Student actors with houses covering their heads on a grass set
Category: Spirit of Georgetown

Title: Climate Activist Seeks Environmental Justice Through Performance and Politics

Ashanee wears a red blouse for a headshot outdoors
After graduation, Ashanee Kottage wants to continue to tell stories across mediums examining threats to people’s security — be that climate change, the prison industrial complex or relationship violence.

“Sri Lanka is full of wonderful ironies,” says Ashanee Kottage (SFS’22), a multidisciplinary researcher and theater artist who aims to improve political and environmental conditions in her home country and around the world.

“We call our beloved local fried snacks ‘short eats,’ although when you start eating them, you can never stop,” Kottage explains. “We have demarcated traffic lanes but the point is to avoid staying in between the lines, and we have the lion on our national flag, our beer cans and apparently in our blood, but not a single one has lived on the island for over thousands of years BC.”

“I consider myself one of the island’s many ironies,” she says.

Raised on an island nation with scenic beauty, diverse wildlife and historic sites, Kottage’s perspective on politics and the environment has also been informed by natural disaster, decades of civil war and generations of colonial extraction.

“In the bustling city of Colombo, where I was born and raised, I was hidden from the 26-year long civil war, but she wasn’t hidden from me,” says Kottage. “I saw her in the eyes of my Tamil friends who always had their passports handy, in the nod of the army uncles every 100 meters and in the huddles around a candle during curfew. I was both sheltered from and exposed to what made my home, home — conflict, resilience, survival.”

As a science, technology and international affairs major, Kottage leverages the performing arts and ethnographic research methods to animate the real world effects of climate change, colonization and political conflict on communities in Sri Lanka and around the world. 

“There is a global crisis of misinformation, political polarization, climate change denial and anti-vaccination efforts,” says Kottage. “These positions are not due to a lack of technical know-how, information or research but defiance against listening, trusting and building together.”

‘Seeds of Climate Activism’

Kottage, on track to be the first in her family to graduate college, surpassed the educational expectations of many women in her culture. She studies the intersection of people, places and politics in order to understand how to make the world more peaceful, greener and fairer.

“Sri Lanka’s public policy crisis is severe,” says Kottage. “From climate change to resurfacing ethnic tensions, natural resources and territory are critical.”

“There is a global crisis of misinformation, political polarization, climate change denial and anti-vaccination efforts. These positions are not due to a lack of technical know-how, information or research but defiance against listening, trusting and building together.”

— Ashanee Kottage

To begin tackling sustainability challenges, Kottage founded the Garage Sale Project, one of Sri Lanka’s first nonprofit thrift stores, which addresses the mismanagement of waste in her hometown of Colombo while also raising charitable funds. 

“Buy second-hand, lend a helping hand,” she says.

She’s continued her sustainability efforts at Georgetown. In 2019, Kottage helped create a performance and eco-art installation “On the Lawn” with student, faculty and alumni collaborators to tell a story about the relationship between climate change and the American lawn. 

“Through poetry and movement, the seeds of climate activism grew on our stage,” she says.

Kottage has also assisted faculty research on sustainability and the environment, and she will be a co-author on two upcoming publications in environmental journals. 

Though her fellowship with El Nido Resorts in the Philippines through Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kottage was still able to pursue her research virtually through the pandemic. She examined the global standards for sustainability in tourism, identifying bias toward eurocentric requirements like reducing plastic, renewable energy and spreading awareness over those more responsive to the local ecology.

“My research found out that what Southeast Asia’s sustainability priorities actually were should be things like marine conservation, air quality, water quality, mangrove preservation,” says Kottage. “But because those aren’t necessarily appropriate to European and North American contexts, they’re ignored in all these standards.”

Her senior thesis examines the preservation of national parks in Sri Lanka by interrogating the human systems, power imbalances and inequities that result from capitalist and neo-colonial conditions.

“The role of colonial legacies in nature that perpetuate poverty is understudied. As evidenced by patterns of revenue distribution, parks are embedded in hierarchical, market-based systems,” says Kottage. “My senior thesis proposes that the inequity is due to the colonial gaze — one that is sewn into the modern-day fabric of former colonies and is embodied in the class-based, albeit ethnically influenced, voyeurism of nature in national parks.”

Brahmachari Sharan, Georgetown’s director of Dharmic life and Kottage’s instructor of the course “Religion without God,” finds Kottage’s research methods combined with her artistic lens and care for our common home to be one of her greatest assets. 

“Standing at the crossroads of decolonised yet traditional research, and the possibilities of the artistic medium for interpreting oral cultures such as those resident in Sri Lanka means that Ashanee is uniquely situated to bring a truly innovative approach to the work of interrogating colonial legacies in Sri Lankan environmentalism,” says Sharan.

Community Impact

An important through-line of Kottage’s work is empowering others to join her. As a Carroll Fellow — an academically rigorous initiative for some of Georgetown’s most talented students — Kottage developed a virtual mentorship group on “Decolonizing the Self” to help others engage with the complex topics she has lived and studied. 

“Ashanee takes it upon herself to practice decolonization in her own life, as well as teach others about it,” says Devika Ranjan, who taught Kottage in her course “Cross-Cultural Performance Studies.” 

In the class “In Your Shoes” — a collaboration of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, Georgetown’s Democracy and Governance Program and Patrick Henry College — students would perform each other’s verbatim responses to prompts like “home” or “family” to promote mutual understanding, empathy and respect.

“That was an incredibly formative experience for me in the practice of embodiment and empathy building and active listening,” says Kottage.

As a mentor with Big Hoya Little Hoya, Kottage produced intensive workshops on professional and academic development and facilitated virtual meet-ups for first-year students living away from campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. And as a former high school debate national team member, Kottage continues to train the debate community back in Colombo.

“I want to serve, wonderful ironies and all,” says Kottage of her home country.

A finalist for the prestigious Global Rhodes Scholarship, Kottage has worked with the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund Secretariat and volunteered with the Alternative Breaks Program on a virtual immersion on mountain and environmental justice in Appalachia.

True to her values, Kottage views the most important benefit of her education to be how she can serve the communities she loves.

“As much as academia excites me, nothing is more invigorating than doing in community and loving what you’re doing.”