Day 3, Community
At 8:00 in the morning, the second full day of the conference already looked promising. Most of the SLU team was present at the conference hall, and the morning sessions were only now about to begin. By the time I arrived, the students had finished their first group gathering of the day and were headed towards the auditorium. SLU has incorporated group discussions and icebreakers as a key feature of the Future Leaders Conference as agreed upon in their original vision for a nationwide community. The volunteers have proved instrumental in building relationships among the members of their teams at a steady and surprisingly swift pace. These small groups nurture an environment that breaks down the barriers of shyness and unfamiliarity while strengthening community and teamwork. Not only are the students benefiting from the smaller communities, but India’s Breakthrough team has been teaching classes with experiential learning techniques for the teachers and chaperones in an effort to provide a comprehensive experience for all of the participants. The response on both accounts has been overwhelmingly positive.
Day 3, The Potential of Sri Lanka
The first session was delivered by Rohantha Athukorala, a man of many jobs who is currently the National Portfolio Development Manager for UNOPS, and formerly the Director, Economics of the Government Peace Secretariat. He had once also been country manager for JohnsonDiversey in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Students paid their full attention to Rohantha as he expounded the qualities of a true leader through illustrations of the Athens 2004 Olympics. His talk included encouraging developments taking place in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, especially in Jaffna, where the nation shows a surprising amount of growth and possibility despite its recent unfortunate circumstances. Much to the delight of the students, Rohantha interspersed his session with several humorous adds and short video clips. Athukorala has spent much of his career encouraging the development of young people into confident and solid individuals. His excitement was evident as he paid close attention to the students’ questions, and he relished the chance to answer the queries with detailed responses.
After a 15 minute break, the second lecture of the day was given by Kushil Gunasekera, the founder of the Foundation of Goodness. Kushil unfolded his moving story of growing up in the coastal village of Seenigama during a time when opportunities were limited. As the son of a privileged family, he had every chance to succeed in life. Not wishing to remain private with this power, he later returned to his village and started the Foundation of Goodness for the improvement of Seenigama and its surrounding regions. Today, his organization has achieved a positive and sincere reputation across the country by sponsoring a multitude of empowerment programs. This session provided the opportunity for the students to see firsthand what practical steps could be taken in Sri Lanka to improve their situation.
Day 3, Reconciliation in Action
The students received a respite from their learning experience when lunch was served, and the friendly atmosphere was quickly transferred to the dining hall where students continued to laugh and enjoy themselves. The students have been openly outspoken about their enjoyment of the entire experience. The smiling faces that constantly greet us as we walk the corridors are a testament to the native potential of this land. On a lighter note, the martial artist and Hollywood star James Li shared a part of his life story growing up as a Asian immigrant in the U.S. Though he experienced racism as a child, he grew to befriend those whom he once resented, and he encouraged the students to use the potential they possess as young leaders to empower those around them. The festivities continued as the students rushed outside to compete in cricket and other events. Sports, perhaps more than any other medium, can connect young people. The binding ties that have formed between these students as a result of their cooperation and competition will not soon be forgotten.
Day 3, An Evening of Experience
As the sun set on yet another day, the students prepared their groups for the upcoming cultural festival that will pit team against team with dramatic and musical interpretations of reconciliation in action. While most participants spent a comfortable hour showering, relaxing, and changing into native dress, the SLU staff enjoyed a well-deserved break from a breakneck schedule. The night began with a truly wonderful spectacle as 400 students each wearing a unique sari or sarong filed into the auditorium. Prashan, dressed in his own sarong, opened the night by emphasizing the leadership and consideration that the trustees of Sri Lanka Unites have invested into the Future Leaders Conference. Mr. Eran Wickramaratne, CEO of NDB Bank and trustee of Sri Lanka Unites, then proceeded to take the stage and recall the following three important decisions in his life: choosing a wife, choosing to participate in the peace talks with the LTTE in 2002, and granting his entire staff a vacation. The gravity of the speech centered on the second of these three decisions and the students were shocked to learn of his experience in the secluded northern compound of the LTTE. Though the peace talks broke down, Mr. Wickramaratne was able to ascertain the need for reconciliation and the similarities of peoples across the nation regardless of foreign stereotypes.
Day 3, Sri Lankan Culture: The Traditional and The Modern
The entertainment section took flight with a contagious hip-hop beat as the singer Krishan took the stage. After several days of uncertainty, Krishan, the first mainstream Tamil rapper, pledged his presence at the conference, further diversifying the mix of guests who have sacrificed their time to bring the vision of a united Sri Lanka together. Once again the students roared and clapped their support for this famous personage and where quickly invited onto the stage where Krishan sang several of his tracks from his latest album. His initial performance proved to be only the first act of his appearance as he agreed to remain as a judge for the upcoming cultural festival.
The environs took on a more subtle tone as the students achieved an impressive feat of creativity as each team had a unique way of expressing the theme of reconciliation via song, drama, or skit. While some chose to portray ethnic conflict and a consequent resolution, others gave stirring speeches from the perspectives of a Burgher, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sinhalese, or a Tamil. The Galle Gladiators were awarded first place and subsequently granted the title “Sri Lanka Unites Superstars,” courtesy of Danu, SLU’s media and entertainment director. Krishan gave a final performance and left the stage after a sincere offer of gratitude on behalf of the SLU team. Throughout the day, the theme of using personal power to empower others was raised consistently. If this simple virtue can be ingested into the behavior of even just a few people, Sri Lanka has a brighter future ahead of itself.