“Think global, act local”

U of T students Kehkashan Basu, Quinn Underwood discuss grassroots activism, launching startups

Even as undergraduates, U of T students Kehkashan Basu and Quinn Underwood are already hard at work changing the future by innovating environmental protection measures and digital health technology.

From October 17–20, youth leaders and activists gathered in The Hague, Netherlands for the 2018 One Young World Summit, a platform aimed at empowering young people who are attempting to solve the world’s pressing issues. Among the delegate speakers: Basu and Underwood. 

Basu, the recipient of the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize, spoke about her youth organization Green Hope Foundation and environmental activism; Underwood discussed his experiences as Director of Global Business Development for digital health technology company Advin. 

The Varsity sat down with both of them to discuss balancing school and charitable work, the process of launching startups, and why grassroots activism should never be neglected in the debate around global issues.

Youth leadership

Basu, a first-year student planning to major in Environmental Studies, was born on June 5 — World Environment Day. “I always thought that it was preordained that I should grow up to be a new eco-warrior,” she said.

At age eight, Basu began raising awareness about sustainability issues such as water conservation and recycling. Four years later, she was one of the youngest delegates at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It was there that her interests turned to youth activism. “Their outcome document was called the ‘Future We Want,’ but it was our future that was being decided,” Basu said, “by adults who wouldn’t even live to see that future.” 

She went on to found Green Hope Foundation later that year to engage young people in creating a healthier environment. The foundation’s central tool is the ‘environment academy,’ a workshop created by young people for young people on how to “take action in their own zone of influence.” The group has a focus on reaching marginalized communities, including Indigenous communities and children with incarcerated parents.

Underwood is currently a fourth-year student completing a double major in Immunology and Health Studies. When he was in high school, he founded Indian Umbrella, a charity that raises funds and awareness for grassroots organisations in India. He entered U of T with the intention of going to medical school to further expand his work, but “quickly realised that if helping people was the goal, then being a doctor and working with individuals on a one-on-one basis wasn’t necessarily the best way to do that.” 

After a research trip to Myanmar investigating digital health applications to child malnutrition, Underwood joined Advin, a Bangladesh-based company rolling out digital health care systems in remote areas. Its hardware and software diagnostic systems currently reach 80,000 patients across the country with plans to scale to five million in the next five years in markets including India, Myanmar, and Tanzania.

Life as U of T students

Balancing school and outside responsibilities can be a challenge. But experience helps, Basu said. “I’ve been practicing this whole time management thing since I was eight… and I’ve been able to do it very well. Yes, I complete my assignments on flights sometimes. I have to work a little harder than my peers to study or get stuff done, but it’s very fruitful.” 

“I wish I had the time management skills she does, or perhaps the discipline,” Underwood said with a laugh. For him, achieving balance is a matter of exploiting the intersections between school and his charitable work to optimize his time “to do as much as possible.”

“[For] professors like Joseph Wong in the Munk One program… Their number one rule is to be audacious, because in the rest of your courses and classes you have to worry about the grade you’re going to get, and audaciousness kind of comes second,” Underwood said. “At the end of the day, it’s not checking boxes; it’s a gamble.”

Philanthropic mentality

This audaciousness is what drives Underwood and Basu to go out into the field and tackle global problems, far beyond the boardroom. Philanthropic work with a grassroots perspective is directly informed by the real needs of people affected by problems, according to Basu. 

“When you go into the field you can see that, ‘Okay, these are the problems that are not talked about’ and this doesn’t reach the big conferences and officials.” 

Basu noted that integrating this top-down approach with bottom-up groundwork is paramount to understanding issues. “You actually need to go out into the field and do something physically. Even if you can’t physically do it, work with someone who [can].” 

Underwood likewise stressed the importance of a bottom-up approach, through understanding issues from the perspective of those affected. He shared an account of how smokeless cook stoves were brought to parts of Africa and South Asia to solve respiratory problems from smoke inhalation — only for them to go unused because people did not like the taste of the food. Bottom-up social work is about “actually understanding what needs to be done,” he said.

However, individualized grassroots work can only go so far, he continues. Effective solutions also require addressing systematic causes to problems.

 “It needs to meet in the middle: top-down and bottom-up,” Basu said. “Think global, act local.”

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