(June 2, 2023) She was just seven when a haunting image of a dead bird with its stomach full of plastic shook her. The shocking sight stirred something within Dubai-born and raised Kehkashan Basu, igniting a deep concern for the environment. Her passion grew even stronger after attending a lecture by environmentalist Robert Swan, who emphasised the urgent need for individual action in saving the planet. “He said something that just stuck. ‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it’.”
Swan’s words resonated with Kehkashan, leading her to realise that waiting for someone else to solve the world’s environmental problems was not an option. So, when she turned eight the following year, she celebrated by planting a tree. This was the beginning of the making of an environmentalist who later founded the Green Hope Foundation (which operates in 28 countries) that aims to teach and implement the UN’s sustainable development goals through events and grassroots action like tree planting. The work has earned her a spot in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, won her the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize and Meritorious Service Medal of Canada.
Born on June 5 (World Environment Day) in Dubai to immigrant parents who moved from Kolkata, Kehkashan was raised in a family that believes in the virtues of compassion and empathy. Growing up, she always wanted to help others, and it was her mother who instilled in her a sense of belief that it was her moral responsibility to give back to people and the planet. This prompted her to begin working at the ground level in the UAE through a no-plastic campaign wherein she visited businesses and homes to explain how to avoid plastic, and recycle and dispose of waste responsibly.
Her initiative started reaping fruits when she was elected as the UN Environmental Programme’s global coordinator for children and youth at the age of 12. While speaking at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, she realised that the sustainable development process was not inclusive of young people. “I was deeply concerned by the fact that we, children, were not a part of the dialogue. My future was being decided by someone else,” she told Streets of Toronto. This pushed her to launch Green Hope in 2012 to “provide a platform for learning that turns into ground-level action.”
The foundation’s primary objective is to empower children and youth, especially those who are marginalized, by involving them actively in the sustainable development process through environment academies – where they use music, art, dance, drama, and sport to teach them about sustainable development. Kehkashan firmly believes that they possess the potential to drive positive change and make a significant impact on the world. “We have directly impacted more than 50,000 young people — Rohingya refugees, Syrian refugees, children of prisoners in Kenya and Nepal, HIV-positive children, orphans, and the homeless in India, Bangladesh, Suriname, and Indonesia,” she added.
Guided by her unwavering commitment, Kehkashan’s mission through the Green Hope Foundation is to create a “Life of Dignity for all.” This encompasses not only addressing environmental challenges but also focusing on social equity and inclusivity. Kehkashan recognises that sustainable development cannot be achieved without considering the rights and needs of every individual, particularly those who are marginalized. By empowering children and youth, she aims to foster a generation that is not only environmentally conscious but also actively involved in building a more equitable and sustainable future.
For someone who started young, she calls age just a number as one can take action at any age. “I’ve always said that age has nothing to do with capability. Youngsters are often dismissed and told that they need to grow up to learn about the environment, and that’s not true. If you instil an interest in sustainable development from a young age, just like you do for science or maths, youngsters can grow up with that knowledge and then expand on that.” Her efforts paid off as within a decade Green Hope Foundation grew into a global social innovation enterprise, with over 2000 members working at a grassroots level in our 28 country chapters.
A sustainability advocate, Kehkashan moved to Canada in 2017 to bring her nonprofit to North America. “I thought, if I have to start my organization in North America, I want to start it in a place where I know that your differences will be accepted, where I would be able to make a difference with people who are also interested in similar things,” she said in an interview. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 2022, she is currently pursuing MBA at Cornell University.
Being a climate activist, Kehkashan believes in the power of bringing about change. “The first step is educating ourselves about the problems facing our local communities. If we don’t have the knowledge, then we cannot take action. Once we have the awareness, then we can spread it and take concerted, localized action towards human and planetary wellbeing, whether that is growing our own food, switching to solar-powered cars, or planting mangroves, the list is endless,” she said.
Kehkashan Basu’s journey from witnessing the devastating effects of plastic pollution to becoming a globally recognized activist showcases the power of youth engagement and individual action in the pursuit of sustainable development. Through the Green Hope Foundation, she has successfully empowered marginalized children and youth, enabling them to become environmental advocates and champions of change in their communities and beyond. “Taking care of our planet is no longer a choice; it’s a responsibility. And what I want everyone to know is that they must act now to do something for the planet,” she added.
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