Changing Perceptions: From the Himalayas to New Heights

March 27, 2017

On 12 March 2017, a substantial group of passionate supporters, which believe change starts with individual actions, went out to the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland, and took part in a charity run, supporting UTSAAH (Uniting to Sustain and Assist Himalayan communities). It can be argued that for all present, this was more than a run – it was a personal challenge, aimed at raising both awareness and funds for a cause that, although distant in terms of mileage, lies close in both the participants’ and organisers’ minds. The diversity of runners was astonishing – from younglings to veterans. There were even two furry, four-pawed contestants as well, who amazed spectators and participants alike with their energy and determination.

UTSAAH charity run participants © Arun Hairsh

The event was followed by an extremely successful Changing Perceptions masterclass entitled ‘From the Himalayas to New Heights’, which took place on 13 March 2017 in the crown jewel of Edinburgh Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus – The Rivers Suite.

The event was kicked off by Nick Fannin, Head of BRT, who shed light on the programme itself including achievements to date and future aspirations.

Nick Fannin, Head of BRT, kicking of the Changing Perceptions masterclass.

Nick’s introduction was followed by a remarkable talk from Bob Wright (School Lead for Enterprise and Innovation, School of Health & Social Care at Edinburgh Napier University). Bob emphasised the importance and benefits a diverse environment brings to Edinburgh Napier University, and shared a story of the venue and how it was named. A psychiatrist called William Halse Rivers was treating soldiers during the First World War, suffering from shell shock (a term that would be described as combat stress in modern times). Rivers was one of the first psychiatrists to change the perception around mental health, since before him, soldiers suffering from such a condition would have been considered ‘weak’. Bob emphasised that the story of Doctor Rivers and hence the name of the venue compliments a workshop devoted to changing perceptions.

Bob Wright, (School Lead for Enterprise and Innovation, School of Health & Social Care at Edinburgh Napier University). talk at Changing Perceptions (Edinburgh Napier University)

Dr. Arun Harish, Co-founder and Chairperson of UTSAAH, was up next. Arun shared what inspired him to set-up the initiative – his love and passion for the ‘Roof of the World’ – the mighty Himalayas.

Mighty Himalayas © Arun Hairsh

Arun’s breath-taking presentation could not have been a better introduction for Ishita Khanna, Co-founder of the social enterprise Ecosphere. Ishita talked about her ground-breaking work in Spiti Valley – a remote high altitude cold desert.

Ishita Khanna, Co-founder of the social enterprise Ecosphere

One of the many interesting facts surrounding ‘The Middle Land’, is that as far as the mid-1990, Indians were barred from entering. The fact that Spiti was cut off from the world up until 20 years ago, speaks for the state of the local infrastructure, economy, education and healthcare.


Ishita has worked in Spiti Valley for the past 15 years, helping the native communities in a number of ways. She recalled at the start of her career, “When you’re straight out of college, you want to change the world but then you get a government job.” Thus why she departed her government job to start, Ecosphere, giving opportunity to local women to work and generate sustainable income. The core idea behind her work is to build an enterprise and hand it over to the local population – this way the people of Spiti Valley have their own source of income. The most substantial profits are from Tourism. The concept of homestays was developed by Ishita in 2004 and currently there are around 80 homes spread across 6 villages.

Ishita’s thrilling talk was followed by Anand Sankar, who gave an insight into the work he has been doing in the remote village of Kalap. The Kalap trust was officially set in September 2014, yet Anand’s ground-breaking work began in the summer of 2013.

Anand Sankar

Anand was a journalist by profession before he committed to helping the remote Kalap community and its surroundings. During his talk, he emphasised that he put the first ‘pin’ on google maps – referring to the village of Kalap. That fact speaks for itself when picturing how remote the area actually is.

Currently, Anand describes himself as a ‘mountain guy’ – using shepherd trails and combining his knowledge of hospitality, Anand takes visitors on tours, making this, one of the many ways he helps the local villagers earn a sustainable income.

Anand Sankar's talk at the Changing Perceptions masterclass

Anand’s work is paying off, as in 2015 he started a school. It is his vision, that ‘we’re losing minds, they are so precious, and when you lose them young, it is truly tragic’. There are currently 90 children attending, educated under a curriculum that comprises of various subjects, including Mathematics and English. The way in which the school in Kalap differs from schools in the city, is that pupils are educated in the midst of the Himalayas, surrounded by nature. A school day might comprise of a trek in the surrounding area, with the children gaining knowledge that is omitted in textbooks.

Following Anand’s inspiring talk, Mandy Gentleman (Lecturer, School of Health & Social Care, Edinburgh Napier University) interviewed student Jema Howie about her placement in Ghana as part of her studies. Jema recalled, “The sheer lack of resources was a big challenge. I got through it by a lot of reflection. I kept a journal.” Jema was extremely enthusiastic about her experience abroad, and emphasised how it opened her eyes to a whole new way of working where she was required to work closely with others and be innovative to get the job done. She spoke fondly of her time in Ghana and said she would highly recommend other students to undertake placements abroad who have the opportunity.

Mandy Gentleman (Lecturer, School of Health & Social Care, Edinburgh Napier University) & student Jema Howie speaking at the Changing Perceptions masterclass © Iain Robinson

Dr Kathy Velander (Director, Centre for Ecotourism and Wildlife Management, School of Applied Sciences, Edinburgh Napier University), followed Mandy and Jema’s interview by sharing her experience and knowledge of the strong links between community development and tourism development on a global scale.

Dr Kathy Velander, speaker at Changing Perceptions masterclass © Iain Robinson

The final leg of our event was a Q&A session between all of the speakers throughout the day and the audience. It was great to witness so much interest among everyone in the room, with many questions being raised demonstrating the genuine curiosity in particular for the social entrepreneurs’ visiting us and sharing their experiences of working in remote India.

Question & Answer session with panel at Changing Perceptions masterclass © Iain Robinson

Cilla Richards, Bright Red Triangle Co-ordinator, closed the event with a big thank you to everyone involved in the masterclass, and a reminder that Changing Perceptions (managed by BRT’s very own Nika Puri) is now celebrating its two-year anniversary.

Cilla Richards, BRT Co-ordinator, closing address at Changing Perceptions masterclass © Iain Robinson

Overall, the masterclass was an overall success for Changing Perceptions. We (the BRT team) really enjoyed collaborating which such a diverse and wide-ranging group of people who are so passionate about the work they do. Thank you again to all of the organisations and speakers for partnering with us and helped make this event possible. We really appreciate all the work you do, for providing us all with a sense of inspiration, and for helping us to open minds and change perceptions.

We received an overwhelming response for the masterclass and as a result we are currently in the process of following up with those who have shown a keen interest in associating with the organisations presenting at Changing Perceptions. To keep up-to-date with programme and for a summarised detail of events, keep an eye on our website for more information.

As a final note, here are a few more fantastic images by photographer Iain Robinson (thanks again Iain for your wonderful photography – we love your work!).

This article has been co-authored by BRT interns Vladimir Ivanov & Federica Giuntoli.

Bright Red Triangle