A values-based philosophy for social change: Runa Khan’s Journey to Changemaking

As a serial social entrepreneur in poverty alleviation and mindset shift, Runa is constantly pioneering new ways of learning, working, and living together. Runa's journey starts with her upbringing and the influential role of her parents in cultivating a lifelong philosophy for social transformation.
Runa Khan

As a serial social entrepreneur in poverty alleviation and mindset shift, Runa is constantly pioneering new ways of learning, working, and living together. Runa's journey starts with her upbringing and the influential role of her parents in cultivating a lifelong philosophy for social transformation.

Runa Khan is a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and the Founder and Executive Director of Friendship SPO (Social purpose organization) registered as an NGO, which aims to uplift rural and unaddressed communities across Bangladesh. Elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 for her work in reimagining education in her country, Runa developed a series of children's books and textbooks that challenged ossified rote learning methods in schools with curricula for critical thinking and self-directed learning.

Today, Runa and her team at Friendship are serving 650,000 people every month in Bangladesh through saving lives, climate action, poverty alleviation, and empowerment of individuals to break the cycle of poverty for families and communities. Her journey to building a world where everyone will have equal opportunity to live with dignity and hope did not start when she formed a non-profit in her early 40s, but back when she was young and finding her unique power to change the world. This is Runa’s journey to changemaking.

A childhood enriched with spiritualism and philosophy

Runa was born and raised in Bangladesh, and traveled across the Indian subcontinent for education, spending time in Pakistan for grade school and in India for her university studies. She studied for her Bachelor's degree in geography from Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta, India, and later completed her Bachelor's degree from Eden College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When reflecting on her upbringing, Runa says “I want to start with my childhood because a lot of what I am and what I am doing is very interconnected. I was brought up very, very privileged. In Bangladesh, in the [Indian] subcontinent, there are a few families that are very privileged. Perhaps not money-wise, but in being old families. As a result, you are given a place in society that money can’t buy. I was privileged to be in such a family.”

Despite "being pushed around the subcontinent for education,” Runa’s conservative family and inherited privilege created a living environment where she felt “totally isolated from the reality of the country.” She recalls being “brought up in a glass bubble,” sheltered from the world’s most pressing challenges. As a teenager and young adult, Runa reflects that she didn’t really know or understand poverty that millions faced across Bangladesh until she was a young adult.

Exposure to religion and philosophy, however, was Runa’s gateway to the world. Her parents consciously created an inclusive and welcoming space for spirituality and religiosity. Runa fondly remembers “growing up in an environment that was extremely tolerant for religion. I grew up with Zen priests, Christian priests, and Hindu monks.” “People from the Al-Azhar University,” an Egyptian school renowned as the most prestigious university for Sunni Islamic learning, would “sit together at the dining table for dinner” in Runa’s home as a young girl.

These rich intercultural and religious exchanges occurred because of her parents’ deep commitment to philosophy, spiritualism, and “goodness.” Runa earnestly remembers her parents’ unique strengths: her mother's “grace, gentleness, and compassion for others,” while her father was a “man of intelligence, driven by philosophy and spiritualism.” Her mother was the most welcoming person Runa has ever encountered to this day, a host to anyone and everyone, constantly seeing the good in others. Together, Runa shares, her parents were “Both extremely good people and deeply good means a lot of sacrifices are needed. You make choices that are for goodness, not out of greed.” This home environment, despite being physically sheltered, instilled in Runa a set of values and philosophy that would stay with her for a lifetime.

Reimaging learning for Bangladeshi students

Runa was married young through an arranged marriage. “It is not forced marriage – it is arranged. The family arranges, then we agree to it, and you are married,” sharing a cultural tradition common for many young people when Runa was growing up. Runa later remarried. She is a mother to three boys.

As a young woman, she began to better understand her country by stepping outside the world of privilege she was familiar with. While raising her sons, Runa found a passion for teaching and writing, discovering her acumen as an educator. Drawing upon her own childhood experiences, Runa valued curiosity, exploration, and critical thinking for herself and her children, but was surprised to see this missing in classrooms across Bangladesh.

In 1979, while teaching kindergarten in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Runa Khan discovered that instead of being encouraged to interpret and understand the information presented to them, students were taught to memorize and simply regurgitate their lessons during tests. Runa observed an utter lack of coherent development in the children; they learned the alphabet and simple vocabulary but could not use this knowledge for rudimentary communication.

Runa’s eagerness spurred her to redesign an educational system that embodied self-directed and participatory learning to encourage critical thinking and self-discovery. She calls this system "methods of conceptual motivation.” She experimented with new activities and lesson plans to pioneer a new model in her own classroom. As her students' test scores began to improve remarkably, Runa decided to develop a series of textbooks to normalize this new way of learning, a teaching method that would encourage students and fellow educators to become more engaged in the learning process.

Over several years, she designed several self-instructional, goal-oriented textbooks, introducing concrete skills and intriguing students’ curiosity and excitement for learning. She went on to author and produce a series of textbooks that would later be adopted in schools across Bangladesh. As Runa says, "all I did was what any book should do–increase inquisitiveness for learning."

Runa was recognized globally as a leading social entrepreneur by joining the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 for her brilliant ideas that dismantled a dependency on rote-learning. Soon after, she partnered with other social entrepreneurs to retrain government schoolteachers in rural Bangladesh with this new pedological approach. Since then, this network of social entrepreneurs has been key in normalizing self-directed learning and critical thinking.

Runa Khan
Runa Khan with young students. 

Reimagining health through floating hospitals

As a leading educator of Bangladesh and rising social entrepreneur, Runa routinely visited rural communities to promote this new form of learning. However, she was struck by families living on small river islands, disconnected from any formal infrastructure. Runa remembers meeting “18 families who had not eaten in 2 days. You hear about it – but seeing it is a different dynamic, different emotion.”

Appalled, Runa was unsettled by the deprivation of fundamental healthcare. “Seeing children who could be cured by simple operations, women with fistulas suffering physically or from social ostracism. A minor operation and a woman can come back to life again, but she is not able to do it because of lack of resources.”

With an eye towards systems-change, Runa, to her own surprise, was encouraged to step beyond the systems of education and look towards health. “This is a big role for me,” Runa gleams, “even if I can get 20 women to have these operations and be re-included in society again – this would be a lot.”

Similarly, Runa's second husband was an adventurer and at heart, a humanitarian and was equally concerned as she was for marginalized communities. Her husband received a donated shipping barge from France for a humanitarian project. Runa’s father suggested that a clinic on the rivers of Bangladesh was much needed. However, the initial plans did not work out as expected.

Runa saw an opportunity and decided to make an organization to take over the barge and convert it into a hospital” Thus Runa decided to take on her next challenge. “I asked him [Runa’s husband] to give it to me,” Runa laughs, remembering her own hesitation, “But I had never been on a ship, I had no idea what an NGO (non-government organization) was...but I knew I wanted to do something for the people of Bangladesh who were suffering for lack of care. I had a lot of contacts. I could see the connections between resources, people, and what they needed,” Runa says. “If I think something can be done, and if I feel I can do something about it, I do it because this realization leads to a responsibility.”

Shortly after, despite doubt from those around her, Runa transformed the ship into a floating hospital. The hospital’s priority was to serve “poor, mostly ignored, and severely climate-impacted” communities of Bangladesh, especially families living in the river island communities. She believed everyone deserves access to basic healthcare and for the poor, it has to be free or nearly free, even if infrastructure and funding were scarce. Thus, this first hospital ship and later other floating hospitals of Friendship would bring healthcare to a part of the world where it was considered to be “impossible” to give dependable quality health services.

Runa’s courage to pioneer floating hospitals enabled her to launch her own organization, Friendship. Starting with meeting people’s fundamental needs, Runa imagined creating an ecosystem of support that uplifts marginalized communities through health, poverty alleviation, climate action, and empowerment. Runa emphasizes, “I never aimed towards having a big organization... I just wanted to give simple help where needed, it was all I cared about.” Friendship Bangladesh was founded in 2002, and Friendship International, founded in 2006. Friendship’s vision has remained steadfast - a world where people, especially the hard to reach and unaddressed will have equal opportunity to live with dignity and hope.

A philosophy for social change

With nearly two decades of experience leading Friendship, Runa’s focus has never been on creating a large organization, but to provide a platform for growth and change systems and mindsets. To stay practical, her original goal was to help 600 people a month – that would have been a success to her. However, today Friendship directly serves nearly 650,000 people a month with over 6.5 million a year.

Through a six-sectoral approach, Friendship focuses on advancements in Health, Education, Inclusive Citizenship, Climate Action (which includes disaster management), Sustainable Economic Development, and Cultural Preservation. These intersectional programs tackle the systemic roots of poverty in marginalized communities with an unwavering commitment to individual and community dignity, agency, and empowerment.

Runa claims Friendship’s success has always been because her team listens to people and creates need-driven solutions; “I wanted to improve the lives of the masses. I needed to do something that was replicable, simple, easy to solve, and making an immediate impact - That was extremely important. People say ‘it is extremely good to have toilets’, telling you to ‘wash your hands’. But if you do not have clean water, you can’t wash your hands. If you do not have a toilet and you don’t know how or why to use a toilet, then you don’t go to a toilet or if you bring awareness for family planning and cannot ensure access to contraceptives or imbue the dream of sending a child to school, where no school exists, it doesn’t truly work. You need a whole system change."

To break the cycle of poverty in Bangladesh, Runa believes social entrepreneurs must be driven by a philosophy, rather than just a set of goals for systems change. Rooted in a set of core values, "integrity, dignity, justice, quality, and hope,” Runa has routinely challenged “project-based work.” Instead, “the strength of Friendship and quality of Friendship comes from working with communities and there being– a deep value-based philosophy. This philosophy is based on ensuring self-respect and dignity for all stakeholders and that is the strength of Friendship.”

Runa goes on to say, “Projects as a goal mean nothing to me, however, communities do, people do, those who trust us with their funds, they do. So many NGOs work project to project and grow big, but that is not my dream. It was not what I feel needs to be done." Instead of focusing on direct service, Runa’s team prioritizes community transformation. She explains, “When you leave a community and it is evolving, they must become masters of their own lives. I never allow people in my organization or allow to think that we are doing [people] a favor.”

With a value-enriched philosophy for change, Runa’s team is “not telling but nurturing deeply in their [beneficiaries’] hearts what they should be getting. It is their right to get it and we are just instruments or tools to deliver those services and opportunities to them”.

As a lifelong changemaker, Runa embraces a new definition of success, which is “never leaving a community without ensuring people have more dignity.” And for Runa “dignity and self-worth are nurtured by your action,” rather than your projects or goals.

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Runa’s journey is a testament that a lifetime of changemaking begins with a few transformational movements while young. Rather than being energized by goals or projects, Runa is fueled by a philosophy, a set of values she has curated over her lifetime. Her story reminds changemakers everywhere that social change is much deeper than a set of robust deliverables, but about reimagining systems and changing mindsets to promote individual agency and dignity.