M K Aaref, CEO of the Edward M Kennedy Center for Public Service and the Arts, doesn’t weave dreams, but helps sprinting them into reality. Natasha Rahman rounds up his views as he sets a crackling pace for the generation to come forward and embrace both livelihood and culture

Photo Ashraf Uddin Apu

Pulling in students and young Bangladeshis, EMK Center encourages volunteerism, entrepreneurship development and public service amongst their other services. Under the leadership of MK Aaref, artists and entrepreneurs get a platform to broadcast their talents, encourage dialogue and promote an exchange of ideas. “I would prefer that we focused more on arts.” Aaref never backs down when it comes to preserving our heritage, giving out small grants which can vary from documentations of dying art forms, sociological research and agriculture. “For instance, the chakma tribes are becoming more urbanised and losing their traditional musical instruments due to the lack of practice. We provided a grant to document their music and instruments.”
He wishes for foreigners and locals to take with them a piece of the true Bangladesh. “I don’t think people will come to the country to see the world’s longest beach,” he chuckles. “On 2nd January, an exhibition on Bangladeshi rural crafts will be held here. The baskets and bags made by our weavers are more than just mere decorative pieces,” he comments with pride.
Moving on to performance arts, EMK also promotes young talents to get on the mainstream bandwagon. “Recently, we provided a platform to a young tabla player, Mir Naqibul Islam who blew us away with his performance.” Aaref brings a refreshing spin to their start-up programs. “Instead of teaching the youth on how to write their curriculum vitae, we teach them to think of ideas and start their own companies. Our motto is ‘don’t be a job seeker, be a job provider.’ There’s a market for everything now, regardless of how futile it might be. If people can make millions from producing selfie sticks with a spoon, I am sure our youth can come up with far more exciting ideas,” he remarks.
While talking about entrepreneurs, Aaref mentions that from November onward he plans to launch a program for women called ‘Women in Tech.’ The dynamic CEO wants to give women a space where they will be encouraged to share and discuss their technical ideas. He shares an inspiring example, “When Desh Garments first opened in the late 70s, people ridiculed them and now this industry provides millions of women employment and dream of a better life.”
A popular 80s slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally,’ is a motto that should go abuzz now. “People need to emulate successful models. Abroad, coding is being taught at a very young age; once people learn it they too can come with cool apps, which very well could be the next Clash of Clans or better,” he beams.
The EMK Center also roots for innovators to come forward and apply for grants for their ideas.
“We announce a small grants competition at the end of the year. Once an entrepreneur or artist has showcased their talents at EMK, it will act like their USP and eventually when it becomes a commercial venture, it will only make us happy.”
EMK is also in a partnership with the Liberation War Museum and the American Center of the US Embassy Dhaka. Aref wants to bridge the gap between the US and Bangladesh through this collaboration. “People forget that Edward Kennedy openly campaigned to have us recognised.” He identifies the flipside as well. “I know there are a lot of drawbacks on the way they operate and there is a lack of racial harmony even now. On the contrary, they didn’t become a superpower overnight, it took them two-hundred years to get there, hence the love-hate relationship,” he comments.
The only thing that’s constant is change; Aaref takes a stab at the cultural shifts. “There was a time in our parents’ generation when everyone kept a music teacher at home but now people are caught up trying to get a GPA 5.” But the CEO has a spark of hope. It’s great to see that a lot of people are trying to rediscover the Baul and folk music and representing it in a more contemporary fashion. “It’s a city of fifteen million people; we need at least five Shilpakalas.”
To really grow as an individual, it’s mandatory to be educated about the diversity in different cultures. “When we were little we would make fun of Chinese names but now I know better,” Aaref reveals. “I know now that it has a story and a background which is more than 5000 years old and just because it sounds funny to us, it isn’t actually funny.” Aaref defines the fine line between pride and arrogance. “We have these notions of cultural superiority which needs to go. “People told me I was corrupting our cultural heritage by promoting hip-hop dance. They forget that I even promote Tagore’s music.” Taking the higher road, he shrugs off the comments.
The world is advancing, and so is Aaref’s stride in bringing together more young minds to pursue their dreams.
“When livelihood is guaranteed, culture flourishes. Eventually, young successful entrepreneurs will patronise different bands, clubs and sponsor concerts.” Aaref is here to turn things around for the youth and help them realise their potentials. “I don’t claim any ownership over it. Copy anything we do and do it better, we will be happy.” EMK Center wants to be the catalyst, through which the rising generation can make something for themselves. “Thing big, start small and you will get there,” with a twinkle in his eye, M K Aaref concludes.


Natasha Rahman is the Assistant Editor of ICE Today. She enjoys the little pleasures of life, such as food and aerobics.