Working Towards an Inclusive and Pluralistic Myanmar

A Conversation on the Critical Need for Diverse Representation in Children’s Literature


“Soliya is at the forefront of its field – harnessing technology as a bridge across differences to connect and engage young people. It is a young success story, already increasing empathy and understanding among its participants, and helping a new generation of leaders set foot into the world with a direct personal experience of the values of pluralism, and a commitment and capacity to confront its biggest challenges.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

Soliya’s Story

At a moment in time before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, two forward-thinking founders recognized how sustained dialogue in the digital space could change the world — for good.

Soliya, a United States 501(c)3 not-for-profit headquartered in New York, was launched in 2003 by Lucas Welch and Liza Chambers as a response to the growing distrust in a post-September 11th society. Soliya pioneered a field that is now called Virtual Exchange, bringing together young people across cultures and continents in synchronous online dialogues that instill the skills to think critically, approach with curiosity and lead with empathy.

Guided today by chief executive Waidehi Gokhale, Soliya employs the Exchange Portal, a custom videoconferencing platform, through which its global team brings together over 5,000 young adults each year in small, diverse groups as part of the Connect Program. Discussing current events with trained facilitators, participants from the United States, Canada, Europe, Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia learn that people’s identities are multi-dimensional. By voicing and listening to one another’s stories, they gain greater understanding and build empathy. 

By empowering individuals with the ability to engage with and across difference, Soliya helps future change-makers have the difficult conversations necessary to break cycles of bias. Soliya’s programs are helping participants to eliminate negative notions of ‘the other’ and to thrive in a 21st century society. To date, Soliya has worked with over 220 higher education institutions and learning centers in more than 30 countries and 29 of the United States to include programs for credit as part of existing classes across numerous disciplines. That footprint continues to expand with new partnerships. Soliya’s impact has been proven through measurement and evaluation collected in association with the Saxelab Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania; Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict, University of Oxford; and University College London.

Nearly two decades after its inception, Soliya has shown itself to be more relevant than ever, as it bridges divides and builds strong, pluralistic societies. 

Research shows that a cross-cultural experience during an individual’s formative years can lead to more cooperative and compassionate relationships. However, accessibility is often an issue. Many young people around the world live in homogenous communities, and, due to socioeconomic, institutional, geographic or personal barriers, have limited opportunities to engage with different viewpoints or identities.  A meaningful cross-cultural exchange can drastically shift views of difference.


“In today’s media cycle, bad news about migration often eclipses positive stories. The SINGA community offers a much more optimistic outlook. SINGA’s programs have opened up avenues for connection and empathy and are actively challenging misinformation and xenophobia around asylum.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

SINGA’s Story

What if migration became a story about opportunity rather than crisis? What if instead of talking about “us” vs. “them,” we focused on the potential of “we”?

Consider the story of two men. Foday is an accountant from Sierra Leone. Cyril is a chartered accountant from KPMG France. The two men get to know each other. Foday makes progress in French, while Cyril discovers that he is not sitting with a refugee, but a fellow accountant, an expert in his field and, ultimately, a new friend.

Picture Donia who started a successful catering company offering cuisine from around the world made by women from immigrant backgrounds.

Learn about Simon who built co-housing project for both refugees and French people.

By connecting individuals, SINGA contributes to safer, more pluralist and creative societies where refugees and migrants, like everyone else, have a role to play. SINGA believes that every individual has the right to belong wherever he or she chooses. This requires creating spaces where people can share meaningful experiences and build lasting relationships and professional networks.

SINGA means “link” in Langala, a language spoken predominantly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To link newcomers and their host communities, SINGA and local populations launched a platform where individuals and organization can offer events and programs to help bridge differences and bring people together.

SINGA has worked with over 5,000 refugees and 20,000 locals. Thanks to incredible citizen mobilization and the involvement of organizations, the movement has spread to 19 cities in Europe, with nine other locations on the way, and runs eight incubators dedicated to migration-led innovation. Within nine months of participating in SINGA’s programs, most refugees find jobs, have sustainable housing and can communicate in French thanks to this new social network where they collaborate, create and experience life in their host countries. The benefits of these connections are far from one-sided. There is a deep sense of enrichment on both sides of the exchange because – and this is the only rule of SINGA – newcomers and locals participate TOGETHER.

These relationships are transforming the larger story of migration in Europe from one of distrust to one of friendship and a shared sense of belonging. Last but not least, SINGA’s programs are unleashing creativity and bringing new ideas, projects, associations and companies to life. 

Concerns about the mass movement of people exploded into public consciousness in 2015. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa fleeing drought, poverty and violence began to arrive on European shores. In 2018, the estimated refugee population in France was around 350,000. Xenophobia has spread throughout Europe. Newcomers are portrayed by certain media and politicians as threats or victims, endangering their host society or draining its resources. SINGA was founded to help change perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe.


“The jury was impressed by Rupantar’s creative approach of using cultural performances to address sensitive social issues. Rupantar is truly working at the grassroots – mobilizing the most vulnerable in Bangladesh, including women and youth – to help build a vibrant democracy.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

Rupantar’s Story

Dressed in colourful costumes, performers sing, dance and play instruments on an outdoor stage. “Human rights are violated time and again,” they sing, “and yet the people are not vocal.”

While entertaining, the performance is also a call to action, urging the audience to claim their rights and protect their vulnerable populations. This is a traditional form of popular folk performance called a pot song. It is also one of the many tools used by the non-profit organization Rupantar to address pressing social issues in Bangladesh.

Rupantar, which means “transformation,” has been working in Bangladesh since 1995. The organization was founded by two individuals from different religions who shared a common vision for a just society. In such a complex setting, Rupantar has adopted a truly holistic approach to encourage social change and promote pluralism. Their work covers five programmatic areas: democracy and political empowerment, peace and tolerance, disaster management and climate change adaptation, children and youth rights, and cultural dialogue through popular media and folk theatre. With a diverse staff of 525, the organization is the largest awareness and social mobilization organization in Bangladesh.

Rupantar works at the grassroots level to empower vulnerable populations to be agents for change in their communities. They are especially successful in mobilizing women and youth leaders. For example, since 1998, Rupantar has helped set up 32 government-registered women’s organizations, empowering women to run for and win seats in local elections. Rupantar has also been successful in implementing the Promoting Engagement and Actions for Countering Extremism (PEACE) initiative, which connects youth from different social groups to promote tolerance and pluralism in their communities. They have run more than 200 faith-based dialogues in which Muslim, Hindu and Christian leaders develop action plans to combat extremism.

Rupantar’s work is extensive. Sometimes it takes the form of a dialogue between religious leaders. At other times, it is a pot song on land rights or a climate change awareness campaign. In such a complex country, their approach has to be multi-faceted. What is constant is the organization’s goal of mobilizing Bangladesh’s diverse population to create lasting peace, stability and vibrant democracy.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with considerable religious and ethnic diversity. The country’s history is marked by periods of colonial rule, poverty, famine, ethnic tension, political turmoil and military coups. Bangladesh continues to experience substantial economic and social change and faces a number of challenges, including political instability, corruption and discrimination. In recent years, the country’s social unrest has been exacerbated by violent attacks from extremist groups, reports of abuse by law enforcement and a humanitarian crisis caused by the arrival of approximately 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar.

OnBoard Canada

A program of Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education

“Canada is a great example of a pluralistic country and yet, we still struggle to get it right. onBoard has helped change the way leadership looks in this country with an approach that should serve as a model to other countries struggling with representation and access to equal opportunities.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

OnBoard’s Story

Look around the table at the board members of Canada’s private and public sectors, and you will see a persistent disconnect with the make-up of the Canadian population. Canada has long been proud of its diversity, but the composition of its boards does not relay the same story.

onBoard Canada was created to address this gap between Canada’s decision-makers and its demographic reality. onBoard recognized that it was not enough to be a diverse country; Canada also needed to be actively inclusive. Without real inclusion, how could Canada’s leadership ever benefit from the country’s diversity?

To create pathways to leadership, onBoard Canada offers governance training to interested participants, and board matching to members of underrepresented communities. The organization also offers training to the not-for-profit and public sectors to help leaders recognize their own privilege and provide them with the tools to create more inclusive workplaces. As a program of Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, onBoard Canada conducts research in partnership with the Diversity Institute about the lack of diversity in Canada’s leadership.

By helping underrepresented individuals claim a seat at the decision-making table, the organization ensures more Canadians have a say in the decisions that affect them. But Canada’s underrepresented groups are not the only beneficiaries. Boards are invigorated and strengthened by a wide range of voices and perspectives.

onBoard Canada has changed the make-up of not-for-profit and public boards in the Greater Toronto Area and in several cities across the country. It has trained and matched thousands of individuals to board opportunities, with over 1,000 appointments to more than 800 not-for-profit organizations, public agencies, boards and commissions.

By bridging the diversity and inclusion gap in Canada’s leadership, onBoard is raising the standards for modern governance. In the end, all of Canada benefits.

Canada is a diverse country, and recent demographic projections suggest that ethno-cultural diversity will continue to increase. By 2031, 29-32% of the country’s population will be made up of visible minorities. Other diverse communities within Canada have also gained greater visibility and are demanding recognition and representation. Individuals from LGBTQ+ communities are feeling safer to come out publicly; youth are seeking a voice at decision-making tables; and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 94 highly publicized calls to action regarding reconciliation between indigenous peoples and Canadians. Yet leadership does not reflect this reality. In 2017, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute found that visible minorities make up 3.3% of corporate board positions, an increase of less than 1% since 2014. Although women make up 48% of the workforce, in 2017 they only held 14.5% of all Canadian board seats in companies that disclose this information.

Artemisszió Foundation

“After years of funding cuts from the government and attacks by state-controlled media, Artemisszió is one of the last remaining organizations that is explicitly promoting pluralism in Hungary. This committed team has created a network of welcoming Hungarians resisting the xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

Artemisszió’s Story

Ten European countries have built border fences and walls. Together, they measure six times the length of the Berlin wall. Hungary is currently home to one of these fortified fences. Artemisszió Foundation asks, what if instead of building fences, we built bridges? What if instead of closing our borders, we opened ourselves up to newcomers?

Since its inception in 1998, Artemisszió Foundation promotes the social inclusion of Hungary’s most disadvantaged populations, including youth from underprivileged backgrounds, Roma women, migrants and refugees.

In this context of fear and prejudice, Artemisszió Foundation offers an alternative. Relying on engaged volunteers and operating within an international network, Artemisszió offers internships, volunteer opportunities, mentorships, language training, cooperation with schools, workshops on democracy and media literacy, support for art activism and much more, all in the interest of fostering mutual understanding and tackling exclusion.

Artemisszió’s indispensable work on cultural diversity is currently at risk. The Hungarian government has severely limited the activities of non-governmental organizations, and the foundation’s support from the European Union has been blocked and some of its professional contracts cancelled. As a result, the organization had to limit the intercultural training it offered. This training was provided to health and education professionals, local authorities, law enforcement and social workers to help them understand and better serve disadvantaged communities. In response, Artemisszió has focused on strengthening its community-based programing. Their network, Mira, connects newcomers and locals through mentorship programs, language learning or social activities, such as dinner parties, movie clubs and city tours.

The fence still lines Hungary’s southern border, but there is hope when organizations like Artemisszió are using innovation and optimism to fight against everything that fence stands for. Through decades of engagement, they have built a strong and active network of organizations and individuals who stand against barriers and will continue to work tirelessly, and joyfully, for an open, tolerant society.

In response to a rise in undocumented immigration to Hungary in 2015, populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared a “crisis situation” and built a 170-kilometre-long, electrified border fence. Anti-immigrant rhetoric – propagated by a largely state-controlled media – has also increased in an effort to advance a national identity based on Christianity. Within the last year, legislation criminalizing services and support to migrants and asylum seekers was passed, making it an offense punishable by up to one-year imprisonment. In August of 2018, a 25% tax on foreign funding to any organization “supporting immigration” was introduced. The ensuing withdrawal of funding from the government and European partners has had a significant impact on these organizations.

Afghanistan National Institute of Music

“The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is sharing a critical message of reconciliation, unity and reconstruction. Its achievements demonstrate how music contributes to pluralism – promoting peaceful, inter-ethnic community building, as it encourages students from diverse backgrounds to collaborate in literal harmony.”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

Afghanistan National Institute of Music’s Story

In a sunlit courtyard, a conductor stands in front of a group of young musicians. With a wave of her baton, music bursts into the air. The song is loud and upbeat, played on a variety of traditional Afghan and western instruments by boys and girls. A group of young girls sings: “I am a girl, a tree in the sun. I stand against repression. I go forth with knowledge.” This particular concert is in celebration of International Girl Child Day, but, like every performance of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, it is also a celebration of playing music, something these children would be unlikely to have experienced a decade ago.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) is the first institute of music where Afghan children regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religion or socio-economic background are trained in a co-educational environment in traditional Afghan and Western classical music, while obtaining a high quality academic education. ANIM is particularly committed to supporting Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged youth, namely orphans and street vendors, and to empowering young girls.

Though ANIM has been celebrated internationally, its success is perhaps best measured by the effects it has had on individual lives. These stories include a street-working child who has become concertmaster of Afghanistan’s first all-female ensemble; or a child from the most remote part of Afghanistan who has become the nation’s first female conductor. On a societal level, it has become a leading institution in promoting peaceful, inter-ethnic community building, as it encourages students from diverse backgrounds to collaborate in literal harmony.

Though no longer under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is still a divided nation with many staunch enemies of music and social inclusion. Despite ongoing threats, ANIM strongly upholds values important for establishing a just and pluralistic society. As Sarmast says, “We are standing against violence and terror with our music.” Or, in the words sung by ANIM’s choir: “This bird will always sing.”

For centuries, a rich and diverse musical culture was at the heart of Afghanistan. But under the Taliban’s brutal regime in the mid-1990s, music was completely banned and educational opportunities, especially for women, were drastically reduced. When the Taliban fell, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, an Afghan musicologist who had sought asylum in Australia, returned determined to restore music to Afghan society and use its soft power to transform lives in a country torn apart by war. He established ANIM in 2010. Today, ANIM is defying cultural taboos and creating a new image of Afghanistan both nationally and abroad.

Adyan Foundation

“Adyan’s projects have successfully engaged thousands of citizens, bringing together youth, families and volunteers, to break down cultural and religious barriers and open up a conversation around shared citizenship and belonging. Despite religious tension in the region, Adyan is forging an inspiring vision for inclusive communities and spiritual solidarity across Lebanon and the Middle East”

Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada and Chair of the Global Pluralism Award Jury.

Adyan’s Story

In a short video on Taadudiya, an online platform created by the Adyan Foundation, Jihad and Rita start a music school in a rural Lebanese community and children come from near and far to attend. In another video, Sameh and Hanaa tackle religious sectarianism in Egypt by bringing Christian and Muslim children together to play soccer. In another, Salam and Zeinab overcome their religious differences and develop a deep friendship based on a shared passion for their work in radio and television.

Founded in 2006 by a group of Christians and Muslims, Adyan Foundation works in Lebanon and across the Middle East to foster cultural and religious diversity through grassroots initiatives in education, media and public policy, and intercultural and interreligious relations. Their goal is to help people develop their faith with an openness towards others and a commitment to serving the common good.

One of Adyan’s most recent initiatives, Taadudiya, or “pluralism” in Arabic, is challenging extremist narratives of hate and violence with non-biased information on religious beliefs and traditions with videos of everyday people engaged in religious inclusion in their communities. In its first year, the online platform has reached 38 million people.

Adyan operates on many levels. Their interfaith networks connect youth, families and volunteers from different social and religious backgrounds to share experiences and strengthen mutual trust and understanding. Adyan’s academic branch, the Institute of Citizenship and Diversity management, conducts training and research, facilitates conferences, and promotes education on citizenship and coexistence. In 2007, Adyan launched the Alwan Program for Education on Coexistence, which establishes social clubs in religiously diverse schools. The clubs, which build social cohesion and reduce intolerance among children, have reached over 4,158 students in 42 Lebanese schools. Building on their work in education, Adyan partnered with the Ministry of Education in Lebanon to reform curricula and reshape the way that diversity is addressed in schools.

Adyan promotes pluralism by helping divergent groups find common ground. Despite the current climate of religious tension in the region, Adyan is forging an inspiring vision for inclusive communities and spiritual solidarity across Lebanon and the Middle East.

Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. Religion is deeply intertwined with every aspect of society – from government to education. Political divisions along sectarian lines have contributed to past conflicts, including the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The recent rise of violent extremism and arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees have exacerbated tensions. In a country where religion has often divided people, Adyan Foundation’s work to break down cultural and religious barriers and promote openness towards others is crucial to building peace. Adyan has now extended its work beyond Lebanon, with recent projects building toward social cohesion and inclusive citizenship in Iraq.

The Center for Social Integrity

“This award recognizes that change can come from within, and that what started out as a small-scale local initiative, can become a strong and meaningful movement. It is a great achievement to be able to depict Rohingya people advocating for tolerance and pluralism hand-in-hand with other ethnic and religious peoples. I hope that one day, diversity in Myanmar will not only be accepted but celebrated.”

Aung Kyaw Moe, Executive Director, Center for Social Integrity

The Center’s Story

Aung Kyaw Moe dreams of a day when people across his country of Myanmar see diversity as a source of strength, rather than a source of conflict. Inequalities will be addressed and minority groups will finally be included in meaningful ways across social, economic and political spheres.

Armed with this vision, in 2016, Aung Kyaw Moe assembled a diverse team and created the Center for Social Integrity (CSI). Its aim is to develop a non-discriminatory and inclusive society in Myanmar where pluralism is valued. CSI works with youth from conflict-affected regions, giving them the skills and opportunity to build a peaceful, pluralist society.

To build a future free of conflict, CSI is cultivating a generation of young leaders with pluralistic mindsets. CSI provides youth with training on conflict sensitivity, social cohesion and peacebuilding. The only project of its kind in Myanmar, it is often the first opportunity for youth to interact with people from other religions or ethnic groups. Already, these young leaders have become powerful agents for change in their communities, resolving tensions, mediating conflict and spreading respect for diversity.

The organization was founded by Aung Kyaw Moe – a Rohingya humanitarian professional – and CSI’s staff and stakeholders all come from the same regions as its youth participants. This highly localized leadership gives CSI’s staff a deep understanding of the conflicts between different communities and access to communities that other peacebuilding organizations and international NGOs cannot reach. This enables them to work with people who might otherwise be reluctant to engage.

This unique positioning was particularly critical in 2017 when an outbreak of conflict forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee their homes in Myanmar’s North Rakhine State to seek refuge in Bangladesh. CSI was one of only a few organizations with access to the conflict-affected communities, as well as a deep understanding of the longstanding social unrest. In the past, various NGOs and UN agencies have been accused of partiality in their delivery of humanitarian aid, which exacerbated tensions in the area. CSI provided humanitarian aid in a completely impartial manner. Though it was a sensitive endeavour, the organization delivered aid to anyone who needed it, regardless of ethnicity or religion. In just three months, CSI was able to reach 80,000 people. By addressing the human need without prejudice, CSI demonstrated that its compassion does not have limits, and that its respect for human dignity transcends all divisions.

Aung Kyaw Moe understands that in order to build sustainable peace in Myanmar, there needs to be a shift in attitudes around diversity. CSI is making this possible by empowering young leaders from diverse communities to engage in dialogue and become agents of change in their communities. This new generation of pluralistic thinkers can help to build a society that is not just free from harm, but one that is vibrant and cohesive – not despite its diversity, but because of it.

With over 135 different ethnic groups, 110 languages and a wide range of religions, Myanmar is an incredibly diverse country. A British colony for more than 100 years, the nation declared independence in 1948 but was then ruled by a series of authoritarian military governments until 2011. The country’s transition to democracy has been marked by widespread social unrest as well as ethnic and religious persecution. Historic discrimination faced by minority ethnic groups has led to grievances and, ultimately, sectarian violence. The turmoil is considered to be the world’s longest ongoing civil war.

Among the persecuted groups in Myanmar are the Rohingya – a stateless Muslim minority in a heavily Buddhist country. Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya citizenship, claiming that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have been there for generations. Bangladesh also denies that they are its citizens. The Rohingya’s movements and access to employment are severely limited. They have suffered mass atrocities at the hands of the military and have been forced to flee.