At the age of 12, inspired by a story of a child in India sold into slavery who escaped and became an activist (edit: Pakistan – thanks for clarifying, Azima), Kielburger founded the organization along with his older brother Marc, who currently serves as its Executive Director. Over the past decade and a half, the group has expanded from its beginnings – in Craig’s words, 12 12-year olds – to an organization with over 1 million youth involved, and working in 45 different countries. The Kielburgers also launched the Me to We brand, which offers volunteer trips, speaking engagements, leadership training, a clothing line, and produces books and music. This was referred to as part of a new model for non-profits; a different way to raise funds to support their initiatives, and to engage people in their everyday life. While perhaps not practical for every non-profit, it is an interesting model that could work in some form (likely on a smaller scale) for other groups.
Kielburger was speaking on leadership, mostly from his experiences around the world and those of many of the people he has met. He is a very talented speaker, and very expressive. When he speaks, Craig’s total passion for and conviction in the work he is doing becomes readily apparent. That, and an incredible work ethic, appears to be what helps him continue to strive and succeed. When relaying various stories, he appeared close to tears at times, and at the end of his speech, took a short break, appearing to be emotionally spent. Very few people could do the kind of work he does, and this level of passion is necessary – it’s rare to find.
Following an overview of his story and the development of Free the Children and Me to We, Craig covered a number of statistics that illustrated the challenges being faced by developing countries. A few of the stats he mentioned (h/t @getinvolvedca):
• 113 million children between the ages of 5-11 have never set foot in a classroom.
• 42% of aid provided to Africa is ‘tied aid’. 14% goes to debt servicing. Only 2% is unrestricted aid.
• The money spent on ice cream (just in Europe), along with cosmetics and perfume (worldwide) is enough to stop extreme poverty and epidemic HIV/AIDS.
He also showed slides illustrating things such as the level of people living below $1/day worldwide (seen above), which provided important context to his speech, before ending with more inspiring stories of people he has met through his work.
While his life story and work is inspiring, I found the real value in the more concrete aspects of the speech, such as the statistics and some of the more defined concepts he talked about. I understand the role of the keynote is often more to provide inspiration than to convey concrete strategies and tactics, and he certainly provided lots of that. What I found most interesting were two anecdotes.
The first was the idea of the “minga”. You can read the full story here, but to quote:
That night we asked the village chief what had happened. She explained that a minga is a call to action – a coming together of community for the benefit of all.
Our translator asked us what this was called in English. Volunteer work? Not exactly. Missionary work? Not quite. We thought it was something like a barn-raising, but you don’t see too many of those along Yonge St.
After some struggle, we concluded that a minga is like a riot, but for good. That was the best we could do.
It’s interesting that we don’t have a word or concept akin to this in our culture.
The second was an anecdote he shared from a conversation with President Bill Clinton. Clinton, who has been active in world affairs through his foundation, talked about the challenges elected officials face. In his words, they are given by the public a ‘bandwidth’ in which to operate. That is to say, there is a limited space that covers what the public is ready for and willing to accept in terms of public policy. A talented politician can move the public along to expand the bandwidth of acceptable actions a little bit, but the public will not stand for anything much beyond that. Try, and you’re likely to be pushed out of office. Private citizens working for change don’t face these constraints. Kielburger relayed this story in response to a question about how to influence government and make foreign aid a greater priority. His argument, quite correctly in my opinion, is that the public needs to demonstrate that this is a deal-breaker, and/or something they are willing to accept.
I thought a lot about this afterwards. The dearth of quality candidates and representatives in politics is often lamented. Further, declining interest and participation in politics is often pointed to as a sign of apathy. What if we’re looking at it the wrong way? What if politics is the problem? More specifically, what if the structure and constraints that people encounter is turning them off, and that instead of being disengaged people are simply focusing their efforts in areas they feel they can actually affect change?
Regardless of the answer to that question, the salient point is that if you are passionate about something, politics is not necessarily the right avenue. Nor is starting your own group or volunteering in the community. For me, the real takeaway from this story is that there are different strategies that will work best for different goals. Often we take the easiest, most obvious, or most recently observed route. The real challenge for us is to figure out how, and through what avenue, we can best pursue the change we want to see.
That for me is the real inspiration of Craig Kielburger’s story. Discovering your passion, and discovering how to really affect change.