Shomy Hasan Chowdhury: Empowering Youth to Take Social Action
Hi everyone, I’m Spiffy, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to a passionate entrepreneur working to make the world a better place. Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is co-founder of Awareness 360, a global-youth led organization that empowers young people to contribute to the United Nations SDGs. Their work covers many SDGs, including SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being and SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Hi Shomy, I can’t wait to hear about your work and inspiration! Can you start by telling us about the challenges you’re addressing?
Shomy: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy! At Awareness 360, we raise awareness about clean water and sanitation, menstruation, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and well-being, neglected tropical diseases, and other crucial issues, among vulnerable and marginalized communities. We reach communities such as sewerage workers, sex workers, under-resourced school children, slum dwellers, and refugees. We encourage community members to foster behavioral change and adopt healthy habits by helping them realize the long-term impact of reducing extreme poverty. We also empower young people in 23 countries by giving them the skills, resources, tools, mentorship, and inspiration to identify community issues and conduct their own social action projects supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Spiffy: Wow! What motivated you to reach out to these diverse communities and address these important issues?
Shomy: Well, Spiffy, my passion for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) stemmed from the tragic loss of my mother, who died in 2014 from diarrhea after being sick for only one day. Her death made me realize the critical role WASH can play in saving lives from preventable diseases like diarrhea. Despite coming from an educated background, I was unaware of the global WASH crisis. I did not want anybody else to go through the same thing, so I was driven to transform my pain into passion. Four days after my mother's death I did my first WASH Talk at an isolated sewerage workers' community. I realized the immense power of storytelling in connecting people and delivering my message. I saw the potential impact I could bring, and I’ve continued my WASH activism ever since.
Spiffy: I’m sorry about your loss, Shomy. I’m sure your mother would be very proud of you! How is Awareness 360 working to make the world more equitable?
Shomy: We are fighting for access to basic human rights like clean water, sanitation, and healthcare for communities who are often forgotten and left behind. We are working at the grassroots level, helping these communities realize how better health can lead them to be more productive and come out of extreme poverty. We are breaking the taboo around menstruation so that menstruators do not drop out of school after menarche. We also share our experience at the grassroots level by influencing world leaders to invest more in this sector. During Covid-19 lockdown, when the sex workers community was suffering from hunger, we reached out with food and hygiene supplies, shedding a spotlight on how helpless they were.
Awareness 360 volunteers and co-founder Shomy Hasan Chowdhury (right) help with food and hygiene supply distribution at a sex workers brothel in Bangladesh, during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Image courtesy of Shomy Hasan Chowdhury)
Spiffy: Do you have any new initiatives you are particularly excited about?
Shomy: We recently launched the Awareness 360 Youth Development Programme and are accepting 200+ young people from 38+ countries and four continents into our 2021 Cohort. Every week for the next three months youth learn different change-making concepts and develop skills from experts around the world. Topics include empathy mapping, design thinking, project management, public speaking, impact measurement, mental health and well-being, social media for advocacy, and more. We not only provide a platform for volunteering and giving back for a cause, but also empower youth with essential 21st Century transferable skills. Then they are prepared to conduct their own social action projects to advance the UN SDGs.
Spiffy: What about failure? Can you share about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up?
Shomy: Once, we organized a WASH Talk at a sex worker community, but it was a total disaster. We failed to grab and retain their attention, no one really cared about what we wanted to discuss, and we felt very unwelcome. This failure was a learning opportunity for us to discover what we were lacking. We had been using the same delivery method and content for different communities. We realized that we needed to know our audience first, then tailor our workshop content for them accordingly. We started doing pre-project surveys, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews to understand the community better—then we were able to personalize our content and ensure effective delivery.
Spiffy: I’m curious, Shomy, what is something unexpected you’ve learned from someone recently?
Shomy: After hearing my story of being a WASH activist, someone compared my experience with Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold. This idea really resonated with me in the sense that we can often bring about bold movements of change from an unexpected event.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Shomy: You know, Spiffy, we often relate our passion with something that gives us joy. But in my opinion, we can also derive our passion from something that bugs us. This means that we don’t just rant about it, but we take action, no matter how small it is. My encouragement—find your passion in what bothers you.
Spiffy: I’ve never thought of it that way! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience with us, Shomy. It’s been an honor.
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is a multi-award-winning water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activist from Bangladesh, and co-founder of Awareness 360, a global youth-led organization. She has received many recognitions for the social work she has done over the past decade, most notably the President’s Volunteer Service Award (Gold) from President Barack Obama and the 2019 Diana Legacy Award. Shomy was recently named a UNDP-Samsung Global Generation17 Young Leader. (Nominated by The Diana Award)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog