Five years ago, Abhay Singh Sachal and a group of his Grade 10 classmates at Seaquam Secondary School in Delta, BC, made their first video call to the Arctic. On the other end of the line: Abhay’s 23-year-old brother, Sukhmeet, a volunteer teaching assistant, and his class at East Three Secondary in Inuvik, N.W.T. The conversation started with typical teen small talk – asking each other about TV shows, music and school life. But as the teens grew more comfortable, the chat turned serious. Students in Inuvik detailed the legacy of residential schools on their families, including stories of alcohol abuse and suicide. Seaquam kids shared how they felt helpless to do anything about the threat posed by the climate crisis.

Soon after both groups said their goodbyes, the brothers had an idea: what if the conversation, meant to expand the students’ perspectives about life outside their hometowns, didn’t have to end? Students across the country, they figured, could continue to benefit from bridging geographical and cultural differences. They called their organization Break the Divide. 

There are now over two dozen Break the Divide chapters, located across Canada and at schools as far-flung as Taiwan and Bolivia (see http://breakthedivide.net)

Maryam Haroon knows first-hand how powerful that change can be. She joined her school’s Break the Divide chapter three years ago, as a Grade 10 student in Surrey, B.C. Haroon says talking to youth around the world pushed her to gain perspectives beyond those offered in a traditional high school curriculum. She eventually became her school’s chapter president and organized two mental health awareness events, focusing on the challenges of isolation and depression – especially relevant during the pandemic. Now 18 and a student at the University of British Columbia, she continues to volunteer for the organization. “I envision Break the Divide as a new kind of social network,” she says. “It’s a platform that empowers people to connect and then do whatever they’re passionate about.”

Last year, Abhay and Sukhmeet secured funding from Canada Summer Jobs to hire their first employees, enabling them to develop an app that will act as a social platform to connect Break the Divide chapters worldwide. 

Hundreds of conversations later, the brothers are still optimistic that the core principle of Break the Divide –empathy– can play a central role in how youth tackle the issues that matter most to them. “I hope that we can be part of creating a world where we are all listening to each other,” says Abhay. “Listening with an intent to learn and to change.”

Richard Johnson, Reader’s Digest Canada