Craig Kielburger founded his first charitable organization, Free the Children, when he was still a child himself. At the age of 12, Kielburger was moved to act after reading a newspaper article about child labor in Pakistan.
Since those early days, Kielburger and his brother, Marc, have inspired and enabled millions of children to experience the life-changing power of making a difference through their multifaceted organization, the WE Movement.
Kielburger believes there’s a basic tenet missing from our modern notion of childhood: “I think in our society we need to see a well-rounded childhood as having absolutely academics, absolutely music, absolutely sports, but there’s a fourth pillar that’s often ignored which is this idea of service and giving back.”
Through the WE Movement, Kielburger is making it easier for parents and teachers to integrate that fourth pillar into every child’s experience. WE Day, an event that takes place in numerous venues throughout the U.S., U.K, and Canada, is the annual culmination of their efforts.
Last April, WE Day came to The Forum in Los Angeles for the first time. Sixteen-thousand students and a gaggle of celebrities came together to celebrate the efforts of young world-changers. The resulting prime time special will air on ABC at 7/6C on Sunday, August 28.
Parent.co: What is WE Day and why haven’t I heard of it? As I was researching this interview I thought, “This organization sounds amazing and there is such a wide range of people involved, and you’re all doing so much good in this world.” How is it that I don’t know about this event?! It made me wonder about the negative news bias in mainstream media
Craig Kielburger: WE Day is, as we like to say, the Super Bowl of doing good. It’s the Academy Awards of creating positive impact in the world, or the coolest classroom in the world, depending on how you want to look at it. It’s a celebration that’s free to attend, but you have to earn your way there through a year of service.
So these upper elementary, middle, and high school students have all taken action on at least one local cause and one global cause. What we would say is it’s cause-inclusive which makes it a little unique. So we’re not trying to advocate for a particular organization and often in the charitable world there’s a lot of competition out there. We just want to bring together and celebrate the best of young people, celebrate the best of community.
The event has been around for many years and we fill 14 stadiums every year. We have 4.5 million followers on various social media platforms; 2.3 million young people take part in the WE Schools program every year to earn their way to WE Day – 200,000 get the actual ticket to come.
But to answer your question about why (you haven’t heard about it), two answers come to my mind. I think the smaller answer is pure logistics. This is our second ever national broadcast. (The event) has been in America now for only five years… Essentially it’s just a question of time. It really is genuinely still bubbling up.
The second part is, I actually agree with you. I think that when you look at the idea behind a WE Day or the nature of what our organization is, the WE Movement, there are a lot of stories that make the headlines that tear us apart. No matter what your political beliefs, there is a lot of division. Or if you look at tension: racial tension in this world and geographic division and socioeconomic division, and it seems that we live in a world that is increasingly divided, on a global level and on a very local level. That is what dominates the headlines.
I think to your very point, that’s why we need something like WE Day, because we need to remind ourselves that the world is a good place and that the vast majority of people are striving for good and that communities can come together around something positive. That no matter your political beliefs, no matter your religious beliefs, no matter your ethic origin or socioeconomic background, your color of skin, etc. we can come together around this idea of service and creating a better world.
That may sound naïve to some, but 200,000 young people are filling stadiums to celebrate what unites them.
I know that you felt passionately about social injustice at a very young age and from what I’ve read you were encouraged and led in all the right directions – helped by adults to feel empowered to change what you saw as something that needed to be changed. How do you talk to parents and teachers about the role they play in the lives of young people who want to effect social change?
Those who are present in the lives of young people are critical to that. When you watch the WE Day broadcast that’s coming up on ABC, there are moments where we are aiming it squarely at parents in the call to action. Obviously a lot of the show is aimed to young people, it’s a multi-generational show, but we’re aiming it squarely to parents to recognize the opportunity for a couple reasons.
For 20 years now, 21 years, we’ve work with parents. We actually even do parenting workshops and I typically start a workshop by asking parents to finish the sentence, “I would be a successful parent if my child were…” and then to give a bit of a description. You hear words like caring, kind, successful, good head on their shoulders, grateful.
There’s this universality that despite what we might think, I’ve never had anyone say, “captain of the football team,” or, “valedictorian.” What parents want is something more fundamental. It’s raising good kids. It’s kids who have a sense of purpose in life, kids who have a sense of confidence in who they are, they have a good group of friends around them, a sense of identity that’s rooted in something bigger than themselves.
All of these things can come from service. I think that parents, who so often in our society are wanting to give youth every single opportunity, one of the greatest opportunities is giving them a chance to help someone else. The studies alone have shown that when young people do this they’re more likely to go on to higher education, they’re less likely to use or abuse drugs, they have a higher sense of self esteem. We wrote a book on parenting called “The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care and Contribute,” so I’m pretty passionate on this subject, but often I think parents and teachers don’t know where to start.
Parents often don’t know where to start because the world is so busy around us and there are countless headlines and countless issues. Teachers often don’t know where to start because class time is so precious.
How does WE Schools help with that particular issue?
Whether it’s a core-curricular or extra-curricular, they need to justify that this furthers core academic and life skill learning. So where our program steps in is two fold. There’s We Schools and something else we’re very excited about, We Families, which obviously involves parents.
WE Schools is a free national program that provides a service-learning overlay to core course learning. At the risk of that being too convoluted, basically what this means is we help teachers help students learn through experiential service learning. They can learn life skills, they can learn academic skills, but engaged in service. You learn biology by testing water. You learn Spanish by helping a new immigrant. You learn about American History by helping veterans. You engage in your core learning, doing so within the core framework of service. And in the process you develop all these amazing life skills.
The WE Families program has everything similar to schools, but even a little bit more. It’s a series of campaigns of very simple ways that families can get involved in service. Things like WE Scare Hunger where families will trick-or-treat collecting food at Halloween for local food banks. We’ve collected 7.6 million pounds of food doing that.
Or they’ll do things like WE Are Silent where there’s a pledge not to speak and understand what it’s like to be bullied if you’re a young person – what it’s like not to have a voice. Or your family or your school can have a sister village around the world and we’ll connect that together and you can learn about that village and connect online with that village – even find ways to support, like the clean water project, the teacher’s salary, or a woman entrepreneur in that village.
Or you can add more, you can go overseas and visit your sister village. Every year thousands of families do this with us. Four or five thousand people a year will go overseas and we’ll host them and they’ll meet their sister village around the world and it becomes a learning experience through service trips.
All of this takes place during the year and then WE Day is the celebration that recognizes the amazing actions taken by these young people.