What We Learned

A Look At 2017

2017 was  a learning experience for all of us at Sunayra. We came to Sri Lanka with the best of intentions and some misconceptions. We initially assumed that we had to tackle post-war trauma, and that our students would be living in a past that exists vividly in the global imagination.  

Instead, we learned that our students were looking forward. They wanted good jobs, meaningful lives, equality, and hopeful futures. It is true that their lives have been deeply affected by war and natural disaster. They have lost family, homes, ties to the past. Yet, these young people are more than just what has happened to their families and communities. They are interested in being drivers of change in their own lives. They are also apprehensive because many of them do not have a family member who has pursued higher education or has a professional job. But these students want something more. They want careers they love, strong communities, and to feel like they have a voice. 


Because of this, we decided to change our logo, website, and outlook to reflect this new, hopeful, forward-looking, way of thinking. Some of you may have noticed that our website became brighter, our pictures more optimistic, and our tagline changed from "Art. Healing" to "Moving Forward". Young people want resources, opportunities, and support to follow their dreams and we realized it was important that Sunayra's programming and outlook reflected this. We went from looking backwards to moving forward.

Once we recognized this, we were able to create an even more tailored curriculum. We addressed the issues that these students faced, many of which are the direct outcomes of war and trauma - alcoholism, depression, abandonment. Unpacking these issues allowed students to put a voice to their fears, and develop the personal and communal tools to collectively lay the foundation for a better future. 


One of our key takeaways from last year was that substance abuse is a much larger issue than we had previously anticipated. The students discussed just how much substance abuse affects their lives—from the financial aspects, to violence, leaving education, and much more. As a way to engage in this issue, the students designed a banner that outlined the many unfortunate outcomes of substance abuse. We were so proud to see them work to identify the problem and determine what they wanted to communicate, and how to go about doing that. When we finally got to present them with their banner, they were overjoyed to see their hard work displayed for the community to see. In fact, our partner, St. John's Church, asked to keep the banner in order to discuss substance abuse with the young people and adults who come to them for other classes. 


We also realized the importance of discussing mental health, exam anxiety, and how much young people need each other’s support. We expanded our group activities and discussion activities, which helped students listen to each other’s experiences and become more empathetic towards each other.

Additionally, we put more emphasis on Social Media, which is becoming the regular mode of communication between young people. While it is a great tool, it also poses a unique set of problems. We have built a Social Media and Media Literacy lesson into our 2018 curriculum in order to help young people understand the media they come across, and to act responsibly on social media.

One of the most gratifying things for us was seeing just how capable these students were - in both traditional education, but also in creative problem solving and critical thinking. During the course of the pilot year, we introduced students to art analysis, film analysis, complex social and civic issues, and Rubik's cubes. The students not only engaged with all of these activities, but genuinely blew us away with their deep insights, their ability to pick up soft skills, communicate nuanced ideas, and even solve a Rubik's cube! 


If we were to name our biggest lesson from 2017, it would be realizing that this type of creative curriculum is necessary and sought after in Sri Lanka. That is why we are putting down the foundation to scale our programming to other regions of the country over the next few years, and build Sunayra Lanka into a sustainable organization. We hope that you continue with us on this journey! 

To find out more about our amazing first year, and to read some of our success stories, check out our Annual Report HERE.

What Are We Teaching?


This piece has been inspired by articles by The Guardian’s Ben Tarnoff and The Atlantic’s Melinda D. Anderson.


Who decides which skills are necessary for the workforce? This is a question that people the world over are trying to answer. This is especially pertinent to Sri Lankan youth, as the market is shifting, new investment comes in, and global forces are stronger.  The model of education has remained fairly static since Independence, and efforts to bring in new technologies and innovative teaching practices have largely been on a very small scale. One of the bigger education interventions in Sri Lanka been computer coding, a skill that promises class and geographic mobility. But does it?

A recent article by Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian, entitled “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages,”[1] criticises the efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and policymakers to make coding a part of school curriculums, pushing it as a skill necessary for youth to find high status jobs in the ever-growing tech industry and beyond. Tarnoff argues that their advocacy is not due to the value of learning coding, but that an influx of coders will enable employers to hire cheap labor and thus pay less.  In areas like the Global South, outsourcing tech and support jobs, is the norm. Once tech support and customer service was outsourced to places like India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, the onus of education shifted to create employees for these global companies. Technical skills were taught to supply the needs of tech support, and English was taught to the level needed for customer service.

A piece by Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic[2] notes that from a computer science standpoint, coding is “insufficient” to guarantee high status jobs in the tech industry, since it must be combined with emphases on design and computational knowledge. As such, projects that support minority communities to learn how to code may not be preparing them to innovate or work at a high-level position if the curriculum is too limited.[3] Simplistic teaching of basic coding also leaves out the various other skills needed to create innovators and highly skilled employees. On a basic level, teaching students how to get a job – creating a CV, being interviewed, how to find a job that suits a person, and not just a skill set. Moreover, this practice ignores talent and passion. When these skills are sold as a fool-proof way to Silicon Valley or tech mogul-dom, it does a huge disservice to the young people who, with few to no other prospects, turn to programs and projects like simple skills courses to provide them with employable skills.

The articles by Tarnoff and Anderson provide pertinent ideas to consider when we seek to make sense of attitudes towards education, education policies, and other singular-skill programs. ‘Skills’ must not be viewed as existing in some sort of vacuum. Just look at the highly successful people doing TEDTalks, publishing management and leadership books, and discussing their personal journey to the tops of their respective fields. They may have a singular focus like Elon Musk, but that singular goal is attained through creative means that take into account many failures, pivots, and restarts. Success in any career necessitates the ability to problem solve, simultaneously observe the big picture and more minute details, and, however cliché, ‘think outside the box.’ If an understanding of design and innovation is important for careers in programming, for example, then a holistic education, which encompasses a focus on the arts and other creative components is important.

In working with young people in the Batticaloa area, Sunayra has been mindful of encouraging them to utilise what they learn from our various sessions, from drawing, to creative writing, to acting, in order to expand their understandings of their own aspirations and potential. Our fundamental belief is that kids must be exposed to a variety of different subjects, ideas, challenges, and opportunities, not simply because this is inherently valuable for them but also because it sets them up for more success in the future.


[1] Tarnoff, B. (2016). “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages.”  https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/21/coding-education-teaching-silicon-valley-wages

[2] Anderson, M.D. (2016). “Will the Push for Coding Lead to Technical Ghettos?” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/will-the-push-for-coding-lead-to-technical-ghettos/471300/

[3] Anderson 2016

Further Reading

1. Mann, G. (2008) ‘The social production of skill’, in R. Fletcher Beyond resistance: The future of freedom. New York: Nova Science Publishers; Steinberg, R. (1990). “Social Construction of Skill: Gender, Power and Comparable Worth,” Work and Occupations, 17(4): 449-482.

2. Steinberg, R. (1990). “Social Construction of Skill: Gender, Power and Comparable Worth,” Work and Occupations, 17(4): 449-482.

3. Gunasekara, V, Philips, M, Nagaraj, V. (2016). “Hospitality and Exclusion: A study about post-war tourism in Passikudah.” Secure Livelihood Research Consortium.