We are delighted to announce that this year’s winner is DreamSpace Academy from Sri Lanka! They were recognized at the Alliance for Peacebuilding annual conference, PeaceCon, on Dec. 9, and were awarded $10,000 for their work.
DreamSpace Academy began in 2013 in the city of Batticaloa as a nine-person youth group, called Sagacious Youth Lead Consortium, focused on addressing the droughts and water crisis facing the region. As co-founders Aravinth Panch and Kishoth Navaretnarajah engaged in environmental work, they saw how rural areas were affected not only by the water crisis but also by the after-effects of war. Children faced water scarcity but also walked barefoot on tar roads. Teenagers were self-isolating.
During our conversation, Navaretnarajah shared that though they began to implement art and peace therapy programming, he struggled with the term “peace and reconciliation” having personally experienced discrimination due to his own background. It was through helping others that he was able to overcome his own biases and began to actively seek out ways to learn about peacebuilding.
This motivation led Navaretnarajah to the Young Visionary Peace Fellowship Program through the Center for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation, another local organization in Sri Lanka (and long-time partner of Peace Direct). There, he learned how to engage traumatized youth and how to build on momentum for reconciliation.
“Peacebuilding is not a designed framework,” said Navaretnarajah when asked about how the youth group incorporated peacebuilding into its environmental work. “We agreed that if any of our teamwork was affected by the new approach, we’d drop the plan.”
Fortunately, their teamwork did not suffer and, in 2015, they became DreamSpace Academy and formally began incorporating peacebuilding with their environmental work. Environmental concerns provided a unifying issue around which people from diverse backgrounds could come together, working to support their communities and others.
DreamSpace Academy has become a common ground, where a person’s talent can be honed and celebrated regardless of their background, something which Navaretnarajah says is uncommon in Sri Lanka. They do not speak of peacebuilding or reconciliation but focus on the environment. According to Navaretnarajah, it is “only once the bonds started to form between various groups that they realized that their thoughts about each other weren’t true.”
One project which best exemplifies their integration of peacebuilding and environmental protection is “Circular Plastic.” The project involves collecting and recycling plastic, and requires skilled community members form diverse backgrounds to collaborate. Not only does this work encourage interfaith trust, but it also generates income for communities as recycled plastics are sold as part of the project’s social enterprise approach. As socioeconomic needs are met in a community, Navaretnarajah stresses that community members will no longer rush to take from others. He argues that this will decrease things like land encroachments which cause interfaith tensions and legitimize the demonization and othering of other communities.
In terms of technology, the group’s DreamSpace MakerLab is equipped with Electronics, Mechanics, Software, Design, Art and Business Labs, and soon with a Biotech Lab to help make young people critical thinkers and “makers” of innovative ways to advance peace and justice, the group says.
The coronavirus pandemic this year moved all participants online — using an app and web-based platform to learn updates, help lines, etc. through their local language — emphasizing the importance of diverse groups of people working together.
“Our technology made this long-lasting bonding to support a common cause for all communities, and to go as a tech startup in the long run to support one another [in the] community,” the group says.
View more about their work in this video they produced:
When asked about his aspirations for DreamSpace Academy and Sri Lanka in general, Navaretnarajah shared his hope that “Sri Lankan youth who want to change problems into solutions have the opportunity to contribute to Sri Lanka’s social and economic development.” When children speak with elders in their community, they have the power to change their opinions about other faiths and ethnic groups. He also expressed his hope that “the girls of Sri Lanka, many of whom still face cultural and structural problems which limit their ability to be involved in certain kinds of work, eventually have the support to do what they want.”
We celebrate this year’s winners, and all peacebuilding efforts taking place around the world.
View past award winners here.
We thank our sponsors: Alliance for Peacebuilding, PeaceTech Lab, Intrust IT and Build Up, for supporting this year’s award and ceremony.