By Sophie Coupal
Warning: after a discussion with Nisha Toomey (M.Ed. 2011), you may want to change the world. But more importantly, you’ll come away with the idea that change is possible, despite the horror stories the media bombards us with every day.
This young woman in her early thirties has an impressive list of accomplishments, including winning the LLRC Master’s Thesis Award in 2013 along with a dozen years’ experience as a teacher, project officer and activist with organizations such as EspaceJeunesse and SOPAR. She even worked for five years in a refugee camp located on the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Her activist-inspired experiences have shaped Nisha’s perspective on the world, and drive her to emphasize the positive in life.
“We hear about all these horrible things that are happening: civil wars breaking out and no end to the environmental troubles and so on,” she said. “But through all my experiences, I was exposed to many change-makers, people who are working at the ground level to make life better for others in very constructive and concrete ways. But their stories just don’t get told enough.”
And so she has decided to change that. With her partner, Barnabe Geis, she is working on a unique project to broadcast good news stories and inspire others to be a force for positive change: Uplift is a new kind of adventure-travel program that talks about people affected by social or environmental challenges, but also about those who are working to find local solutions to these challenges.
After hosting a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed all expectations by raising $30,000 (the initial target was $12,000), Nisha and Barnabe were able to fund the filming of a pilot episode in Myanmar. For Nisha, the project was a great way to capitalize on everything she has learned and experienced over the years, including her time at the University of Ottawa.
Even while she was studying for her master’s degree, she had noticed that many of her professors, including Awad Ibrahim and Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, were working locally, specifically with at-risk youth or in Aboriginal communities. “It was really inspiring for me,” she said.
Then, in 2011, she was awarded a one-year PFF Community Leadership scholarship (now called OceanPath) to return to the border between Thailand and Myanmar, where she had taught following her undergraduate studies, to help build a training and employment centre for young migrants.
“It’s all connected, for sure. Opening the world for people is kind of a driving force for me,” she said, as she considers pursuing a doctorate in social justice education and perhaps one day teaching at university, where she could continue to apply her transformative ideas.
“Right now, probably more than ever, we have these opportunities to change things for the better. As teachers, we should have our students find creative solutions to problems, and we should be talking about that, educating about real problem-solving. I do think that young people can and should be given the responsibility for that.”
For Nisha, the revolution will be televised, with TV being used to build empathy, inspire action and spark positive change.
According to their latest Facebook post, Nisha and Barnabe recently visited Salween River valley farmers to learn more about how they would be affected by the planned Hatgyi hydroelectric dam, which is being opposed by civil rights groups.
Filming in Myanmar continued last month, with the pilot episode expected to be completed by May. Stay tuned.
Nisha enjoys a serene moment aboard a boat in Myanmar. Photo: Greg Francis