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Image credit: Without Borders

Kavindya Thennakoon: Never giving up

Kavindya Thennakoon: Never giving up

Image above: Children learn mindfulness in school with Without Borders

Queen’s Young Leader, Kavindya Thennakoon, tells Leading Change about failure, persevering and working with government.

Kavindya Thennakoon recently posted a rejection letter online. "The responses I got were amazing. People saying, 'I thought you had a perfect life!"

She points out that changemaking is very hard”. 

“We don’t talk about failure, especially like in this young changemaker sphere,” she says. “We create these very positive narratives about ourselves, that everything is going well, everything's great. Then you create these insane standards for everyone.”

Accepting failure

Failure is an option for Kavindya. She thinks of it as “just a phase”. She recently applied for 40 jobs and only got one acceptance. Kavindya applies for opportunities even when she is doubtful about the chance of succeeding. So when she saw a grant proposal from Kids Rights on social media, she went for it.

“It seemed kind of high end, like they were looking for very well established organisations,” she explains, “But it was working with young people so I was interested.”

And she had an idea for “a very rapid accelerator” that she wanted to try out. It was called "Ideator", and Kavindya developed it over the summer of 2018 with the support of the Albright Institute, where she is an Albright Fellow for 2019.

“It was taking design thinking into schools and getting kids to be in the same space for about 23 days,” she says. “So I got together a team and sent an application. I never thought it would work out, but it actually did.”

Children sitting on classroom floor drawing

Without Borders creative workshop. Image credit: Without Borders

Kids Rights funded Kavindya’s organisation, Without Borders to do the accelerator – the Ideator – in nine communities in Sri Lanka.

“We’re looking at about 350 to 450 kids for the first round. So that’s exciting. We’ve already started the project and run a few sessions now.”


Rewind to 2014 when Without Borders was founded. Kavindya recalls approaching the provincial government to get an official letter –  something on paper to show the schools Without Borders wanted to work with. 

“We first went to the provincial education office because we thought the ministry wouldn’t want to talk to us,” Kavindya explains. “We were this small group of young kids, and the provincial education was like ‘Oh yeah! Okay! Whatever! Not really our thing!’”

But Without Borders has also been trying to meet with the Minister of Education in Sri Lanka “for the longest time”.

Four years on, Without Borders is well established in Sri Lanka and the value of its work has been widely recognised. Recently they were offered an appointment with the Secretary to the Ministry of Education.

Kavindya explains, “He’s the person who’s the most powerful after the minister.” 

Pitching to government

The Without Borders team talked about the work they were doing and pitched Ideator. The Ministry wanted to see how it was done.

“We did a demo for the Ministry. We condensed the three-day thing into a one-day thing and gave them a brief synopsis of how it happened.”

The team gave the children a design task to do and the Ministry were impressed. “They saw the kids coming out and talking, and expressing their ideas.”

Children sitting on carpet outside school building listening to the teacher

Children at one of the many schools where Without Borders works. Image credit: Without Borders

The outcome?

“They were very interested!” says Kavindya. She adds that the Ministry is working on programme to improve standards, support the less academic children and make school education “relevant to the world of work”.

“They were like, 'This fits in perfectly with what we want to do. Do you want to work with us to include this in the local curriculum?' I couldn't believe it!”

And in the long term?

“The end goal would be to create a couple of modules specifically aligned towards the schools so that the Ministry can take it up and integrate it into the curriculum.”

Change your perception of government

Kavindya says that changemakers all too often see governments and the state sector as difficult to work with and overly traditional.

“May be that’s why it didn’t work out, because we were always having that mindset whenever we approached the state sector.”

She acknowledges that it has taken time to bring the state sector on board, but at the same time she adds, “The secretary is super forward thinking!”

“When I started Without Borders, I wanted to make a dent in the education policy. And by policy, I don’t mean just putting it on paper but to make sure whatever dent we make reaches the schools, the teachers and the students. Because a lot of the time policy never translates into action.”

And now?

“Having the Ministry on board – having them looking at lots of alternative solutions – is such a big step for us,” she says. “We haven’t yet made that change possible but I think we are going in that direction. We’re just starting!”