Shawn Ahmed’s Uncultured Project reinvents charity for the digital age
On one of Shawn Ahmed’s first visits to his parents’ homeland of Bangladesh, he gave the shirt off his back to a child in the slums of Dhaka. He was no more than five years old, and it was a sweater that his grandmother had spent months knitting – a detail that’s now part of family lore.
It’s been almost 30 years since that most basic act of charity, and Ahmed (BA 2005 Trinity) is still giving to his ancestral country. His parents fled after a civil war in 1971, immigrating to Canada before he was born. “They raised me to be mindful of how privileged I was to live in Canada instead of on the streets of Bangladesh,” he says.
Every time he went back, he felt an urge both to help the poor and document their lives. “I started with photos. Then, when my parents bought this over-the-shoulder VHS camera that looked like a rocket launcher, I lugged that over and filmed my first videos.”
The advent of social media in the early 2000s gave this self-described “tech geek” an idea about how to put his passion into practice. In 2007, Ahmed dropped out of grad school at the University of Notre Dame, packed his laptop and camcorder, and headed to Bangladesh. He launched the Uncultured Project (uncultured.com), which raises awareness and funds for marginalized Bangladeshi communities using YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Ahmed’s YouTube video blogs are a central point of connection in the Uncultured Project. The people he films have names, they smile and laugh, and they speak for themselves about the needs in their villages. In one video, a young woman named Fatima travels across rickety bridges and dirt paths to reach a baby girl suspected of having pneumonia. Fatima is one of 100 health volunteers from villages in Bangladesh who received money from the Uncultured Project to cover their travel costs. “Thank you, YouTube!” she says in English, before reverting to Bengali. “In the trips I and others will take with this funding, within a year we will have helped an additional 10,000 children.”
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Watch health worker Fatima explain her work, funded via the Uncultured Project:
Video courtesy the Uncultured Project
The videos went viral in 2008, and the Uncultured Project now has more than 100,000 YouTube followers. “People are more engaged if they’re invested in someone’s story, and if you give them messages of hope and positivity,” he says.
Ahmed chose the word “uncultured” to express the informal, unconventional nature of his venture. It is not a registered charity, and he has never drawn a salary (he has scraped by with the help of family, friends and a nominal income from YouTube and occasional speaking engagements). He calls it “an unplanned journey to build bridges across cultures, religions and the digital divide.” The funds Ahmed helped raise have provided emergency disaster relief and construction, delivered clean water systems, created a post-secondary scholarship program and built schools. One school funded by the project is operated by the Catholic Church on land it donated, but employs a Hindu teacher and serves mostly Hindu students. Ahmed has also provided uniforms for a Buddhist school, created a new school in a Dhaka slum and has another in the works. The Uncultured Project’s independence from the conventional aid system has also allowed Ahmed to handpick causes that conventional NGOs might miss or avoid because the initiatives are secular in nature.
“I’m a small fish in a big sea of charities, so I can find the nooks and crannies that they overlook,” he says.
Watch Shawn Ahmed’s U of T Alumni Portrait:
Video by University of Toronto