Shomy: "Find your passion in what bothers you. 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 and keeps us up at night. So much that we do not just rant but take action no matter how small it is."
Issue XI Cover Feature Empower
Interviewed by Aditri Sen and Bhagyashree Prabhutendolkar
30th October, 2021
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is an award-winning Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) activist from Bangladesh. Shomy is the Co-Founder of Awareness 360, Forbes 30 Under 30 Lister & Featured Honoree, Schwarzman Scholar, US State Department CEE Specialist, Global Citizen Youth Advocate, Asia Pacific's first Samsung Global-UNDP Generation17 Ambassador, Asia Representative of Commonwealth Students’ Association, Royal Commonwealth Society Fellow, International Election Observer and sits on leadership & advisory positions of multiple international organizations. Her notable recognitions include the President’s Volunteer Service Award (Gold) from President Barack Obama, and The Diana Legacy Award. Most recently, she became the first Bangladeshi to sit on The Diana Legacy Award 2021 Judging Panel alongside Princess Diana’s brother Lord Spencer and many esteemed figures.
Can you tell us what WASH stands for? What prompted you to start your work for Clean Water and Sanitation?
Shomy: WASH stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. My passion for WASH stemmed from the tragic loss of my mother in 2014, who died 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, 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 & delivering my message across. I saw the potential impact I could bring, and hence I continued my WASH activism ever since.
Your father was a social worker as well, so how does it feel to be continuing his legacy?
Shomy: Having sought my initial inspiration from him, my father has greatly shaped my values of empathy and kindness. In our family album there are photos of me accompanying my father to events he organized, most of which I do not even remember. He continues to engage himself in social work which not only inspires me but also helps me realize that everyone,regardless of age, has a responsibility to give back to society and nature in some way; and you are neither too young nor too old to be a changemaker.
Watch our interview with Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, Cover Feature of Issue XI
How did you build your personal brand? How important is it for Gen Zers to develop Networking skills to step up their ventures ?
Shomy: I did not take any intentional steps to build my personal brand but I have always believed in authenticity. I think when someone works with integrity toward a clear vision, people will notice, appreciate and join forces. It is important to make people realise the clear need for the work you are doing, which will help generate support. Networking skills definitely can play an integral role to seek such support in terms of acquiring team mates, traction, resources, and ultimately impact. Through networking we can also get access to the right mentors who can help us scale up our projects further.
You are the founder of “Awareness 360.” Can you tell us about your founding story and what you do at Awareness 360?
Shomy: In college I met my best friend Rijve Arefin who also is very passionate about bringing positive change to society. We both had different areas of interest, and picked up skills to do development work through our involvement with different organizations. We were having a friendly conversation at a burger joint one day, and it suddenly struck us that there must be many other youths out there who also have different causes they care about but maybe need a little guidance to take that first step of action. Our values, thoughts and purpose resonated and hence we decided to co-create Awareness 360 to provide a platform for young people to thrive and be empowered as community builders.
One of our focus areas is WASH. We raise awareness about clean water and sanitation, menstruation, sexual and reproductive health, mental health & well-being, neglected tropical diseases etc. among vulnerable and marginalized communities such as the sewerage workers, sex-workers, under-resourced school children, slum dwellers, refugees, etc. ; fostering behavioral change adopting healthy habits by helping them realize its long term impact in reducing extreme poverty. We now empower young people in 25+ 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).
Can activism sometimes get exhausting ? How do you cope with it?
Shomy: A 100% yes! The very fact that we are having to advocate for basic human rights such as access to clean water and sanitation, is exhausting. When we engage with vulnerable communities who lack access to education and awareness, especially on sensitive and tabooed topics like menstruation and reproductive health, the reluctance from the community can be very frustrating. Majority of the time our work is conceived as too insignificant, as reflected by the lack of resources. Leading a global organization with people from different cultural backgrounds, working with hard-to-reach communities, taking difficult decisions in times of crisis - can all be very draining both physically and mentally. To be honest, I am still struggling to navigate such circumstances. But generally as a coping mechanism I think it is critical to be honest with my team, show my vulnerability, seek help when needed, and take a break. I motivate myself by reminding myself of my why. Afterall, if I am not doing okay myself, it will ultimately affect my work in the long run.
You have met many inspiring people in your life. Who of all has inspired you to keep doing your amazing work and why?
Shomy: Jack Sim, the Founder of the World Toilet Organization, really inspires me, as he never hesitates to take bold steps to strengthen his advocacy. He established 19 November as the World Toilet Day bringing the world's attention to the WASH crisis. I admire his personality. Another inspiration of mine is Bill Gates. I appreciate that the Gates Foundation places a strong emphasis on sanitation. A figure like him talking about sanitation brings a lot of traction to the cause. I also must mention the young people from across the globe I have been privileged to meet and work with, whose drive and dedication to making this world a better place make me feel I am not alone in this journey and inspire me to continue my work despite all hurdles.
What is your one “mantra” of life that you always follow?
Shomy: “Find your passion in what bothers you.” - 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 and keeps us up at night. So much that we do not just rant but take action no matter how small it is.
After achieving all your well deserved success, do you find yourself to be very certain about where you see yourself in five years or do you also find it difficult to chalk out a well planned future? Is uncertainty and surprise a part of the process, and is it ok to just keep going and let life surprise you?
Shomy: I do have a certain vision along which I align my short, medium and long term goals with. My life purpose and previous experiences and life events have helped curate that vision for myself. I have a few personal and professional goals that I am working towards, such as gaining theoretical knowledge on global policy, so that in the long run I can pursue a career in the policymaking space. As a grassroots advocate for several years, I have first hand felt the power of policymakers, and hence I am preparing myself to take up such influential positions to contribute to a better world. While I do think it is strategic to have a goal to work towards, I think it is extremely important to have an adaptive mindset. Things may not always go as planned or as we momentarily would have liked, but staying calm and composed during unprecedented times to take the best possible decision is key. Resiliency is a skill that needs intention and practice. I also have a deep faith in the saying, “you are where you need to be” and every experience is a learning opportunity. Hence I would suggest having a mindmap of what is next for you but also being mentally prepared for uncertain events; it could be something tragic like a pandemic, or even something serendipitous and beautiful!
Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?
Shomy: A fun fact about me is I collect photos of toilets from different places around the world which I use for my advocacy work. I have in my collection toilets of all ranges starting from toilets which cannot even be considered as functional all the way to toilets of a royal palace!
How can people connect with you?
Shomy: If it is related to Awareness 360, I would request everyone to reach out through Awareness 360 social media as our team is always there to answer queries. If it is about connecting with me personally for any other reason, I may be contacted via my personal social media channels as well.