Remembering Mohammad Asadi Lari: 2017 Interview. Honouring his passion for youth and STEM Fellowship

It is with great sadness that we share the news that our friend Mohammad Asadi Lari passed away along with his sister, Zeynab onboard Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 in Tehran. Mohammad was an outstanding human being on so many levels – kind, intelligent, a community giver – his passing is a great loss to the many lives and communities he impacted. 

He inspired many youth to pursue STEM, to make it fun, engaging, and it’s one of the reasons why we at IdeasXChange featured his work back in 2017 as an Campus Innovator – because aside from his passion to make a difference, he was just a good human being in so many ways. Our deepest condolences are with Mohammad’s family, the many whose lives he touched and all those who tragically lost their lives onboard this flight.

Many of us knew Mohammad and in his honour, below you will find the original piece featuring his interview with us in 2017. These are his words. You can hear his unequivocal passion for change making as he shares his achievements and dreams. Let us remember him and honour his commitment to make this a better world.

– Miguel A. Rozo, Steven Zhang and Priscilla Ng


Priscilla Ng, the Editor-in-Chief of IdeasXChange had the opportunity to talk to Mohammad Asadi Lari, a third-year Honours Physiology student who is involved primarily in research and youth engagement. His passion in facilitating an innovative, sustainable, and paradigm-shifting discussion in STEM research and data education prompted him to be involved in various organizations in research and scholarly publishing that are well-known within Canada and beyond.

Please describe yourself and your passion in 3 words:
Two of these words can actually be integrated into one word – ‘social’ and ‘innovation’. I like the social aspect and the innovation aspect of the fields that I am engaged in. I first learned about this term at the National Youth Leadership and Innovation Summit in Toronto. Before that, I was never engaged with people who were involved in start-ups, but this was a buzzword that kept coming up during the conference. I would also want to choose the word ‘compassion’ too, because I care about the people who I work with. Compassion is required in social innovation and the work that I do in that area. I think that my own growth is intertwined with the growth of my peers – they grow, I grow, and I hope that when I grow, I am able to share it with others, so that they also grow as individuals. That’s actually why I think ‘compassion’ is the most important word out of the three.

You had mentioned your interest in educational innovation and working with UBC students to cultivate young leaders. What inspired you to be a part of STEM Fellowship, and what would you like UBC students to be able to take away from getting involved with the organization?
STEM Fellowship started when Dr. Sacha Noukhovich, a highly seasoned teacher from Toronto, invited me to work with two students currently at UCalgary and UofT on a new organization. It kick-started in April 2015, and from that point onwards, it became my most important involvement! My immediate social circle was in UBC, so we had recruited a lot of people here initially, which was followed by establishing our first club here in March 2016, and expanding our presence into a total of twelve campuses (and counting!). Our primary focus is on data science and scholarly communication, but we want students to see these as tools where they could both get engaged with STEM leadership, innovation and research, as well as getting to share their work. There is a lot of good work out there by students, but they are unaware of how they can share them, and this is not just limited to writing. We are also working closely with a company called Digital Science, probably one of the largest innovation companies in the scholarly publishing field, and they push for a number of tools used for analyzing research around the world. In doing this, we are also aiming to connect major non-profit organizations and companies in the scholarly publishing field to campuses all across Canada, and this is where our scholarly communication, ‘Editing 101’ and peer review workshops come in. We hope to create an international network, that is brought together by the collective action of local clusters of STEM Fellows, and given the strong presence we have in UBC, we hope to see this campus as a leading element of the broader project!

The Big Data Challenge and the STEM Fellowship Journal seem to be two of the major projects at work by the organization (along with many others). Please tell us more about what lies behind this year’s theme, ‘Using impact data to understand and predict the future directions of science’, why Data Science is important, and some of the challenges faced in pushing for this initiative. The Big Data Challenge in Toronto is an initiative where we provide data sets to students, and they will use a total of 3 months using the tools and options to analyze data in order to come up with their own projects. Eight projects will be selected to enter the finale in Toronto, and our ultimate goal is to make this initiative nation-wide. We are also, of course, looking to bring this into UBC. Our Big Data events are currently sponsored by IBM-Big Data University, Microsoft, SAS and SciNet (Canada’s largest super computer centre). What was interesting about this year is that our students were working on open-access data and the data from the city of Toronto last year, and this year, students are working with Alternative Metrics (AltMetrics). They ended up becoming our sponsors for the Big Data Challenge, and the source of research data that our students to work with. A lot of very interesting projects emerged from this collaboration which were extremely impressive for high school students, and we will be publishing three of them in our next issue. Over the past year, I also had the opportunity to talk to a number of indigenous student leaders, and they were interested in the idea of the Big Data Challenge because they saw potential in working with data that were relevant to their respective communities, especially the environmental issues regarding the construction of the pipeline. I think STEM is very empowering; giving students the tools they need to solidify their projects, as well as mentorship with data and coming up with trends, and finding things that they would be able to share. Our ultimate goal is to be a platform that would give students tools to do things themselves, which is why we want to bring data education online. This will also become an important component of our STEMpowerment initiative.

As the Managing Director at the STEM Fellowship and the co-director of the STEM Fellowship Journal Editorial Board, what is your definition of a successful research project, and what are some of your tips for students who are interested in research and learning more about getting their work published?
The STEM Fellowship Journal is actually the only Canadian science publishing journal that is dedicated only to publishing high school and undergraduate work. The idea is that we want to be a national platform journal to show student research, and promote interdisciplinary research. We are arranging the publication of research with institutions across Canada, such as the undergraduate engineering research in the University of Toronto, inter-disciplinary research from McGill University, the top project from the Science One program at UBC, and the Sanofi Biogenius Challenge. These institutions work with students and research fairs, and are able to produce high-quality student research from a mix of different fields, disciplines, and year groups. Recently, we have also been able to secure with two major granting agencies, NSERC and CIHR, to promote SFJ and allow for a select number of publications coming from publicly funded research by undergraduate students.  We also published works from our High School Scholarly Writing challenge, where students had submitted their IB extended essays, for example, and had gotten feedback on it. Four of them were chosen and could publish their work in the journal. We are also getting in touch with the Harvard Undergraduate Research Society, and the Stanford Undergraduate Research Society, to publish their research work and expand the network as well – it’s a win-win situation. The journal is our flagship scholarly aspect, but what I see happening in the long-term are the workshops, so students can have access to tools to write, to share, and to see themselves as capable to be writing more. The tools are not limited to STEM, as they are as applicable to humanity as they are to science, so we would want to get the interdisciplinary feature as solid as possible.

We are interested in knowing more about your involvement in the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO)! What are some of the action plans in progress for bringing a more sustainable and internationally connected future for the Canadian and global youth? What are some of the way in which the youth can become more engaged? UNESCO’s Education Week had focused on education for sustainable development, and global citizenship education. My involvement in the CCUNESCO Youth Advisory Group (YAG) stems from my will to promote more novel educational philosophies, to change paradigms in education, and make them wider so students can avoid perceiving the world in a narrow way. A big part of what we are aiming to do is to connect students from different countries, and because of my personal connections, we did publish some works by students from Iran. These students from Central Iran were working on projects that were quite basic, but they were incredibly impressive for those students, as they were in grade nine and I had doubted that they had written the work themselves! But after talking to them, I was convinced that it was their work indeed. A lot of these initiatives are catered towards North America and Western Europe, but the world is so much bigger, and I see a lot of arrogance sometimes that a shifting in education paradigms can help us break. We are currently seeing interest from university students from outside North America, including Iran, Russia and South Africa!

What are some of the biggest challenges and setbacks in establishing Gene Researching for A Week, and how did you go about tackling it? Were your larger visions in starting this initiative carried through to your current endeavours in STEM Fellowship? The Gene Researching for A Week was established twelve years ago, and it helped me a lot with the initiatives and project that I am working on in STEM Fellowship today. The reason that this project has been so successful is because we have been getting applications from throughout Canada. 40-50 high school students are paired up with a supervisor during the spring break, and these students get to shadow their supervisors in their labs for a week, full time, to observe and also to get involved one way or another. Even though the organization that was originally running the Gene Research for A Week project was dissolved, the project still carried on under CIHR’s leadership because it was so effective and executed in high-quality. For me, I would love to see STEM Fellowship’s STEMpowerment program getting the amount of recognition that Gene Research for A Week did, gaining that representation and being able to garner people’s interest from all over Canada, so we can further this paradigm and be a part in changing people’s lives.

Tell us about an inspiring figure who you have always looked up to. How and why did they inspire you? It’s cliché – but my mom! I have to persist on naming her, and actually also my grandmothers, because they have incredible impact on my life. They have inspired me in different ways, by being resilient and patient, while strengthening my resolve to try harder and harder. I share with my grandmothers the details of the work that I am involved in, and they give me advice…the whole compassion aspect has its roots in these discussions, and from listening to my elders.

Lastly, are there any major plans for 2017 and beyond that you’d like us to look out for? For STEM Fellowship, there are a lot of things that we would like to see happen. Our biggest strive at the moment is to establish a strong membership base, and actually have STEM fellows. We do not have a membership program as of now, so that is something for us to look into, and it would be geared both to high school students and university students on different aspects. Our ongoing goal is centered on expansion, but aside from this, I am exploring the global health ecosystem in the hope of starting a health startup with one of my close friends from the physiology program, Geoffrey Ching. We are at a very baseline phase, but the process is very exciting!

Campus Innovator The IdeasXChange Campus Innovator is a forward-thinking, proactive individual who has kickstarted their own sustainable initiative on the UBC Vancouver campus. Their involvement surrounds the core values of a sustainable, innovative and interdisciplinary mindset, which they are eager to share with the rest of the UBC student body. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else to be featured as a Campus Innovator, please send your pitch to:

Learn more about STEM Fellowship at:

Women’s Empowerment and Food Security in Rural South Africa: A Virtual Sit-Down with Dr. Elizabeth Vibert


Recently, IdeasXchange published an editorial about food security that broke down the concept of food security and made linkages not only between agriculture and climate change, but also between developing countries and wealthy countries like Canada.

Today, I virtually sat down with Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s History Department with whom I had the great honour of traveling to South Africa in 2014 as part of UVic’s Colonial Legacies Field School in South Africa. The field school, a senior undergraduate course open to all students who wish to apply, focused on the legacies of colonialism and apartheid on South African development in urban and rural settings.

Elizabeth’s most recent research focuses on food security, household microeconomies, and alternative economies in rural South Africa. She is collecting women’s life histories in rural Limpopo Province, examining gender and inter-generational politics and relations to the state among smallholder farmers. Dr. Vibert recently published an article in The Journal of Contemporary African Studies about a women’s community food sovereignty project in Limpopo, and this year (2017) she released a documentary film about this farm, The Thinking Garden. Dr. Vibert co-wrote and produced the film with director Christine Welsh, editor/cinematographer Mo Simpson, and assistant director Basani Ngobeni. The film won a Matrix Award at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival in March and is currently touring festivals and screenings in Canada and South Africa, including a stop in Vancouver at the Vancouver South African Film Festival on April 2 – details on tickets and showtime at the end of this interview!

(Interview by Tori Wong)

TW: Allow me to virtually greet you and tell you how happy I am to finally be interviewing you, despite the approximately 4,400 kilometers between us right now!

I’ve already explained a little bit about your background and your current research, but can you elaborate a little more on your current project? When did you start this work? How did you decide to focus on South Africa and, more specifically, rural Limpopo?

EV: It’s lovely to ‘see’ you again, Tori. I’m a social historian of the regions that were formerly the British empire. I was trained in my doctorate at Oxford by Southern African specialists – particularly Terence Ranger, a social historian of Zimbabwe. I was hired at UVic as a Canadian historian, although I made clear that I’m really a colonial historian. Over the years I’ve always taught courses that included Southern African content and questions, but it was only in 2012 that I was able to focus my research attention there again.

I met the women whose food sovereignty project captured my imagination while I was volunteering at another vegetable farm in rural Limpopo Province. I found the women’s project really inspiring – not least the fact that this group of older women farmers, for twenty years, had been feeding their community and their households from their collaborative vegetable farm. The farm aims to be self-sustaining through vegetable sales, but the women have a strong social justice ethic: they donate vegetables to people on treatment for HIV, to people hosting funerals, to other people in need.  Community support, including supporting one another as farmers and as women, is their first priority, not commercial profit.

TW: Your work zeroes in on food security, politics, and gender dimensions. Have there been any surprising discoveries over the course of your research or any relationships between themes/concepts that aren’t very obvious on the surface?

EV: When I started doing oral history research with the women I was thinking of the life stories of the individual farmers, and I was thinking of the farm as an economic enterprise. It took me a while to recognize that the women don’t narrate individual life histories in the way we might expect: they don’t narrate the life of the autonomous Western liberal subject. They tell their stories as women in kin and community networks, in customary communities, and as heads or members of households.  Xilo xinwe is a xiTsonga phrase that comes up often in their depiction of their farm. It means ‘being one thing,’ a little like the phrase Ubuntu. It means people become people in relation to other people – by working together, cooperating, finding common ground. That’s very much the story of the women’s farm.

TW: Tell me a little bit about the women whose stories you are collecting (How many are there that work on the farm, what stands out about them?).

EV: There are currently seventeen women actively working at the farm, although there are twenty-seven women who are formal members. Some of those are now too old and unwell to work, while some of the younger women have gone off to wage labour. The women aren’t paid wages for their work at the farm, but they’re well aware of the value of payment in vegetables a couple of times a week. The women are ‘older’ – many of them are pensioners whose pensions are key to the support of multi-generational families in a region where unemployment rates are astronomically high, and even the employed are very often precariously employed.

TW: This past year you traveled back to Limpopo with a small production team to capture a snippet of the lives of the women on the farm. How did this idea come about?

EV: We went to the farm in May 2015 to make a film about the story of this inspiring women’s farm. I was keen to capture on film both the uplifting story of the farm, and the way this farm has been afflicted by many of the challenges of small-scale farmers across the Global South. Among these challenges are mechanization of large-scale agriculture throwing people out of rural work; cheap (and mostly unhealthy) food washing into the local shops from Western agribusiness companies, at prices local farmers can’t compete with; lack of accessible government support for small-scale and community farms; and the sharpening demands of climate change – more frequent droughts, hotter winters, more intense pest pressures, more extreme weather events like floods and heatwaves.

The idea to make a film about the women’s farm came from the women themselves. They can’t read the academic journal articles I write (nor would they want to!), so from the start they were asking ‘aren’t you going to make a film about us?’ At first my collaborator, Basani Ngobeni, and I laughed at this idea. I’m not a filmmaker. But they asked the question each time we came to do research. In 2014 the idea took hold in my mind, and I approached Metis Canadian filmmaker Christine Welsh to see if the story would interest her. She makes wonderful films about, as she puts it, ‘ordinary women doing extraordinary things.’ To my delight, Christine was very taken with the story and jumped at the chance to direct the film.

TW: How do you envision the film’s impact on Canadians and South Africans alike?

EV: I hope the film informs people about the central role of small-scale, community-based, sustainable food production in community wellbeing. The tagline at the end of our film is ‘Local farmers build healthy communities.’ We mean all local farmers who are farming food sustainably, around the world. That’s the big message. More specifically, the film conveys the message that small-scale farmers in the Global South are doing amazing things – making healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food available to their communities; creating local opportunities – despite really daunting challenges. These small farmers, many of whom are women who get much less material support than male farmers, deserve government support; they deserve ngo support; they deserve our support. They’re farming in ways that respect the land, water, and atmosphere. What can we do? Buy food produced locally and sustainably as much as you can. With respect to the Global South, lobby your MP to support small-scale farmers as a key element of the agendas to support women and families and to turn the tide on climate change. Support organizations that explicitly support women and small-scale farmers.

To see the film for yourself…

“The Thinking Garden” is currently making its way through festival circuits and screening events across Canada and South Africa. Book your calendars to attend the Vancouver South African Film Festival, taking place at SFU Woodward’s from March 31st to April 2nd. The Thinking Garden will be showing on April 2nd, followed by a Q&A session with Basani Ngobeni and Elizabeth Vibert.

Urban Mining in Japan: Recycled Cell Phones Used To Make Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals

Tokyo 2020 on Sustainability

As Japan passes the halfway mark of their 7 years of preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, they are beginning to move from planning to execution. The Olympic Agenda 2020, a “strategic roadmap” intended to be a guide for the future Olympic games, was agreed upon by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014, and has a particular focus on environmental and social sustainability. In accordance, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has included a similar focus on sustainability in their plans.

Of the many suggestions included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Plan Version 1, one of the most notable is the concept of creating “greener medals” through urban mining and recycling. As the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to the winning athletes are some of the most essential symbols of the Olympic games, it contributes to a powerful message of prioritizing sustainability. Typically, host countries obtain the necessary precious metals by petitioning mining corporations to donate, but Japan has instead decided to make their medals out of entirely recycled elements salvaged from small consumer electronics.

Japan has few natural resources, but they make up for that lack in sheer quantity of e-waste. However, it is only useful if it can be collected and extracted. In recent years, Japan has taken it upon themselves to develop a national system for e-waste recycling, and it is this process that the Olympics committee plans to utilize.

What is Urban Mining?

Urban mining is the process of recovering plastics, glass, and precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper from discarded electronic devices and recycling them. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing categories of waste in the world as we continue to move into a digital age.

The method by which minerals are extracted from small e-waste products is still being developed, as new research provides insight into the best practices for low-cost and low-impact extraction. Most of the valuable material is found in the printed circuit board (PCB), and studies such as Design of a Proper Recycling Process for Small-sized E-waste have suggested that separating the PCB from other parts of these devices improves the quality of e-waste recycling by allowing more accurate machine pulverization and sorting.

Japan has few natural resources, but consumer electronics are ubiquitous, so urban mining provides both economic and environmental benefits. The material contained inside small consumer electronics in Japan, particularly mobile phones which tend to have the highest concentration of valuable metals, accounts for 16% of the gold and 22% of the silver reserves worldwide – that’s higher than any other nation, including countries using conventional methods of mining.

Despite the obvious benefits of urban mining, there have been stumbling blocks in the process of introducing the concept to the public. The Environment Ministry attempted to implement a system whereby municipalities were encouraged to collect 1kg from every person, but most fell far short. While there are already two laws in Japan which detail the proper methods for disposing of e-waste – the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources (LPUR) and the Law for the Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances (LRHA) – neither adequately addresses the issue of small-sized electronics. Due to the lack of clear legislation and policy regarding how to dispose of these types of products, many consumers simply include them with their regular garbage, resulting in a large quantity of mobile phones and other electronic devices being incinerated or dumped in landfills. In both cases, valuable materials are wasted, and in the later stages, toxins can often seep into the soil and water supply.

While the JOC thinks that Japan’s urban mine produces enough recycled material to use in making the medals (Japan recovered far more through urban mining in 2014 than was used to make all of the medals for the London 2012 Olympics), they ambitiously plan to collect 40kg gold, 4.920kg silver, and 2,944kg bronze for the approximately 5000 metals needed, which is significantly more than the amount of both silver and bronze than was recovered in 2014. Typically, Olympic gold and silver medals are both about 92% silver, while bronze medals are a combination of bronze, copper, and tin.

One stumbling block that the JOC has run into with their plan is that the metals salvaged from existing e-waste recycling programs are typically immediately fed back into the system and used to make new products, so there is not much surplus remaining for making Olympic medals. Silver, which is most in demand material for this project, has the least availability through existing recycling programs. It is with the intention of solving this problem that the JOC began a massive nationwide campaign on February 1st, 2017, encouraging citizens to donate their outdated and obsolete electronic devices specifically for use in making sustainable medals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games.


Chung, Sung-Woo, and Rie Murakami-Suzuki. “A comparative study of e-waste recycling systems in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from the EPR perspective: implications for developing countries.” Promoting 3Rs in Developing Countries: Lessons from the Japanese Experience. Michikazu Kojima Ed., Chiba, Japan (2008). 03 Mar. 2017. Halada, Kohmei, Kiyoshi Ijima, Masanori Shimada, and Nozomu Katagiri. “A Possibility of Urban Mining in Japan.” Journal of the Japan Institute of Metals and Materials 73.3 (2009): 151-60. J-Stage. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “What Are Olympic Medals Made Of? The 2016 Medals Are Eco-Friendly.” Education. N.p., 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. Shiratori, T., Nakamura, T. “Concept of “Artificial Deposit” 2 — Transition of the metal potential of spent electric and electronic appliances.”, Journal of MMIJ, Vol.4, No.5 (2007): 171-78. 03 Mar. 2017. “Tokyo 2020 engages all of Japan in medal initiative.” International Olympic Committee. N.p., 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. “Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Plan Version 1.” The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Tokyo 2020. N.p., 30 Jan. 2017. PDF. 26 Feb. 2017. “Tokyo Olympic medals to be made from e-waste.” Nikkei Asian Review. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. Torihara, Kenta, Tomoaki Kitajima, Nozomu Mishima. “Design of a Proper Recycling Process for Small-sized E-waste.” Procedia CIRP, Vol. 26, (2015): 746-751. 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Above Photo: View of Tokyo from Shibakoen. (Louie Martinez, Unsplash)

Campus Innovator: Zamina Mithani on IC-Kindness and Social Sustainability

Campus Innovator The IdeasXChange Campus Innovator is a forward-thinking, proactive individual who has kickstarted their own sustainable initiative on the UBC Vancouver campus. Their involvement surrounds the core values of a sustainable, innovative and interdisciplinary mindset, which they are eager to share with the rest of the UBC student body.

If you would like to nominate yourself as a Campus Innovator, or would like to interview another Campus Innovator you know, please send your pitch to:

(Interview by Phebe Ferrer)

On Friday, February 17, I sat down with Zamina Mithani, President of the IC-Kindness Foundation, to talk about her work on social sustainability. IC-Kindness has recently been involved in the SLC as well as the UBC Sustainability Fair, where its social approach to sustainability was highlighted by the fair’s organizers. It has also done projects towards helping Syrian refugees and residents in the DTES.

Zamina and I talk about these and more in the interview below.


P: So to start off, tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do, what you’re passionate about…

Z: My name is Zamina Mithani, and I’m the President of the IC-Kindness Foundation – the Interfaith Collaboration for Kindness Foundation. I’m also the President of the Thaqalayn Muslim Association. Both of those things really embody two values which are important to me, and that’s identity and diversity. So identity – being authentic to yourself, understanding what your values are, and then leading from that.

My background is in Science and Master of Management, so I really enjoy business, but I also enjoy business with a purpose, and business with social responsibility attached to it, which I think is where sustainability fits in really nicely, and where the themes of the main two clubs I’m working with right now fit in, in terms of diversity. Embracing different ways of thinking, embracing the whole idea of social sustainability and empowering communities, but also embracing the idea that it comes from within, and it comes from having a good sense of who you are, your values and what’s important to you, and then building from that.

So those are the two main things that I’m doing on campus!

P: Sounds great! So focusing on IC-Kindness, tell me a bit more about it. What does the name mean, why did you set it up, what work does the organization do, and what do you hope it will accomplish.

Z: Sure! So the IC-Kindness Foundation is kind of a punny name. It stands for “I see kindness,” but also Interfaith Collaboration for Kindness, and that’s exactly what our mandate is. It’s to bring together and unite youth of different backgrounds, different races, religions and cultures towards a common goal of social responsibility and doing good.

We really have a triangle approach to how we try and do things in the organization. It starts off with being kind to yourself, and so that includes mental health, random acts of kindness, embracing that within yourself, then being kind to others, obviously again, through having wonderful conversations, doing events like how we did for the Syrian refugees. We had a big fundraiser for them and we actually volunteered with an organization that helped give out food to those families. We have done work with the DTES in the past as well. And then the environment – the Earth and being kind to the Earth, but the environment can also mean society, and raising awareness about global issues and how we can be kinder.

P: Cool! You also mentioned before to me in another conversation that part of your passions and the organization’s mandate is towards social sustainability, and I was wondering what work IC-Kindness is doing towards that, or what maybe you personally are doing towards that?

Z: Yeah! So IC-Kindness is still pretty new, so it’s an area we’re still exploring, and it’s still something we’re working towards. We did have a booth at the UBC Sustainability Fair this year which was really awesome. We really got to talk about the whole idea that sustainability and the culture of sustainability. Often we just link it to the environment – recycling, being clean and being green – and those are all very important and absolutely necessary for our efforts to lobby governments and mitigate climate change, as well as work towards adaptation, mitigation, and public awareness. But in that whole idea of sustainability also comes people’s attitudes towards it and towards their environment, not just being something that they can take for granted, which is sometimes what we do here, but part in parcel of how you live your life, and you live your life with kindness and respect of the Earth around you.

I think different cultures, and also in terms of IC-Kindness and the spirit of the organization being interfaith and intercultural; different cultures have beautiful variations of how they are sustainable. You look at India, you look at China, you look at the Philippines, you look everywhere – you see different ideas of what the Earth means to different people. It’s about embracing that and allowing that to guide how people form and engage their communities, in acts that protect our environment with the spirit that you’re also doing it for each other. I think that’s so important, because we need strong communities who are respectful and kind, and have that sense of empathy and aren’t divisive. Division is contrary to the goals of sustainability, if we want to be united in our effort towards global change, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability.

Social sustainability is really connected to environmental sustainability, but it can also exist by itself, because I feel like it’s about having sustainable communities. I think that social sustainability is such a cool term, it’s like adopting this mindset where whatever you do comes back from a set of values, and our societies are governed always by values. Social sustainability is then having those values be enduring, having those values be a driving force for continual progression for a community. Take UBC as a small example, with our values of being together when horrible things happen, like what happened in Quebec, and then coming together and doing protest and other activities – that all comes from a sense of value, and that value contributes to the drive of social sustainability, and how as people we’re ultimately affected by everything, be it to other people, ourselves, or be it to the environment.

It’s a pretty broad concept and I think IC-Kindness is a very small, small part in that whole movement, but what I hope to do is just empower people to embrace whatever they feel they can impact and whatever their passions are in that sort of web in how we can make sustainable communities. This would be different for different people, but I think that’s what makes it such a cool concept.

At an IC-Kindness event, Feb 17 2017. Image courtesy of Phebe Ferrer.

P: I was going to ask you how you would define social sustainability, and you kind of allude to the fact that it’s a very broad concept, though not in a bad sort of way.

Z: I think that it’s something that’s still very new, and I’m still learning about how different people define it too, but it’s generally part of a whole idea that protecting our world is a systemic thing. You can’t just look at one aspect of sustainability and say like, c’est la vie and that’s it and call it a year, but it’s a movement of people getting together, the environment and different factors. It’s a whole systemic approach to knowing that everything is a system – something you do affects somebody else.

P: So IC-Kindness is focused on the value of kindness – what role do you think kindness plays towards social sustainability, and towards sustainability in general?

Z: I think kindness has a huge role to play in sustainability, because I think part of the movement that drives consumerism, and drives this extra spending and waste, is this movement that we’re not fulfilled with our lives, and we’re not fulfilled with what we have. But we have this obligation to look after the environment around us, and that comes from adopting a mindset of kindness. The problem is, when you ask how kindness fits in with social sustainability and sustainability in general, is that it’s a very feel good term – it’s very ‘kumbaya’. Of course, the two fit together because you have to be kind to the Earth, but I think the challenge is defining what that really means.

Being kind to the Earth is a series of actions that need to come after that. One needs to prove that kindness is within their mindset, and sometimes it sounds so big to be kind to the Earth and adopt this mindset, that it seems almost unattainable. I think part of our challenge is how to take these big ideas and break them down into things that we can do on a daily basis. We talk about these issues a lot, like sustainability, what kindness is, what it means to be a good person…but how do you actually achieve this? For example, when you see a homeless person and you don’t look at them, or you don’t smile at them, is that you being kind? That’s not a question I can answer – that’s something you have to constantly strive for within yourself, like what decisions you make and how these impact the world around you.

P: I was also wondering since IC-Kindness is an interfaith organization, what role do interfaith organizations like IC-Kindness play towards sustainability, in that specific aspect of collaborating with other faiths and religions?

Z: Yeah! I also talked about this at the SLC workshop that I did – right now, diversity is very important in people’s lives, be it sexual diversity, race diversity, even ableism, so the ability of people, that kind of diversity as well, but we don’t often talk about faith-based diversity. It’s always a question to me of why that is, and I feel like the reason behind it is when you talk about faith and religion, it taps into ideology, and it’s difficult to discuss how to be kind and how to collaborate within that. Whenever you believe something, and you get together with someone who thinks something different, you’re always going to have that subliminal bias that what you think is slightly better. That’s really going to prevent you from having actual collaboration, because you’ll likely think ‘oh that’s really cool, but my thing is slightly better.’

So I think that the challenge and the beauty of interfaith, and how this comes back to the whole idea of sustainability, is that it’s about understanding each other’s identities and ideologies, in a way that’s beyond appearance, how people act, but what they really think and how their minds work. I think that once you can collaborate on an ideological basis, you can collaborate on any term. That’s a bit of a generalization, but I think it’s very possible, because once you break through the ideological barrier, you really open yourself up to a lot more of an acceptance based mindset than you would otherwise.

That’s what I think is important with sustainability as well, like if we want to have a greener planet, if we want to work towards food security, empowering communities, working with Aboriginal communities, then we need to understand how they think, and understand their ideology. We can’t go into scenarios thinking we’re better, and I think that’s what interfaith really teaches you, is how you can look at someone who believes different things, and understand that and learn to see the beauty in it. I feel like once we learn to do that, we’ll learn how to see the beauty in how everybody looks at the environment, and then learn about how we can change it.

Part of IC-Kindness’ projects are kindness notes, where people write notes with a kind message and give it to someone else. Image courtesy of IC-Kindness.

P: That’s beautiful. So in terms of IC-Kindness’ goals, in cultivating collaborations between different religions, making connections between different people, and looking at sustainability through a social, community-based lens- what has the organization done in achieving those goals?

Z: I think the prime example was our fundraiser that we did for Syrian refugee families, in that we really just wanted to humanize their struggles. One of our biggest values is tangible humanitarianism. I know that sounds vague, but basically what it means is like, good things that you can do, and know that you’re doing it. So instead of buying a donut for a dollar and not knowing where your money is going, it’s about actually giving the food to a Syrian refugee family, and having that human interaction with them, which I think is so valuable.

When we did this for these families, people on our team, who have never been to the Middle East, or Syria, didn’t really know anybody from there. They thought it was a super cool experience because they got a glimpse into another way of thinking, and into the real people behind such a horrible humanitarian crisis. I think that when we see something bad happen, like floods and political migration crises, you think of the people and you see them on Facebook, but we’re so passive in how we like posts, share posts, without really thinking or acting upon that after.

So I think that that’s really important, and for IC-Kindness, we’re still a young organization and still growing. We’re doing a lot of different things and still working towards that goal. But that’s my vision for it, to eventually create this beautiful culture of tangible humanitarianism, to humanize the people within the issues we see around us. This again goes back to social sustainability, because we are social beings, and we stop being social beings once we start dehumanizing each other, like believing stereotypes and dogmas about other religions. I think that the mentality we should have is a unified mentality – that we all are human, and that we all should try our best to be kind to each other.


Special thanks to Zamina Mithani! Find IC-Kindness at their website, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Editorial: Food – A Basic Human Right, Both Abroad and At Home

If you have been keeping up with current global news, particularly when it comes to poorer countries and countries in conflict, then you may have learned that food security is part of the conversation, whether it is a factor driving conflict or migration, or a result of them.

But what is food security? At first glance, it seems to be a fairly straight forward phrase – “food”, calories you need to stay alive; and “security”, one’s food supply being safe from danger or threat. At a basic level, this understanding is correct, but in policy and program discussions between development practitioners and bodies like the United Nations, Red Cross and within national governments, food security is a little more complex. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life. This food can be produced domestically, imported, or arrive through food assistance programs. Food security is comprised of four major components. First is the availability, or overall abundance of food. Understandably, if food is unavailable, people are not food secure. The second component is whether people are able to access available food. The availability of food does not matter unless people can physically access markets and have the resources to access food. Third is the utilization of food, which means that to be food-secure, food consumed should provide people with the nutrients they need to live healthy lives. Lastly, people need to have stable and reliable access to a supply of food. To be considered food-secure, these four requirements must be met. Based on this criteria, it is estimated that 795 million people in the world presently experience chronic hunger. This is about one in nine people.

Food Security and the Developing World

Unsurprisingly, the highest prevalence of food insecurity exists in developing countries. This is not the result of an inability to grow food. In fact, agriculture is the main economic activity in most developing nations, from East Asia to Latin America to Africa. Rather, global economics prompt farmers, the majority of which are small-scale producers, to sell most of their products to markets in exchange for cash, which they believe will raise their standards of living. Yet, the value of primary products like agricultural commodities is steadily declining in global markets. As a result, entire families will work for subsistence wages in order to survive, drawing children away from education and reinforcing the cyclical nature of poverty. Despite agriculture being the main economic activity, high costs of producing food and transporting food to markets contribute to developing countries’ reduced food security and competitiveness in global markets. For example, high production costs due to a lack of modern agricultural techniques and technologies tend to cause low productivity, as well as lower quality products. Due to the higher cost of production and lower quality products, developing countries tend to struggle in selling their products on global markets and cannot compete with more cheaply-produced and higher quality goods from countries such as the United States or China. This leaves small-scaled farmers with little cash and little food for their work.

Is Canada Food Secure? Don’t be so certain. Canada is an advanced industrialized country that ranks 9th on the Human Development Index, which combines measurements of life expectancy, education, and Gross National Income per capita to determine how well-developed a country is. Despite our relatively comfortable standard of living, this is not uniform across the country.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Numerous reports and studies, including those conducted by UN Special Rapporteurs, show that there are significant gaps in wealth and inequality, and pockets of Canada reflect conditions that would seem more characteristic of a developing country. Non-profit organization Canada Without Poverty estimates that 4.9 million (one in seven) people in Canada live in poverty, and food insecurity is a threat to stability for many of them. In many rural and northern regions of Canada, food costs are exorbitantly high owing to their remote locations and the high cost of transporting food from more populated areas. Residents in Nunavut spend $14,800 on average each year on food – more than twice as much as the rest of the country ($7,300).

Responses to Food Insecurity

By 2050, it is estimated that global food production will have to increase by 70% in order to keep up with growing population levels and food needs. Governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are undertaking various approaches to combat food insecurity and climate change across the globe. Canada’s federal foreign affairs, trade, and development body, Global Affairs Canada, pursues a food security strategy geared towards the reduction of food insecurity in developing countries, and in particular, targets the most vulnerable countries and populations, including a focus on women and girls. A major component of Canada’s strategy involves the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and reduced pesticide use. Agriculture is the main economic activity for many developing countries and the main income source for poor households, meaning that improving food security goes hand-in-hand with reducing poverty. However, agriculture poses significant challenges, too. The agricultural sector is a major contributor to, and a major victim of, climate change. The agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors produced 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 2001 and 2011, global emissions from crop and livestock production rose by 14%.

Projected impact of climate change on agricultural yields by the 2080s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, climate change in the form of extreme weather events like droughts and floods negatively impacts agriculture. In addition to creating unfavourable conditions for growing staple crops, climate change also contributes to manifesting favourable conditions for new crop diseases. Through Canadian and international partner organizations, activities like farmer education courses on sustainable agricultural practices, such as climate-smart agriculture, and the introduction and subsequent adoption of more modern agricultural technologies contribute to increasing food security. This also prepares farmers against negative effects of climate change on their livelihoods, and mitigates the agricultural sector’s impact on the environment. Combined with significant investment in agricultural research and development, promoting sustainable agriculture will aid the global population in increasing food supply to meet growing demand in a way that does not place more stress on an already resource-strained planet. This work must continue if we hope to keep up with population growth and preserve the planet’s resources.

What else can we do?

As concerned global citizens, how can we contribute to the conversation and action our governments and civil societies are taking against food insecurity? We can take localized action. The BC Centre for Disease Control and Food Secure Vancouver are great resources for learning about local food security. Food Secure Vancouver’s website contains information about local food markets, farmer training programs, school gardens, and community food resources. By educating ourselves and getting involved in initiatives like community gardening and food banks, we can participate in improving our own food security and that of others around us.

Davie Village Community Garden in Vancouver, BC. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We can participate in our democracy. Canada is set to release a new international assistance strategy, which takes into consideration over 10,000 public submissions. We can educate ourselves on Canada’s new strategy and call or write to local Members of Parliament or the Minister for International Development to express concerns and suggestions for how Canada interacts with our developing country partners. Domestically, we should let our representatives know that Canada should give more support to our own food security efforts. The Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories is an experiential school that aims to empower northern residents, strengthen communities, and create sustainability through local food production. By supporting efforts as such, we can contribute to closing the inequality gap in this country.  

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Editorial: Small-scale farmers set hopes high for Paris climate change conference

UN member countries, non-governmental organizations, lobbyist groups and UN agencies represented their interests in the development of a universal agreement on climate change at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, with many expecting great results.

Fairtrade International, one of the largest fair trade certification groups – part of a movement asking consumers to pay a little more for a product to help the people who produce it – is one such organization.

In a short video series featuring farmers from across the globe, from Kenya to Peru to India, Fairtrade sparks a discussion on the monumental importance of reducing climate change.

What’s so important about COP21?

Climate change has begun to be a front and centre issue for both developed and developing countries today; meetings like COP serve as valuable opportunities for the global community to work together towards a common goal of reducing the effects of global warming.

Within COP21 is the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), a platform where countries and non-governmental actors discuss their respective interests in order to reach an agreement on cooperative climate change action.

The LPAA highlights in a statement both the mounting threat of climate change against agriculture and the fact that agriculture accounts for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, major contributors to global warming. This is a key concern for Fairtrade because many of their partners’ livelihoods are agricultural.

The LPAA proposed initiatives focusing on four areas: soils in agriculture, food losses and waste, sustainable production, and resilience of farmers. Partnerships developed within the LPAA will commit money and technical knowledge towards supporting farmers in developed and developing countries to become key actors in the global drive to reduce climate change.
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Fairtrade farmers

The farmers featured in Fairtrade’s video series are members of cooperatives – jointly-owned businesses that share profits with members, in their countries – partnering with Fairtrade to ensure that members receive fair payment for their goods.

Generally, Fairtrade partners are farmers or artisans who partner with the organization as a way to combat the highly competitive nature of free trade that would pay them very low prices for their work. These competitive prices are not enough for them to survive on.

With agriculture as their livelihoods, they understandably have many concerns about climate change and how COP21 decisions will directly affect them.

Mabraat Kabbada harvesting coffee cherries.

Their thoughts on COP21

The farmers in Fairtrade’s videos express a sense of urgency about COP21. From Kenya to India to Mexico, climate change is affecting small-scale farmers in devastating ways.

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“It doesn’t rain when it should, and it rains when it shouldn’t,” says Luis Martínez Villanueva, a representative from Mexico. Changing weather patterns are problematic for farmers, driving down production by causing droughts and crop diseases. With falling production, farmers’ incomes are falling, too.

Facing such grim realities, farmers set their hopes high for COP21. Victor Biwot, a tea farmer from Kenya, says he’d like to see more activities spearheaded by developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to support African farmers to adopt energy efficient methods.

A representative of the Suminter India Organic Farmers Consortium, Benny Mathew, demonstrates that solar power allows farmers to dry 500g of seeds using 250kg instead of 1500kg of firewood. By using a more sustainable energy source, farmers in Kerala, India are able to do more work at less cost to the environment.

Making moves towards greener energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions may seem like moving a mountain, but to small-scale farmers, it will be life-changing.

“We need to have high expectations even if we don’t reach them,” Villanueva continues, “small changes in big countries mean that small countries can have high hopes.”     

Ecological Economics Panel Discussion + Workshop

Note: From January until June 2015, our events were promoted under “Values in Perspective”. We have since changed our name to IdeasXChange.

March 17, 2015: Over 50 participants – ranging from UBC students and faculty, practitioners and community members joined some of Vancouver’s most known ecological economists for a discussion on how to move towards more sustainable models to drive the economy.

As the discussion around the environment increases, some economists and scholars are challenging the very foundations of economic models created to distribute resources. They are doing this through a new discipline called ecological economics.

After the panel discussion, a participant shares how to move towards a more sustainable economic model

What is Ecological Economics?

Ecological economics aims to improve and expand economic theory – the distribution of resources in an efficient way – to include the earth’s natural systems, human values and human well-being. These are factors that some say are often times excluded from traditional economic models. Most economists refer to these costs as “externalities.” Ecological economists want to change that model.

The concept of ecological economics encompasses topics including, but not limited to:

Interdisciplinary thinking – the environment (e.g. earth, biosphere), social issues (e.g. poverty, inequality), time (e.g. long term impact of human activities) and sustainable development all form part of ecological economics. It is a model that challenges the focus on human-made capital (money).

Planetary boundaries – economies should respect biophysical limits. Economic growth is not sustainable because the Earth and its resources has limits.

Sustainability – ecological economists generally reject that all natural capital (e.g. water, arable land, species) can be substituted or purchased by human-made capital. There is a focus to preserve and protect resources instead of depleting them.

Environmental economics is not the same as ecological economics.

Environmental economics is the mainstream model that essentially puts a price on natural capital (e.g. resources). Ecological economics instead has a strong emphasis on sustainability and sees the economy as a subsystem of the environment.

Panel discussion: Moving towards a more sustainable economic model

Three of Vancouver’s most known ecological economists joined a diverse audience to address how society, individuals and policy makers can move towards more sustainable and inclusive economic models.

The panelists included:

Tom Green: Vancouver-based ecological economist with a PhD (UBC). Associate Faculty with at Royal Roads University, visiting faculty at SFU, former post doc at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Michelle Molnar: Economist at the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), and VP for Programs at the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE). Professor at BCIT, MA (Public Policy), MA (Philosophy); BA (Economics & Philosophy).

Michael Barkusky: BA (Honours) in Economics; MBA, and the CGA designation (since 1985). He is the Secretary-Treasurer of CANSEE. Diverse experience in a wide range of sectors as an employee and entrepreneur.

After panel introductions and a question and answer period, participants worked together through breakout sessions on how to move towards more sustainable economic models – from a local, international, policy and corporate perspective.

Food Security Panel + Workshop

Note: From January until June 2015, our events were promoted under “Values in Perspective”. We have since changed our name to IdeasXChange.

March 3, 2015: Approximately 30 participants from UBC and the community joined four insightful panelists for a workshop on food security hosted by IdeasXChange.

Panelists at IdeasXChange’s Food Security Workshop

What is Food Security?

As the number of hungry and under-nourished grow around the world, concepts of food security have changed and evolved.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”

Panel Discussion: Local and international perspectives on access to proper nutrition

Four panelists discussed ways in which food security can be guaranteed – from a nutritional, local, international and policy perspective.

They each brought their experience on actions society and individuals can make to improve access to nutritious, sustainable and cultural appropriate foodstuffs.

The panelists included:

Karly Pinch: Community organization and Coordinator for the Vancouver Urban Farming Society. Pinch touched on supporting local food systems

Karen Giesbrecht: Registered dietitian with Planted, a community food network. Giesbrecht spoke on the securing access to nutritious foodstuffs, and vulnerable populations.

Stephanie Lim: Coordinator at the Renfrew Collingwood Food Security Institute. Lim noted the importance of local and community food initiatives and the role that policy plays.

Jill Guerra: MA, interdisciplinary background. Guerra shared with the audience her research on the intersection of sustainable agriculture initiatives, food security & poverty reduction, with a focus in Latin America.

After a short question and answer period, participants split into different breakout sessions and got a chance to interact closely with other attendees and panelists.

Teen’s invention converts ocean current into energy – at a low cost

Hannah Herbst, 15, from Boca Raton, Florida, might just be one of North America’s top young scientists.

She won first place in the 2015 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientists Challenge along with a $25,000 prize – for creating an energy prototype probe that converts ocean currents into energy for just $12 – placing first out of nine other finalists.

Herbst’s probe is made up of low-cost recycle materials creating a hydroelectric generator with a propeller – able to power a small LED light system.

“I really want to end the energy poverty crisis and really help the other methods of renewable energy collection to generate more power and to make our world a better place for everyone,” Herbst says.

She made the probe seeking to create a stable power source to developing countries by using ocean currents. It was inspired by Herbst’s desire to help her 9-year-old pen pal living in Ethiopia who lacks a reliable energy source.

Marine current power is not widely used at the moment, but it has potential for electricity generation in the future. Marine currents are more predicable that solar and wind power.

A 2006 report by the United States Department of the Interior estimated that capturing that 1/1000th of the available energy in the Gulf Stream would supply Florida with 35% of its electrical needs.

Indian airport becomes the first to run entirely on solar energy

India’s Cochin International Airport has become the first in the world to be powered solely on solar energy.

Creating the “absolutely power neutral” airport will be 40,000 solar panels laid across 45 acres – producing 50,000 to 60,000 units of electricity per day to be used for all its operational functions.

The green initiative will avoid carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years, having an impact equivalent of planning three million trees.

“When we had realized that the power bill is on the higher side, we contemplated possibilities. Then the idea of tapping the green power came in,” says V.J. Kurian, Managing Director of Cochin International Airport in a press release.

The airport started using solar panels back in 2013 when it installed them on the Arrival Terminal block. The project expanded and eventually plans were agreed for the giant solar patch to be created.

“We consume around 48,000 unit (KWh) a day,” Kurian explains. “So if we can produce the same, that too by strictly adhering to the green and sustainable development model of infrastructure development that we always follow, that would transcend a message to the world. Now this has become the world’s first airport fully operates on solar power.”