2012 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: International Public Affairs
Age: 33 | Madison and Nepal
Executive Director, Sarvodaya USA;
President, Sarvodaya Nepal
Social change is home grown for Shisir Khanal. Whether in his shirt and jeans on a dirt road in his home country of Nepal or in his tweedy clothes at his office above Michelangelo’s coffee shop on State Street in Madison, Khanal’s thoughts are never far from his hero and inspiration: Mahatma Gandhi.
The great leader’s call for “welfare and awakening for all” buoys Khanal as he builds international organizations from the bottom up. He is president of Sarvodaya Nepal and executive director of Sarvodaya USA, nonprofit development organizations that have worked in Nepal, India; Haiti; Sri Lanka and the United States to create nonviolent social change that starts with local residents and their values. Sarvodaya translates from the Sanskrit as “awakening of all.”
Inspired by a social movement centered on self-reliance in Sri Lanka, Khanal speaks of sustainable development that is built on holistic Nepali values: protection of the environment, progress, spirituality, and tradition.
He urges villagers to “get their hands dirty” with small projects that can grow and not just to wait for money from other nations that may not know local priorities. He boosts his workforce with urban Nepali teen volunteers and UW students who share his vision and travel to villages.
A filmmaker, photographer, nonprofit leader, service-learning expert and an international promoter of Nepali music, Khanal documents his efforts with YouTube videos, including two featuring UW students: “When We Come Together” and “Quest Nepal: Compassion in Action.”
His successes include winning $100,000 through the 2010 Chase Community Giving competition on Facebook that financed a Nepali green-built school outside of Katmandu. For the fourth year in a row, 100 percent of this model school’s students passed higher-level exams, greatly exceeding the national average.
Earlier, Khanal raised more than $5 million to build a thousand homes and a regional development center and to supply food for 35,000 refugees and hundreds of thousands of others who lost homes to the tsunami and war in Sri Lanka. He assisted scores of American experts and volunteers who traveled to Sri Lanka’s conflict zones for peacemaking efforts and training.
His penchant for media prompted his leadership of a fundraising speaking tour with A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka and winner of the 1996 Gandhi Peace Prize. The tour reached thousands of international supporters and yielded $100,000 in direct aid to grassroots programs in Sri Lanka.
The amiable Khanal planted the seeds of self-reliant development in Haiti and now is working on possible high school programs in Haiti, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the United States.
His life stays true to his organization’s mission: Facilitate individual and community development to meet basic human needs; reduce material, social and spiritual poverty; and enhance the quality of life for all.
In his own words
What do you miss most about campus?
A great library and a good café, where I spent a lot of time while in school. Especially when I am in South Asia, I miss access to great books and amazing coffee.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I was young, my father used to recite a couple of lines of a Nepalese poem, which went something like, “The branch with fruits always bends toward the earth.” This basically means that one should always be humble despite one’s achievement in life. “Live with humility” is what he wanted to say. I often think of those lines as I try to find my own self and define life paths.
What’s your favorite quote?
“When you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
— The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
I am not a pet person at all.
What was your first job?
A few days after I arrived in the United States for studies, I started working at a sandwich place inside a gas station in Annapolis, Maryland. I worked there only for about two weeks, as I didn’t like the treatment I was getting from the manager. I was so new to the country and culture that I didn’t know much even about sandwich names, but he would always come and complain about how slow I worked. He also did not pay me much, so I just quit.