From vegan activism to empowering young women
Young people who have found their power to create positive change are at the heart of Ashoka’s vision. This year, we are awarding two passionate changemakers for the Changemaker of the Year award, supporting them to develop their initiatives through mentoring and strategic coaching.
Benjamin Pitkänen, co-founder of Viral Vegans, and Salaado Qasim, co-founder of the Peace and Well-being organization are both using empathy, creativity and leadership to create change in Finland and beyond.
Benjamin Pitkänen is the co-founder of Viral Vegans, a community of animal rights activists launched in 2021 when Benjamin camped in front of the Itis shopping mall to be the first customer in the new KFC to decline a free bucket of chicken.
Benjamin’s action immediately got wide attention, and the initiative has gathered a large number of supporters after its launch:
Viral Vegans focuses on promoting a vegan lifestyle and ending animal exploitation:
"I am an enthusiastic vegan activist with the goal to end speciesm as soon as possible. I am motivated to gain new insights and connections to help realize this goal. I believe that together we are more robust and can achieve much more than alone”, says Benjamin.
Benjamin Pitkänen and the Viral Vegans have created a benchmark for activists everywhere on how to reach an audience and create an outsized impact by simply having a compelling message and communicating it in an effective way:
There has been a shift in the animal rights scene as Viral Vegans has brought new insights in defending animal rights. We make veganism and defending animal rights relevant and cool.
He affirms that being young often means the ability to question the way things have been done previously:
We need energy and the passion to believe that things will change once we start doing something. "Being vegan is being an activist" is the mentality that I hope that we vegans would foster. Animals can never stand up for their rights, so we vegans have the responsibility to do that.
Salaado Qasim is the Co-Founder of RAHY, an organization that aims to increase the rate of non-white youth, especially young women, in higher education and on the career paths that follow.
In Finland, the number of non-white university students is low. To address this disparity, Salaado, who is also a Master’s student at the University of Helsinki, supports youth to pursue their dreams, providing them with clear information on educational and career opportunities:
I am motivated by my previous experiences in Finnish institutions. I have faced difficulties in my own studies although I was born and bred in Finland. I have encountered teachers who have misjudged my abilities and my knowledge. However, this has not stopped me from going after my own desires”, shares Salaado.
Salaado’s organization cooperates broadly with women's and youth organizations to promote equity by trying to create space for all people. RAHY works especially with those who feel they do not belong in society and cannot find their place.
When Salaado graduates from the university, she wants to have an impact on the Finnish school’s equality plan. She shares that “There is still a long way to go. In the next three years, I want to make an impact on the equality of educational institutions and help young people in pursuing their dreams by providing them with clear information on educational and career opportunities.
Connecting with experienced mentors from Ashoka’s network, the teams behind Viral Vegans and RAHY will continue developing their ideas to the next level. Viral Vegans mentorship program will focus on a continued effort to make veganism mainstream meanwhile RAHY peer-support team will be looking at different options to expand the opportunities for those who feel like they cannot find their place in society.
Each team is taking different actions to achieve long-lasting change, but they show us how we can all collaborate to transform institutions and cultures.
About the award
The jury members of this award included:
- Ulla Nord, managing director at Arvoliitto
- Matti Jänkälä, founding member of You Tell Me Collective
- Kamilla Sultanova, TEDx speaker, diversity and inclusion expert
- Arto Sivonen, Founder of creative agency Måndag.
More changemaking to come:
Both awardees will be connected to this year’s mentors:
- Panu Mäenpää, Chief Communications Officer (CCO) at Talous ja nuoret TAT and chairperson at Helsinki Pride, as well as former chairperson of Seta, LGBTI+ Rights Organisation in Finland
- Kaisa Matsson, Director for Sustainable Sourcing and Human Rights at Fazer, is a sustainability specialist who has a long experience of social and environmental questions in consumer goods and sustainable supply chain management.
- Anne Badan, Entrepreneur, CEO, and Founding Partner at The X Search. Anne is also an Advisory Board Member of Ashoka Nordic and Founder of Aalto Social Impact, a platform (within Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland) to facilitate social change and foster ambitious changemakers.
- Mari Tikkanen, Co-Founder and CEO of Scope, a social impact company accelerating social change at scale. The work of Scope focuses on equality, gender and health and spans Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
- Bo-Erik Ekström, Board & Management Services Oy, with experience conducting management consulting for more than 30 years. Bo-Erik is also a member of the Ashoka Support Network.
If you are curious to know more about the next steps from this initiative, subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter and get up-to-date news straight to your inbox.