My conversation with Craig Kielburger, Co-Founder Free The Children
"Youth have the unique ability to make waves and spread awareness about issues that are close to them."
Imagine a world where every young person felt a deep sense of ownership and empowerment over social, political, environmental and economic issues from gender equality to poverty. How might each of us, if given the chance to lend our voices and actions in more than a tokenistic way, bring our ideas to life in the name of ending poverty, hunger, gender inequality and more?
Just imagine... WE could lead a wave of sustained transformational change in our communities and across the world.
Too often, however, the attitudes of well-intentioned adults undermine our ability to turn our ideas and insights into action, instead of just responding to an adult driven directive. If, as many experts say, disrupting the cycle of hunger and poverty, for example, takes a two generational approach... shouldn't Generation Z and Millennials play a substantive part so that two doesn't become three?
This past year I've been involved with Free The Children, an international organization that sets the model for bringing youth to the table and guides them to taking action on social justice issues such as poverty, discrimination, and education. It’s provided me with an opportunity to not only learn more about issues addressing youth and adults in my own community and around the world , but an opportunity to contribute my voice, my ideas, and my actions along with other young advocates such as Ally Del Monte and Ashley Rose Murphy. Fresh off of Free The Children's Take Action Camp in Canada, where I spent a week with other youth who are passionate about changing the world, I had an opportunity to ask the co-founder of Free The Children, Craig Kielburger, a few questions about his life and the amazing work he and his team do. Check out the interview and then get out there and be a world changer.
UJ: You have an amazing story of determination and will to make a difference. For readers who may not be familiar, can you share highlights of how you went from a schoolboy working on a class project to creating an international platform for social change?
CK: I When I was 12 years old I came across a news article as I flipped through a local newspaper in search of the comics. The article told the story of Iqbal Masih, a child born in South Asia who was sold into slavery. Iqbal spent six years chained to a carpet-weaving loom. At the age of 12, he lost his life defending the rights of children. After reading Iqbal’s story I was so upset that I wanted to do something, even though at the time I didn’t know what that something was. So, I brought the newspaper clipping to my school where I shared it with my classmates and I asked, “Who will help me?” Eleven of my classmates raised their hand, and thus Free The Children was born. Today, Free The Children’s mandate is to empower youth all around the world. Every year we celebrate the more than 2 million youth that we work with by putting on We Day. The organization continues to grow as it motivates young people, domestically and internationally, to achieve their fullest potential.
UJ: This year, you brought We Day, the world's largest youth empowerment event, to Illinois -- thank you! Do you have plans to expand it to more states or countries?
CK: At our first We Day in 2007, 8,000 youth came together in Toronto to discover new passions and learn about the world around them. We’re so excited to see the movement grow, and after such a successful We Day Illinois, we not only look forward to returning next spring, but also to exploring other states in the future. It would be our dream to have a We Day in every city in America.
UJ: Beyond having the tremendous opportunity to speak at We Day Illinois as part of the "Letter to My Future Self" segment, one moment of many that particularly resonated with me was when Marlee Matlin presented in sign language with her translator. Do you have a favorite We Day moment?
CK: We Day Illinois was such a great success that it is difficult to choose just one moment! We are deeply appreciative of the support of our talented performers and speakers who make each We Day the triumph that it is.
UJ: How has the youth activism changed or broadened since you began 20 years ago?
CK: When we started Free The Children in 1995, it was rare for youth to get involved in activism because the structures were not in place to facilitate this. We were faced with so many obstacles -- just because we were youth. After constantly hearing we were too young to make a difference, we decided to “be the change” ourselves. Once youth have the means to volunteer, they will. Since 2007, hundreds of thousands of youth across North America and in the UK have attended We Day events, and $37,000,000 has been raised for 1,000 causes. Additionally, 80% of alumni have volunteered for an average of 150 hours in the past year. Our hope for youth over the next twenty years is that, much like when you ask a child what sport or instrument they play, they will be able to tell you what their cause is.
UJ: We often hear young people are apathetic, but Free The Children helps dispel this myth by showing the work of young people across the globe who are engaged and are working for a better world. But why do some youth get involved in social change projects while others do not?
CK: Studies show that if a youth sees a parent or role model in their life volunteer, they are more likely to get involved themselves. Instead of it being a chore or out of the ordinary it is simply built into their DNA. Volunteering, like any habit, should be encouraged from a young age. It is therefore extremely important that parents and educators provide positive examples to young people to create a culture of service.
UJ: What do you feel is the greatest global struggle/issue for today’s youth?
CK: When Free The Children began we weren’t looking to start a charity. We never thought it would grow into the global movement that it is today. My friends and I simply wanted to make a difference. But when we called up a well-known charity and asked how we could help, they told us the way to help was to find our parents’ credit cards. I think the greatest issue that youth face today is that they are told to wait until they are older, that they’re too young, too idealistic, that they need to leave the big issues to the adults. As kids, we heard we were too idealistic so many times that we printed shirts that said “Shameless Idealists” on it. Although Free The Children won’t stop world hunger or be able to end poverty by tomorrow, our hope is that today’s youth know they have the power to make a difference in the world. Our hope is that they have the confidence to succeed in anything they want to accomplish, wherever they were born, and whatever circumstance they grew up in.
UJ: In a recent commentary you and your brother wrote "The world needs more organizations and individuals to put their self-interest on the sidelines and focus purely on achieving outcomes." Can you elaborate on that for youth trying to figure out how to make the biggest impact individually or through an organization?
CK: It is important for youth to find a cause they are passionate about. Once they find a cause they would like to support (and there are many to choose from!), I would encourage them to ask teachers or family members for guidance. I would also highly recommend teaming up with a group of friends to participate. It’s only if we work together, that we can make a difference. It’s why we made sure that We Day was cause inclusive, so students can support any organization and earn their way to the event.
UJ: What advice do you have for young activists who want to make a career out of their activism?
CK: We need youth to use their skills to better this world. If your gift is public speaking and leadership, then use that skill to lead your community. If your gift is science and engineering, then design a technology to solve issues of drought. I think we need to innovate what we see as the traditional sense of charity. Instead of donating a dollar at the end of a transaction, donate your time and expertise.
So often I meet kids who want to start charities. I believe the world already has too many charities. What the world needs instead are strong leaders throughout all sectors who do good.
UJ: There are 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10-24 years across the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund. That's more than 40 percent of our global population! We've seen youth mobilizing their peers to raise awareness and pressure schools, communities, corporations and even governments to make changes in things like bullying in schools, portrayal of body images in media, wages, education and much more, but will young people have increasing opportunities to engage directly in policy-making?
CK: I think youth have the unique ability to make waves and spread awareness about issues that are close to them. With their direct access to social media, they have the capability to connect with not only their peers but policy-makers. Not only are they able to raise awareness but they are given the opportunity to challenge the people around them to take action. For example, Free The Children started an App called We365, which enables you to change the world every day and challenge your friends to do the same. We’ve also found that youth who get involved at a young age in social action continue their engagement later: an independent third-party study revealed that 79% of Free The Children alumni voted in the last national election.
UJ: In a September 2014 commentary you wrote with your brother about racism in Canada, you noted that "...good manners don’t neutralize the racism and discrimination that exist here, too. Fixing the problem begins with talking about it." I couldn't agree more and that is one of the reasons I started my blog, because there are conversations that need to be had among and led by youth. Racism manifests itself in different ways around the world in everything from movies and sports logos, to the deadly outcomes associated with the names Trayvon Martin, Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, AME church and my cousin, Marcus Golden. How do we mobilize as youth to become informed and actively involved in order to move towards a just local and global community?
CK: It is important for youth to connect with like-minded peers. Once youth find a cause they are passionate about supporting, they can connect with others and learn more. It’s so important to spend time learning about local and global issues, and deepening your knowledge and understanding. It’s why learning about an issue is such a big part of We Act, our year-long program. If youth are unsure of which cause they would like to support, or do not yet have a support system in place, We Day events are a great place to make this happen.
UJ: You inspire so many, what and who inspires you?
CK: In my role I have the distinct pleasure of meeting many different thought leaders, former Presidents, high commissioners, celebrities, and athletes. But at the end of the day, my biggest inspiration comes from youth who are inspired to make a difference. The sixth grade student who stands up to a bully, the sophomore who doesn’t laugh at the racist joke, the group that rallies the community for food bank donations. It’s these types of stories and local heroes that remind me why we’re doing the work that we are. Free The Children attempts to promote this way of thinking by having youth earn their way to We Day by committing to one local act and one global action. Without change-makers such as those mentioned above, events like We Day would not be possible.
UJ: Thank you for your time. Do you have any closing thoughts?
CK: Thank you so much for taking the time to draft a series of thoughtful questions. Congratulations on all your hard work. I can’t wait to see what you do next!
World Changers, UnconventionallyJade will be live tweeting during the August 21st broadcast of We Day on ABC. Join me at 8pm ET/7pm CT and get inspired to join hundreds of thousands of youth across the country in making our world a better place!