As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Sujane Kandasamy, co-founder of Starfish Canada, an organization which provides education and a platform for children to exchange ideas and contribute to a sustainable future.
The 1990s were personally tough for me. I spent the decade immersed in action based on climate catastrophe science, trying, and by all accounts failing, to stem the tide. Hardest of all, death and dementia came to my family.
As my awareness deepened about the growing divide between young and old and rich and poor, grief had become a pretty constant companion. I could choose to go further into the abyss of fear and loss or choose the only thing stronger: love. To choose love is to hope. But I had forgotten how. So I made a resolution — one that could last a year or even a decade if need be. I chose to study hope.
Part of my journey is to seek out promising young people who are contending in evidence-based and impactful ways with the climate crisis and engage them in conversations about hope. I am grateful for Canada’s National Observer’s commitment to solutions journalism, which provides these determined, joyful and, yes, hopeful young people a voice.
Sujane Kandasmy and Starfish Canada
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When she was in the second grade, Sujane Kandasamy came second in a competition requiring her to memorize and recite the Tirukural, a 2,000-year-old collection of Tamil Hindu couplets (kural) written by Sage Tiruvalluvar. One of her favourites is: “It is the unfailing fall of rain that sustains the world. Therefore, look upon rain as the nectar of life.”
Sujane, now 31, does her best to live out the dharmic concept underlying this poem. A co-founder of Starfish Canada and its volunteer director of education, she provides children and youth with sustainability education and mentoring. She is a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Vanier doctoral scholar in health research methodology at McMaster University where, in addition to her research, she weaves environmental issues into health professional training curriculum.
What does Starfish Canada do?
Starfish uses problem-based learning to teach children about individual responsibility and system change. Over the past 10 years, 2,000 elementary school children in Ontario have selected one of 16 environmental and social justice problems, worked with someone else to identify potential solutions, and changed their own behaviour to make a difference. For example, children take the issue of water insecurity and set timers for their own showers or turn off the tap when they brush their teeth. They understand it is a small step, and in this way, (they) learn about the need for systems change. Then the entire class selects one of the 16 problems to work on together. That is when they see that all environmental issues are intertwined both with each other and with justice issues.
What was your inspiration for the teaching method?
I met my co-founder Kyle Empringham in a biodiversity undergraduate course where we were assigned a problem to solve. We found a way to solve it, but we understood there were many other approaches to a resolution. We also realized solving one issue wouldn’t make much difference. We concluded developing empathy was more important, and we wanted to make that problem-solving approach available to more people.
What makes you proud?
We have a project of which I am especially proud at Concordia University called “Two-eyed Seeing Climate Change.” This brings young scientists and Indigenous youth and elders together to understand each other’s view of issues.
We have another flagship program where we honour 25 young rising Canadian environmental stars every year. They receive ongoing mentoring from past award winners and network with each other.
What is the significance of the name “Starfish”?
An ancient proverb tells of a young boy walking along a beach after a storm, throwing beached starfish back into the sea. A stranger mocks him, pointing out there are thousands of others and his paltry efforts will make no real difference. The boy stops and thinks for a moment. Then he throws another and says kindly, “I just made a difference for that one.”
How did your childhood influence where you are today?
My parents emigrated from Sri Lanka when I was one. Unlike many families, they both worked outside of the home, cooked, did housework and looked after me. They pushed me to participate in extracurricular activities and taught me there are opportunities for learning everywhere.
In Grade 5, I participated in a directed-studies program called Prime Mentors. Instead of attending science class, I completed a self-directed research project about Isaac Newton’s theories by working with a retired scientist, Helen King. She showed me that learning outside of the classroom can be a joy. I will always be grateful to her.
What role does spirituality play in your work?
My Hindu culture teaches that everything and everyone is equal. We are all visitors and it is our responsibility to ensure we leave the planet hospitable for all spirits, including those who come after us. Environmentalism is a dharmic duty — a path to morality and righteousness, and therefore deep meaning and joy.
Many Hindu texts, including poems and couplets, depict nature such as flowers, rivers, mountains, and rain in a very godly sense, emphasizing the high degree of respect we should take when we interact with nature.
What advice would you give to other young people?
Don’t shy away from things you don’t understand or that you may not be good at. See them as opportunities to learn through a different lens or in a different way. Look in unexpected places.
How can older people support you?
Youth are a powerful force for change, but they are so much more if they have stories, history, insight, wisdom, community and funding. You have so much to offer. See yourselves as teachers and enablers. But remember the advice often attributed to William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but rather the lighting of a fire.”