During Abhayjeet Singh Sachal’s journey through the Canadian Artic in summer 2016, a light bulb went off in his head. It didn’t take long for the 14-year-old, nascent environmentalist from Surrey, B.C. to figure out what he would do about it.
On the Students on Ice expedition, Abhay’s shipmates from Canada’s far north talked about the impact climate change had already had on their communities, and how they’ve adapted. They told of economic struggles and their experience with suicides, and explained how those issues were interconnected.
Their stories awakened the activist in Abhay, while the sound of an iceberg melting in Greenland helped define the direction his activism would take. Abhay recognized how powerful personal connections could be in motivating young people to lead change on issues like climate change and mental health. Fostering empathy, he reasoned, could break the divide.
Back home in B.C., Abhay shared his epiphany with older brother Sukhmeet and, together, they formulated a plan to link students from culturally and geographically diverse schools to learn first-hand about the pressing social and environmental issues in their respective communities. The concept for Break The Divide (BTD) was born.
That fall, Abhay sought advice about the logistics involved in establishing BTD as a school club from his teacher Michael Iachetta, sponsor of the environment club at Seaquam Secondary in Delta. Break The Divide became reality in November 2016 with its first two chapters – one at Seaquam and another at East Three Secondary in Inuvik, NWT where Sukhmeet had taught school over the summer.
“In the simplest terms, Break The Divide creates electronic pen-pals,” Abhay offers. He emphasizes the network’s role in breaking down racial, geographic and socio-economic barriers through personal connections. “We’re always looking for people from different backgrounds, different places to get these conversations going because it’s sometimes difficult now in our world to have these conversations,” says Abhay, who immigrated to Canada from India with his family when just a baby. “Students’ passions are often complicated so opportunities to explore different things are important. If they’re interested in art, and also in social work and service, Break The Divide can help them put those passions together.”
Today, about 300 students are active in BTD with eight chapters up and running – five in Canada and others in South Africa, India and China. About five more are in development, including in Bolivia and Russia. Educators can use BTD to connect their students with other students in Canada and beyond using existing online communication such as Skype.
Now 18 and a student at the University of Toronto, Abhay envisions a BTD portal or app that will enable students to connect faster and more efficiently with others anywhere in the world.
According to Iachetta, Abhay’s leadership and motivational skills were evident in grade eight when he helped orchestrate a successful regional environment symposium. That spawned invitations for him to do environment-related presentations and workshops in schools throughout B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
As BTD expanded to other schools in Canada and internationally, the engaging teenager was invited to share his passion for the environment and leading change as a guest speaker at conferences throughout North America. “There’s something about Abhay that wherever he goes, he just connects with other students at such a deep personal level about change, and what they can do together. He’ll walk into an elementary school or a conference for a speech, and everybody’s jaw is dropping. They’re inspired to get involved,” says Iachetta, who describes Abhay as a gifted student with a charismatic personality.
In Grades 11 and 12, Abhay traveled to an environmental educators’ conference in Florida, another in Spokane, Wash., where delegates from 50 countries had gathered, and to Washington, D.C. as a featured speaker at the Eco-Sikh Gala. “My teachers were definitely supportive through the process. Although I was missing a lot of school, I made sure to communicate with my teachers in advance of my departures. I was able to get ahead of the work and catch up when I got back,” Abhay recalls.
Abhay’s latest turn in the spotlight came this past November in Toronto when he was honoured with a Community Hero award from Canada’s Walk of Fame. Last year, he also received Canada’s Excellence in Environmental Education and Communication award for outstanding youth action leader. “My dad and my mom have always instilled in me this idea of selfless service and Sikhism. It’s called seva and it’s the central tenet of the faith. I’ve always seen my parents not only talk about it, but also practise it. My dad is involved in a lot of charity work, as well. My parents are very happy with where my brother and I are, and very excited to see where we go,” says Abhay, who includes rural or international medicine, politics and entrepreneurship among his potential careers. (Brother Sukhmeet is now in medical school at UBC.)
Although they had originally envisioned 100 BTD chapters being formed, Abhay now realizes that would be difficult to establish and coordinate without significant financial and human resources. So, with help from friend Arry Pandher in B.C., work is underway to develop materials that teachers and students can use independently to connect with people in other parts of Canada or around the world.
Abhay expects those pieces to be in place this year and to ramp up their event programming thanks to $5,000 grants from both Shaw and the Canadian government, and another $10,000 that accompanied his Walk of Fame honour. Asked if there was any particular activist who had inspired him, Abhay names his brother. He admires how Sukhmeet, who came to Canada as a seven-year-old, navigated the challenges of adapting to a new culture. “He was bullied because of his accent and the way he dressed, as were Indigenous students in the school,” Abhay recalls. “They became allies and, in grade seven, Sukhmeet organized a powwow that brought the entire school together. It proved to be a turning point for Sukhmeet when he realized that bringing people together — despite their differences — can be truly powerful.”
By Laurie Nealin
Visit Break The Divide’s website http://breakthedivide.net/
Contact Abhay about BTD programs at firstname.lastname@example.org
Experience Abhay’s transformative Arctic expedition https://studentsonice.com/expedition/arctic-expedition-2016/