he gained a deeper understanding of the challenges and barriers faced by young people there. He met his co-founder, Indira Kithsiri (who was then working at the World Economic Forum) and together, they started The Sparklers Foundation.
Historically, one of the pitfalls of the development and aid sector has been the tendency for those in the Global North to impose pre-ordained solutions upon those in the Global South.
Moreover, the narrative of saviours from the Global North intervening to help the victims of the Global South continues to persist to this day – it is only this year, for example, that UK’s Comic Relief pledged to stop sending white celebrities to Africa to engage in what has been described as ‘poverty porn’.
Tellingly, while this decision has been heralded by many, it has also been derided by those who fail to see the problems with this model of development.
With I AM INSPIRED, The Sparklers Foundation appears to have side-stepped this pitfall by highlighting the voices of Sri Lankans themselves – particularly, Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka.
Inside I AM INSPIRED
Part of the project is not merely to inspire the youth of Sri Lanka, but to be inspired by the youth of Sri Lanka.
For example, I AM INSPIRED features the story of Tharushi Rajapaksa, a young high school student from a local school in regional district of Sri Lanka who invented the Alternative Lunch Pack as an environmental initiative to reduce the waste associated with disposable packaging.
For The Sparklers Foundation, the youth of Sri Lanka are far from helpless. Indeed, Hashendra seems genuinely inspired by the young people he has met.
As he puts it, their ‘work ethic, their ability to dream big, their ability to want to solve problems in society is just so phenomenal.’
He also is committed to working with established organisations in Sri Lanka, to ‘leverage everyone’s strengths’ and readily celebrates the ‘many amazing organisations’ that are already doing great work in this space. His aim for The Sparklers Foundation is to build on this work, and to provide opportunities and resources for Sri Lankan youth to learn soft skills, to create business plans and establish partnerships, and other entrepreneurial and work skills.
The inside artwork of I AM INSPIRED
While the fallout from COVID-19 has upended the planned trajectory for I AM INSPIRED to be incorporated into the official Sri Lankan school curriculum, Hashendra is committed to working towards a textbook version being distributed into Sri Lankan schools.
To this end, The Sparklers Foundation is working together with its partners and with local non-government organisations to fund and distribute the textbook – particularly to ensure ‘equity of distribution’, as Hashendra puts it. That is, to ensure that the textbook reaches the Sri Lankan students who are most in need of the inspiration and strategies that this text will provide.
One thing is clear – a global pandemic may require a flexible and agile response, but it will certainly not stop the work of The Sparklers Foundation.
Hashendra is earnest and exudes energy when talking about his work, and he also demonstrates a strong sense of kinship with the youth of Sri Lanka.
"Why I care about this project so much is because I have so many aspirations and dreams myself … and realising that about myself makes me always curious to think about young people in Sri Lanka and how they must be that … everyone’s so multi-faceted … many people have hopes and dreams."
Hashendra is clearly committed to ensuring that more young people in Sri Lanka are able to achieve their hopes and dreams.
Watch the video trailer of I AM INSPIRED.
If you would like to support Hashendra’s work and The Sparklers Foundation, I AM INSPIRED is available to purchase on a donation basis via the order form available here. 100% of book sale proceeds will be donated to the Sparklers Foundation, for the purpose of designing a textbook version of I AM INSPIRED in Sinhala and Tamil for distribution in high schools.
Sayomi Ariyawansa is a lawyer and researcher based in Melbourne. She examines and writes on labour migration, trafficking, modern slavery, and a range of human rights issues.