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Weekend Reading and Entertainment: 08/07/09

Here is a collection of links to interesting items I’ve seen over the past week, many of which I tweeted about.

– My four part blog series covering the Global Youth Assembly, along with my Flickr set.
– A new report produced by Accenture called Web 2.0 Collaboration Tools for the Next Generation of Public Service.
– A great interview from the Financial Times with Rory Stewart, Director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard. Also, for any readers fluent in French, his interview in the current edition of L’actualité is a must read.
– The Canwest Papers ran a five-part series titled ‘The Next Spike’, about the prospects of high-speed rail in Canada.
– It’s Edmonton Folk Fest this weekend! I’ll be there Saturday afternoon to see Joel Plaskett, and might be around for part of Friday night as well. Sandra Sperounes has a good review of Wednesday’s show with Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman. Hopefully she’ll have more coverage as the week goes along. If we’re really lucky, maybe Andy Grabia will resurrect his Folk Fest blog.
– Video of Mos Def covering Billie Jean. He even moonwalks at the end!
– Finally, in memory of John Hughes, if you haven’t watched the video montage set to “Baba O’Riley”, here it is. I love his movies; especially Christmas Vacation. My dad and I (and often other family members as well) still watch it every Christmas.

Enjoy the weekend; I’ll have a new posts in the next few days about my trip to the Glenbow and Edmonton Folk Fest.


Global Youth Assembly 2009: In Review

Over the past few days, I blogged about Craig Kielburger, the Apathy is Boring panel on politics, and Governor General Michaelle Jean at the Global Youth Assembly. I have also posted photos on Flickr and a video of the Governor General showing off her dance moves. Now, to wrap up, here are thoughts from sessions I haven’t already covered, as well as some general thoughts about the conference.

I attended a few excellent workshops, and a couple of less impressive ones. I’ll skip over the latter, and comment on the former.

On Thursday afternoon I attended a talk by John Siebert, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares. This was by far the most informative session I attended. Titled ‘Is Canada Still in the Peace Business?’, Siebert spoke about the changing nature of Canada’s foreign involvement from its latter 20th century tradition of peacekeeping to a practice he calls “peacebuilding”. Peacebuilding combines aspect of combat and peacekeeping, and reflects the nature of the conflicts we find our troops in.

The trend away from peacekeeping is prevalent throughout the west since 9/11. To put it in perspective, worldwide military spending in 2007 is estimated to be $1.3 trillion (US). The UN peacekeeping budget for that year was $6.8 billion, a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

On the Canadian front, our spending on UN peace operations has dropped an astonishing 90% this decade, from a high of $94 million in 2000/01 to $8.5 million in 2006/07 – Canada’s military spending in 2007 was $18.5 billion. Now, this is not to diminish our current contribution to the UN. We contribute a number of high-expertise personnel to UN operations on a regular basis.

Focusing on broader trends, Siebert also noted that the number of conflicts worldwide has dropped 40% since the mid-1990s. He attributes a lot of this to development aid, which he sees as reducing several of the factors that contribute to conflict. Overall, this was informative and engaging; I learned a lot about Canada’s current role in the world.

Delegates at the Global Youth Assembly 2009

Delegates at the Global Youth Assembly 2009

The first of two workshops on Saturday focused on campaign organizing. This was the most interactive of all the sessions I attended, which I greatly enjoyed. Led by Erin Harrison of the Canadian Labour Congress and Angelo Dicaro of the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the session intended to teach delegates the nuts and bolts of why and how we run campaigns. The crux of the workshop was a case study – the audience was given an issue, then split into groups. Each group was assigned a different aspect of the campaign, and asked to come up with a plan for how to handle it. While only given 10-15 minutes, it was an interesting exercise to come up with ideas, in particular because we didn’t know what the other groups were working on (this apparently happens regularly when organizing large-scale campaigns). This session was both informative and fun.

The second workshop, led by a Katherine Walhaven of TakingITGlobal, was about using Web 2.0 for social change. I’m familiar with the concepts of Web 2.0, and most of the material that was presented. It was, however, helpful to see a handful of successful Web 2.0 examples from the non-profit world, and to hear the ideas of the other delegates who were present, in particular how they use social media and some of the opportunities and downsides they see to it.

By and large I enjoyed the workshop sessions I participated in. There were a number of others I was interested in, but they unfortunately conflicted with these sessions. Ideally at future conferences, more sessions would be offered in more than one timeslot.

Keynote Sessions
I missed the Thursday and Friday morning keynote sessions on account of other commitments, but I caught all four keynote sessions on Saturday.

Josh Thome of 4Real and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society

Josh Thome of 4Real and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society

Saturday morning started with a session about 4Real, hosted by producer Josh Thome. 4Real is a television show that matches celebrities with community activists, taking them around the world to participate in the activists’ work. Thome talked about the show and showed clips from a few episodes, and covered his own history in activism as well. He was followed by two of the activists profiled on 4Real, Alyssa Dawamana Macy of NVision out of the United States and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, BC, who talked about their respective work. Aside from getting to watch clips of 4Real (which is a fantastic show, and likely a subject of a future blog post), I enjoyed Josh talking about the use of media to promote causes and involvement. He also promoted 4Real Flow, a tool to raise money for your favourite causes through the web.

After lunch, Dev Aujla spoke. Dev created his own non-profit, Dream Now, that helps other young leaders achieve their goals. Having seen him speak at a previous leadership conference, I was familiar with Dev’s work. On top of an overview of Dream Now, he provided a lot of valuable advice – in particular about the importance of asking questions, and about making a habit of working for change. His session had more of a “how-to” approach than the others, which made it incredibly valuable.

Ocean Robbins closed out Saturday afternoon. An activist since his teenage years, Ocean traced his (and his family’s) roots in various causes. Ocean has focused his work on environmental causes. He talked about what he sees as the biggest problem of our time, the notion that ‘we live separate from each other, and from the earth’. He also argued against materialism, saying that ‘by living more simply, we may find ourselves richer’.

Mariatu Kamara at the Global Youth Assembly 2009.

Mariatu Kamara at the Global Youth Assembly 2009.

Saturday night featured an Ethical Fashion Show. The real highlight, however, was a keynote address by Mariatu Kamara, a 23 year-old refugee from Sierra Leone. Kamara is an activist for peace, children, and women. She is also a victim of the diamond wards. At the age of 12, still living in her native country, she was kidnapped by rebel soldiers, who then cut off both her hands. She eventually escaped, found her way to Canada a few years later, and is now a college student, published author, and founder of a charitable foundation. Her incredible journey in overcoming hardship is inspiring.

Closing Thoughts
Overall, I had a great experience at the GYA; it has given me a lot to think about, and a lot of ideas and experiences to draw on going forward. I got to know some interesting people, I participated in some really engaging workshops, and I listened to some inspiring speakers. The speakers and presenters were awesome, and the delegates were as well – as evidenced by the talent they showed off at a couple of open mic sessions.

Global Youth Assembly 2009 delegates having fun in between sessions.

Global Youth Assembly 2009 delegates having fun in between sessions.

In my experience, the most valuable part of a conference is always the informal interaction with other delegates outside of the sessions. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of this time. Since it was in Edmonton, I wasn’t staying at the hotel with most of the other delegates, and I had a few other commitments over the three days, which meant I didn’t have much time to spend at the conference outside of the sessions. I definitely missed being fully immersed in the conference, which for me is always one of the best parts. On top of this, much of the informal time during the days was taken up by sessions running over time.

The third installment of this conference is scheduled for 2011, and will be held in Winnipeg – the first time it’s outside of Edmonton. I’ll be right on the cusp of the advertised age range (depending on which days they pick for the conference), but I hope to be involved in some capacity. This is a great initiative, and I’ll continue to support it and be involved however I can; I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to do so as well.

Michaelle Jean Rocks the Global Youth Assembly

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Friday night at the Global Youth Assembly featured a special appearance by Canada’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean. The Governor General appeared in Edmonton as part of her Youth Dialogues series. She spoke, listened to the crowd, and then finished by showing off her dance moves (video provided later in this post). I was impressed with her speech, and find a lot of characteristics in her that I can learn from and draw inspiration from.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Her ability to connect with an audience is readily apparent. She took the stage while the local Edmonton hip-hop group People’s Poets performed, dancing alongside them through the performance. She then spoke for about 10 minutes, focusing on the importance of supporting youth and giving them opportunities, as well as the importance of the arts, particularly how she has seen people “find hope, resilience, self-affirmation and healing in the arts – especially hip-hop”. She also talked about how youth are finding hope in the urban arts, such as rap, sculpture, and graffiti, and how they ‘act as an instrument to raise awareness about serious social ills’. Later in her speech, in relation to hip-hop, she talked about the importance of how you use the power you have, saying gangsta rap, and it’s tendency to encourage homophobia, misogyny, and gang culture, should be a cause for alarm. She stressed that despite this, we must stand in solidarity with the artists contributing to the community, and gave a nod to Edmonton for naming Cadence Weapon as its Poet Laureate.

Following this, she finished by focusing on youth. Some of the highlights including statements like “one child in the clutches of crime is one too many”, and “every time we fail a child, we fail as society. We cannot be indifferent to their plight”. She implored us to stay involved, since Canadians are “good at fighting indifference”, and closed by once again stressing the power of the arts and other tools to lead to positive outcomes in people’s lives. I especially liked the note of “other tools”. It’s important to remember that there isn’t a single avenue or tool that will resonate with everyone. The arts can be a powerful channel for people, but others will identify (better) with things like sport, work, or volunteering, for example. The arts are merely one part of the solution.

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Jean then took a seat front-row centre and turned the event over to the audience and the hip-hop panel on stage. While this produced a good dialogue, I felt like the tagline for the event was misleading; it was a speech from the Governor General followed by a dialogue with hip-hop activists and the audience, not a dialogue with the Governor General. I think it’s great that a public official is willing to sit and listen, it just would have been nice had it been advertised as such.

This was the first time I heard our Governor General speak in person. What impressed me most, as I mentioned at the outset, is her ability to connect with people, largely through her willingness to relate to their culture and habits. In her speech she referenced her “journey of solidarity with the north”, leading to activities such as eating a seal heart that have received criticism in some circles. She showed a willingness to relate to youth culture as well, dancing on stage alongside two hip-hop activists at the end of the panel discussion.

I was also impressed with her willingness to talk about social issues, and some of the challenges faced by youth, especially in at-risk and remote communities. It was the kind of speech you rarely if ever hear from elected officials. It’s not the type of subject that’s necessarily going to win a lot of votes, nor will it necessarily produce quick results. Nor do elected officials constantly facing the specter of non-confidence votes and elections have a lot of ability to plan for the long-term. But they are incredibly important, and it is necessary for the health of our country that prominent figures like our Governor General raise awareness and advocate for them.

Finally, I want to talk about the value of symbolism. The position of Governor General is often dismissed as merely being a figurehead or a symbol; I think Jean proves that an active, passionate Governor General is anything but. Nevertheless, there is incredible power in a symbol. Beyond all the good work she is doing, the symbolic value of a visible minority and former refugee rising to be Canada’s de facto head of state is very powerful – and I imagine it’s especially true for marginalized and minority groups. Bringing inspiration to anyone, especially at-risk and vulnerable populations who need it the most is invaluable. Her term is a little more than a year away from ending, but in her time she has made a big impact on our country. I worry that she’ll be remembered in history for agreeing to prorogue parliament in December 2008. We need to ensure that, like with any person, her truly valuable contributions are remembered and celebrated. Her willingness and ability to connect with different cultures and to advocate for at-risk, vulnerable, and isolated communities – those who need a champion the most – should be celebrated. The more citizens we have willing to do this, the stronger our country will be.

More GYA: Craig Kielburger; Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not

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.