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Craig Kielburger at the Global Youth Assembly

Craig Kielburger at the Global Youth Assembly

Craig Kielburger at the Global Youth Assembly

I’m currently attending the Global Youth Assembly, a conference promoting the advancement of peace and human rights. Hosted by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights in Edmonton, the Assembly brings together youth from around the world for a 4-day gathering.

Thursday afternoon featured a keynote address from Craig Kielburger, founder of Free The Children, which was one of the main reasons I chose to attend the conference.

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.

Craig Kielburger Speaks at the Global Youth Assembly

Craig Kielburger Speaks at the Global Youth Assembly

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.

Map of the World Shows Where People are Living in Extreme Poverty

Map of the World Shows Where People are Living in Extreme Poverty

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.


11 Responses

  1. Impressive post, Alex. Sounds like you took away a lot from Craig’s presentation. I’ve gleaned a lot from your reflections! I’m glad you enjoyed his presentation as much as you did, he’s an inspiring man!

  2. Thanks Sara! Glad you enjoyed it. His presentation was inspiring; I recommend taking any chance you have to hear him speak.

  3. […] Front Page ← Craig Kielburger at the Global Youth Assembly […]

  4. […] GYA: Craig Kielburger; Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Week of Wonders […]

  5. Quick correction, the story that inspired Kielburger was of Iqbal Masih, and took place in Pakistan and not India. (http://www.freethechildren.com/aboutus/ftchistory.php)

    Secondly, I noticed that your post on the panel with Iveson, Cardinal, and Afshin-Jam is closed. I just wanted to point out that I was the individual in the audience that brought up the issue of the term Islamist being used.

    The reason that this is of concern to me is that this term has become synonomous with “terrorist” and “extremist” in the Western media.

    When I spoke with Nazanin after the session, I posed to her a question: “What does the word Islam mean?” to which she replied: “I don’t know. Love or something?”

    This is not the case. Islam comes from the Arabic root word “Salaam” meaning peace. It is because of this that I chose to point out in my question that the term “Islamist” is an oxymoron.

    Followers of Buddhism are called Buddhists, and so for those without any background on religion, the term “Islamist” may cause confusion. To use “Islamist” to distinguish from “Islamic” is obsurd. There are fundamentalist and extremist groups in all faiths. The IRA has never been referred to as “Christianist.” The Tamil Tigers have never been referred to as “Hinduist.” So why is the term “Islamist” even being used? As I and numerous other Muslim youth present at GYA voiced our concern to Nazanin after the session, we noted that a more fitting term is “Islamic extremist.”

    Nazanin also needs to update her knowledge on Sharia and oppression of women, equality, and democracy in Islam. I think it unfair of her to make a statement saying that certain interpretations of Islam are not of “real Muslims.” Who are we to judge? What is a Muslim? There are many interpretations of Sharia law, and extremists have their own views. This does not make Sharia wrong. It does however make their interpretation extreme.

    When speaking of womens rights in Islam, activists should remember the greatest example of equality: the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Khadija, was a very wealthy and powerful businesswoman in her own right before she met the Prophet. She was also much older than him and a great merchant. This is 1400 years ago. Islam has never championed oppression of women.

    Islam has never been anti-democracy either. An example Nazanin should be pointing out, is at the time of the death of Prophet Muhammad. There was mayhem in Arabia as to who would lead the people. At the time, a leader called the “Caliph” was elected, Abu Bakr, an uncle of the Prophet. Remember, this is an example again of 1400 years ago.

    Islam means peace, and to submit to the will of Allah in peace. It should not be attached to any militant or extremist context whether it be in the prefix or the suffix.

  6. Azima: thanks on three counts – first for your clarification re: this post, second for letting me know comments were closed on the other one (don’t know why/how that happened, but it’s fixed now if you want to comment there), and third and most importantly for your clarifications re: the term “Islamist” and the history of Islam. I was relaying what Nazanin said at the session; it helps to know more about the background and hear another viewpoint.

  7. Alex, I am very happy to see that you respect the viewpoints of all. I was also delighted to read all the posts you had put up about sessions at GYA. I picked up on things I had missed at the sessions which was great! Thank you to you! And I can definitely move the post above if you prefer! 🙂

  8. […] My four part blog series covering the Global Youth Assembly, along with my Flickr set. – A new report […]

  9. […] Alex on the Web […]

  10. […] but the goals and motives that drive them towards the accomplishments. As I said when writing about Craig Kielburger’s keynote at the Global Youth Assembly, the inspiration is less in the specific initiative and more in seeing […]

  11. Hello,
    Alex, although its been a time now for GYA, but I didn’t myself get a chance to have a look on this blog which you have created, I appreciate your work, especially to highlight Craig’s session.
    You are very right pointing out the Islamist term of Naznin, I myself disagree with her, and I stood up in the lineup to raise this question, but the Q/A session was finished by then. Even my one of the fellow poined to me, when I put that particular picture which Nazneen was showing during GYA, my fellow commented, that those were the people involved in other things rather the quote which I mentioned of Nanzeen.
    I myself running an education project for the needy children in Pakistan, you can visit our website at : http://www.pyo.org.pk . And if you want to get involved or contribute in any way, then can email to the email address mentioned in the above website. However, I am also coming to Edmonton this week again, for Sunday and Monday night to attend Inspiring Education.


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