The final story in our three-part series that looks at where we're headed as a global society, and considers whether it's where we want to go, shares the thoughts of Trinity Resident Advisor Thenu Herath, who is also the CEO of the Oaktree Foundation.
‘I visited Sri Lanka with my family every couple of years from the time I was born, and I have this distinct memory – I must've been about six years old – where I saw another child on the streets in Sri Lanka,’ Thenu says. ‘They were homeless and this child looked like me, spoke the same language as me and probably had very similar aspirations to me. But it was so clear that we had a really different life because I was [in Sri Lanka] temporarily. I could go home and pursue a good education, but I didn't know what would happen to this child, who was very similar to me at that stage. It was from then that I had a real sense that some things in the world aren't fair.’
Thenu’s family had migrated to Australia during the Sri Lankan civil war, when her mother was awarded a scholarship to study at RMIT. For Thenu’s mother, moving to Australia was a result of hard work, but Thenu knows that, off the back of that, her own birth and upbringing in Australia was good luck. Had her mother not received a scholarship, there’s a chance she could have been that little girl homeless on the streets of Sri Lanka.
Understanding that a life of poverty or privilege can come down to a roll of the dice, from her early years Thenu became passionate about youth development, and, in January 2021, took on the role of CEO at the Oaktree Foundation, aged 23.
‘Oaktree is all about young people wanting to create a more just and sustainable world,’ she says, explaining that the organisation focuses on non-traditional education, teaching young people how to speak up, lead and advocate, rather than teaching maths and English. ‘There's no one solution to poverty or one thing that causes poverty. Climate change causes poverty, corruption causes poverty, degradation of the environment causes poverty. It's all connected, which is why we take this model approach of upskilling.’
Oaktree has been operating across Australia for 18 years and all its people – mostly volunteers – are under the age of 27, making it the largest youth-run development agency in Australia. It also works with development agencies on the ground in Cambodia and Timor-Leste, where young people make up a large portion of the population and can therefore play an important part in shaping the societies in which they live.
Thenu gives examples such as helping young people secure a seat on a council or supporting them to advocate for an increased aid budget by speaking with government ministers. Some of Oaktree’s work involves getting in a car and visiting local MPs, asking them to listen to young people in their communities and the issues that matter to them.
‘I think a lot [of change] comes from individual action, but a lot of the major issues that we face at a global level in particular need government action … And I think the risk is that, by only having a certain generation of people making decisions, the decisions will inherently focus on that generation and inherently be very short term. The value of having young people in the room is that they're always thinking about their own future because they're the ones who will be there in 50 or 60 years’ time … It can sound cliched, but young people are not just the leaders of the future, they can be the leaders of today.’
Thenu encourages people to learn about the issues currently going on in the world and to get involved in organisations like Oaktree. Volunteer opportunities and the chance to contribute to campaigns are available at Oaktree to those under 27 years. For those who are older, Thenu says the organisation relies on assistance from people who believe in what they do, whether that's through financial or mentoring support; oaktree.org
This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.