Arthur Rooks – online antiques dealer

by admin on September 21, 2011

Antiques dealer Arthur Rooks was bitten by the vintage bug very early. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Arthur tagged along with his grandmother to garage sales, later ditching Sunday school to do some stealth shopping at the local flea market by himself. Fate intervened to bring him to Zurich, where he now operates a growing online vintage furnishings shop called Quintessentia. With a voracious appetite for knowledge of design history and with his business and technology acumen, Arthur is capitalizing on his modern vision for what this age-old business can be.

Arthur Rooks with a flea market find in Zurich, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

Growing up in Jackson, Missisippi, and going on to live in Zurich and create your online vintage-modern store Quintessentia is a most unlikely path. What drew you to Zurich in the first place, and what made you stay and create your business there?

I guess it was fate, in a way — like if I’d turned left, I would have done this. My path to Zurich actually goes through Chicago because I went to Northwestern. Then about 18 years ago, a friend of mine moved to Zurich, and my plan was to come to Zurich and get some international living experience to enhance my MBA application. I arrived here and fell in love and then fell in love with Zurich as well.

At the beginning, I worked for the opera house and with the Zurich Ballet in marketing. There was a point where I was interested in marketing for the business side of theater and the entertainment industry. But I’ve always been a collector, and I wandered into a gallery of 20th century design and became friends with the owner. My gig was kind of running out with the opera house, and I’d actually pretty much closed down my life here and was just going to stay through the summer. Then suddenly one day I got a call from the gallery owner and she said, “My former assistant just told me he’s leaving, and I’m looking for someone. I’m not sure if you’re interested, but I thought about you.” So it was really just fate, in a way. I was really supposed to leave in September, and I started working at this gallery at the end of July. So I thought, “OK, I’ll stay another couple of years.” And then that turned into another couple of years, and now 18 years later, I’m still here.

I worked for this gallery for about five years, and I’d become kind of restless. I had applied for business school at a satellite here of University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and I got this business idea from a friend, Paul Wolfrom, who is now my business partner. I had just designed his apartment, and he said, “You know, why don’t you start your own business? You’re really good at this, and this could be something for you.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve heard this a couple of times before.” So we started this business together, and he’s the finance guy. I was a little bit scared to go out on my own, but having a business partner gave me a little more confidence. We drew up this business plan and started the business. I had been selling on eBay before, but it was more just a hobby in my spare time. But it took someone else to give me a little kick in the butt, so that’s how the business started. And it was kind of a natural process, and it grew out of labors of love, in a sense.

Vases at Quintessentia, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

Arthur Rooks shooting items for Quintessentia, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

What range of items do you carry on the Quintessentia site, and is there something in particular you specialize in?

I’m the only buyer, so it’s one person’s vision pretty much. It’s pretty much the things I’d want to live with and the things I like. At the beginning, I was trying to guess the market, and that just doesn’t work because, first of all, my heart’s not in it. I think you really have to be able to stand behind the merchandise and believe what you’re selling. The fortunate thing is that I have such a wide interest in cultural history and art history, and I’ve read so much and learned so much about things from antiquity through 18th and 19th century and 20th century design, which has always been my love, that I’m able to then buy across the board. I feel comfortable in pretty much any century, as far as buying and also how I live. I live with a lot of 20th century design, but I also have some antique pieces at home. If I’m designing for myself or for someone’s apartment, my goal is to have the space look like it evolved and not like they just bought a bunch of furniture.

So the specialty is pretty much 20th century design, but like right now, we have a pair of early 19th century Italian chairs on the website which I absolutely love and they have nothing to do with 20th century design, but I think in the right environment, they would work. If I can imagine living with it, then I buy it.

Pieces curated by Arthur Rooks for Quintessentia, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

Arthur Rooks in chair for Quintessentia, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

How has your business progressed so far and what kind of success are you experiencing?

Since we’ve started the business, we’ve had over 10,000 transactions, and, of course, with repeat customers in there. And we’ve grown from a one-man operation to a three-man operation, which, with the costs of doing business in Switzerland, is a big step.

Also, now we’re trying to integrate re-editions of classic designs into the site. And we have our own line of pillows that we’re producing, all from vintage fabrics. So we’re branching out a little further into the market, but it’s all related. I don’t want to sell only antique, vintage furniture my whole life — I would love to use this business as a springboard to venture into other areas and expand the business. So we’ve been starting to create our own furniture under the Quintessentia label. Right now, we have just a small satellite collection, which includes a lounge chair, a stool, a room divider, and carpets. And I’ve been working on a green product for the kitchen, a container to put recyclables in. I really got tired of looking at a bag full of grocery sacks, and now I’ve designed something to put the grocery bags in! We’re on our second version of it, and it seems like the simplest thing, but until it goes into production, I’m still working on the details of it.

Pillow of vintage fabric for Quintessentia

Screen by Quintessentia

Are you mostly selling to individual customers or to other dealers?

To everybody, actually. Eighty percent of our clients are in the U.S., 15% are in Asia, the rest come from Europe, and every now and then we’ll sell to someone in Saudi Arabia. The bulk of our clientele is American I think because I’m American. And I’m not a trained interior designer or art historian. My training was more autodidactic, and from the age of 11 or even younger, I was always interested in reading decorating magazines. I was probably the only 12 year old boy in Mississippi who had a subscription to Metropolitan Home, and I was always reading about furniture history and art history. But I think my taste is distinctly American, and that’s why a lot of Americans buy from my site.

You credit your grandmother for taking you to garage sales every Saturday, in essence, giving you your first exposure to what has become your business. Did she have a developed design sense and an eye for value she imparted to you, or was this just a fun pastime for her?

My grandmother was a nurse’s aid, and my grandfather was a tractor and truck driver, so they always had a good income. And my grandmother always liked nice things, so it was more out of fun than necessity. She would sometimes moonlight as a private nurse in larger households of predominantly white families, and she realized they were having garage sales in the neighborhood. So when she’d leave work at 7:00 in the morning, she’d go to the garage sales there. She was bitten by the bug, and she passed that onto me.

She’d work the 11:00pm-7:00am shifts and, when I spent the summers with her, I’d already be dressed and sitting on the front porch waiting for her. She’d come home from work and maybe only have time to take a shower, and then we’d go to the flea markets. So that kind of started it all.

In Jackson on Sundays, there were always flea markets, and I was always a problem because the South is very religious and everybody goes to church. I was supposedly going to Sunday school, but our church was about 5 blocks away from the flea market, so I usually ditched Sunday school to run off to the flea market. I’d make it back in time to go to church. Fortunately, I’d gotten friendly with dealers at the flea market, who let me stash my things there, and then after church my mom would take me there, not knowing I’d already bought stuff. So I’d pick up the things I’d already bought.

By 14, I’d gotten my learner’s permit to drive, and then there was no stopping me. I’d go to the Salvation Army and garage sales by myself.

How were you able to afford these purchases?

I was the only grandchild for a long time, and also I was my grandmother’s favorite grandchild, so she always gave me money on the side. And I was a child actor and did things like commercials and a couple of movies and paid theater work. I think at that time I was getting about a $30 a day per diem for food, so I’d stash that money away.

Arthur Rooks scouting the Zurich flea market, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

Paintings from Quintessentia, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

What led you to study industrial engineering and theater? Did you have a plan in mind for that combination of studies?

That was a difficult phase in my life, because I still had this pressure in a way that I had to do something really BIG. You know, “You’re a smart, young black man. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer.” But I’d always done acting as a child and did theater through high school as well. And I felt I needed to balance this whole science thing out with some sort of liberal arts. And Northwestern had this special program where they allowed people to combine liberal arts and technical degrees together, so I was able to pursue that.

Also, by that time I’d already started dealing antiques. In fact, as soon as I had my first bank account at age 15, I started dealing out of necessity. I had an overdrawn checking account, so I ended up selling some of my baseball cards from when I was 8. I think I sold a group of 50 for like $800, which was an unheard of amount of money at that time. Of course, now I do not want to know what those cards are probably worth, but at the time this allowed me to balance my checking account. And I was kind of bitten by the bug.

Then going on to get your MBA in strategic management at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, were you intending to go into the corporate world or did you have entrepreneurial aspirations all along?

I’d already started my business, and the MBA kind of came out of necessity. First, out of fear — like if this business doesn’t happen, I wanted to have something in my pocket so I could eventually look for a job! Also, it was just intellectual curiosity on my part because I’d always wanted to get my MBA. And the third thing was that I wanted to be able to run this business well, and I wanted this business to work. It was kind of the perfect thing, like a message from above.

Something that sets you apart is your business acumen and level of service, as well as the scale of the business you intend to build. What is your ultimate vision for Quintessentia?

I guess I should start by saying what my business partner and I didn’t want to create. We were adamant from the beginning that we didn’t want to have a business where you have this classic sense of some person sitting in an antiques shop in a corner wearing a sweater and ignoring you. We wanted to create a very modern idea of a vintage or antiques business. This includes using technology and software and all kinds of support. And my business partner Paul has been very important in this part because he’s so technologically savvy. We’d have discussions about how on Amazon you could do this, or on Amazon you couldn’t do that. We really wanted to apply modern business methods and technology to probably one of the oldest businesses in the world besides prostitution. It’s the idea that someone can come into our online shop, they can look around, they can buy something and have as much information as they want, and carry out a transaction without having any personal contact at all.

That’s one goal, but the other goal is that if there’s someone who needs to be taken care of, who has a thousand questions, we’re also there for them. So we’re kind of a multi-layered business. We can be as distant or as close as you want us to be.

Another goal was to be quite transparent. There’s nothing that frustrates me more when I go online and look at shops and they have “price upon request.” It puts me off. We want to make ourselves as accessible as possible for our clients, regardless of whether something costs $100 or $12,000 — for us, it doesn’t matter. We want to let the customer choose what kind of transaction they want to have. It’s really like a convergence of this age-old antiques business and the interface of the modern world. We think this really is the future.

When you’re scouting for new finds, what jumps out at you first?

That’s a good question. With furniture, with vintage design it’s easy because there are the classics — OK, that’s an Eames or whatever. But for sculptures and other items, it’s pretty much a question of whether I would like to have it! And I think in terms of a scheme, I don’t think, “Oh, this is a nice piece.” I think, “This would look great sitting with this and this on this.” It’s always in combination with a grouping of other things or a larger design scheme. There’s always a visual process involved.

An Arthur Rooks design in Zurich, photo by Timothy Jack Ward

Your chosen career path is pretty different from what I would guess your family imagined you doing. Did they see this coming, and what do they think now seeing what you’ve built so far?

No, I don’t think they necessarily saw it coming. I was identified as a gifted child, and suddenly there are these expectations that I’d do something really substantial — “Oh, you have to be become a doctor or a lawyer.” And, of course, I bought into that and thought for the longest time I was destined to become a research scientist. I was also interested in being an architect, but that was a sensitive subject because there weren’t that many black architects, and architecture at the time wasn’t something people thought you could really make money doing. Or maybe I’d be an interior designer, but in Mississippi, that was really not something you wanted to be.

But as the business and I have gotten more exposure, my mother said to me the other day, “Now I see where this came from.” How many other sons are telling you at age 13, “We’ve gotta get chintz!”

When you’re not working, what do you love to do?

I work a lot. I’m one of these people who gets up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I’m bed around 1:00 in the morning. But I do this because I’m one of those fortunate people who absolutely loves what I do. When I’m not working, I’m usually reading a book about antiques or about something that indirectly helps my business. I try to do some sports to keep myself in shape and mentally balanced. I love to eat, and I love to cook! And I try to see friends as much as possible.

But most of my free time is somehow connected to the business  I’ll go to an art exhibition or I’ll look at shops or I’ll visit clients. It’s a 7-day-a-week job by choice. Like, tomorrow morning is flea market day here in Zurich, and it’s like Christmas Eve for me! It’s like I’m a kid again sitting on the doorstep waiting for my grandmother to go to the flea market.

It’s a complete learning process, this business. I’m always coming across things I don’t know, I’m always researching something. I’m not the kind of person who will say, “Blue vase for sale.” I try to research it and place it in a time and place and tell the story behind it. I’m very much interested in French history from about 1600 to Napoleon, and I’ve read probably over 150 books about this period — anything from biographies to books about art guilds.

A lot of people have asked me about how it is to live as a black man in Switzerland, and they ask about racism. And my thing is that there are different people everywhere, and wherever there are people, there are going to be prejudices. I guess for me, somehow in my life, I have managed to always ignore the detractors. I always tell people, “You’ve got to learn to ignore the detractors, because those are just stones in your way.”

Arthur Rooks, founder of Quintessentia - photo by Timothy Jack Ward

For more information and to see current Quintessentia products, visit www.quintessentia.com. Read my full interview with Arthur Rooks and get his advice for anyone thinking about their career in my book Field Trip: Volume One, available on Amazon here.

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Michael Koh – real estate investor

by admin on January 25, 2011

A single question prompted a life-changing decision for real estate investor Michael Koh. Asking himself what if he only had three years to live, Michael began traveling extensively around the world, eventually selling everything he owned and moving to Buenos Aires, the city he had fallen in love with. Confounded by corruption and wasteful business practices endemic to the city, Michael found a way to offer superior service and smart advice through his multiple real estate firms. Now with over 170 properties and a growing list of wealthy investors placing full trust in him, Michael has created an entirely new niche founded on investment savvy and strong business ethics.

Living room of a Koh apartment in Buenos Aires, photo by Esteban Lobo

Following is an excerpt of my interview with Michael Koh. For the full interview and his great advice for anyone thinking about their career, buy my new book Field Trip: Volume One, featuring Michael and 11 other mentors in different fields of work. Available on Amazon here!

You were doing quite well working as a senior executive for a company in Dallas when you asked yourself what if you only had three years to live. What prompted you to ask that question, and what was your answer?

Well, I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had the vision to think many years or a decade ahead of time. I was working very hard and was very successful at what I was doing. I was still fairly young at the time and had accomplished quite a bit for my age. I was working with high profile and wealthy businessmen, wealthy families and corporations and municipalities at the time. Life was good. I was making a lot of money and living the American dream.

I witnessed first-hand that having oodles of money didn’t necessarily equate with being really happy in life. In fact, I saw some clients pass away after retirement. And many others that made tremendous sums of money, but they weren’t really enjoying life. They lived to work instead of working to live. They were a slave to their work.

One day I woke up and asked myself literally what I would do if my doctor told me I had just three years to live. I imagined what would be important to me and if my priorities would be different. For a few weeks, I wrote down on paper the things I would do or wanted to do. I started to prioritize things as if I really only had three years to live. I came to the conclusion if I really only had three years to live, I’d want to travel and see the world. I had traveled quite a bit within the USA and parts of Europe and Mexico, but those were only twice-a-year international trips. Nothing too adventurous or extravagant.

If I really only did have three years to live, then money wouldn’t be a concern. I was single at the time, I had no children, and I decided if I had three years, I’d travel all over the world to cities I’ve always wanted to go to but was too busy working to think about going to.

My list came together, and more and more cities were going on the list. At the time, I didn’t know if it would be possible to hit so many places, but I’m happy to say I hit every city on my list. And even today, my family and I still continue to travel around the world constantly learning about new cultures and seeing new and interesting cities.

Our oldest daughter is 23 months old and she has been to 25 cities in 12 countries on 3 continents with more trips planned. I think it’s important to give a global picture to your children so they don’t have such a sheltered view of life.

The view from a Koh apartment in Buenos Aires, photo by Esteban Lobo.

Out of all the places you traveled during those years, what was it about Buenos Aires that kept calling you back? Did you imagine moving there?

I always try to explain to people it wasn’t just 1 or 2 or 3 things that I could specifically name I loved about Buenos Aires. It was dozens and dozens of small things I really enjoyed about the city, the culture, and the way of life and attitude here. There are certainly many more beautiful cities around the world than Buenos Aires.

In my travels, I was going to really beautiful cities on a non-stop basis — one week I’d be in London, the next Paris, Zurich, The French Riviera and enjoying the beaches there. Playing at the Casino in Monte Carlo, visiting museums in Florence, or enjoying the beautiful architecture in Prague.

Buenos Aires has a lot of life and energy that to this day I have yet to witness in any city around the world — and I’ve been to over 500 cities now. It was amazing to see 70 year old senior citizens up at 2:00AM drinking coffee in a cafe here. In the USA, turning 65 seemed like such a depressing point for so many. And an exciting evening for some would be ordering a pizza after 10:00 PM. Yet here you had people up all night, celebrating and embracing life all hours of the day and night.

I loved the simplicity of families actually spending time with their loved ones in the parks, which are all full.  I really enjoy architecture and loved all of the older buildings of Recoleta mixed with the newer buildings in Palermo. It was an architectural delight for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Not everything is “rainbows and unicorns” in Buenos Aires. When I started coming here, Argentina was in the middle of a financial collapse. Their currency had just been devalued and their banking system was a mess. But what really surprised me was the almost calm in the streets. The banks had just confiscated two-thirds of the locals’ money and wouldn’t release it from the banks, and yet people were just banging pots and pans in the streets. I’m quite confident if the same thing happened in the USA, you would have people blowing up banks — or worse! I looked at everything that was going on and really thought that would be the low point for Argentina.

You know the old saying, “buy when there is blood in the streets.” I’ve always believed and followed that principle when investing.

I would come down every month, and I did dream about moving down here, but in the early days I didn’t think it was realistic. But the rest is history, and I’ve lived here for well over years now.

A Koh apartment with 5-star accommodations, photo by Esteban Lobo

Since your background was not in real estate and you didn’t speak Spanish at the time, what led you to believe you could build a successful real estate business in Buenos Aires? Did you consider other means of making this move?

I didn’t have any real estate experience. Other than owning my own home, that was the extent of my real estate experience. My Spanish at the time was very basic. I had taken a few years in high school, but that was long since forgotten and unused other than the occasional trip to Mexico.

However, I consider myself a really driven person with a Type A personality. Once I started traveling, I started taking classes at night after work. I’d study Spanish in my car listening to CD’s, listen to Spanish at the gym on my iPod, and I studied flashcards at night. I really immersed myself in Spanish. After I moved to Buenos Aires, I went to classes 3 hours a day, worked, had a private professor for 2 hours, then at night I’d study on my own another 2 hours — so I was studying Spanish 7 hours a day for the first 8 months after moving here.

Although I didn’t have real estate experience, I had a tremendous amount of business and marketing experience. On a daily basis in the U.S., I was dealing with municipalities like the City of Dallas, Dallas County School District, big institutions like the Federal Reserve Bank, Fortune 500 companies, and wealthy families and hedge funds. I negotiated all contracts for my company, handled the marketing and new business acquisition, and essentially brought in all the income for the company. I feel very fortunate to have come in contact with such class acts on a daily basis.

When I seriously started thinking of moving to Buenos Aires, I looked at all the industries that had the potential to make money. There weren’t too many options besides real estate. I had no interest in working around food or beverage. So I started to really study the real estate market, the laws, tax issues, and complexities, and I started developing contacts here. I also have always loved architecture and design, so this was a good opportunity for me to utilize those skills.

I also enjoy studying economics, and I took a deep look at the situation in Argentina. I saw the downfall of the real estate market and financial collapse here as an opportunity. Contrary to what some may think, I don’t like taking risks. So I studied in detail the laws, spent one year putting together a very detailed business plan, and I always thought I’d move to Argentina when I retired.

During my due diligence phase, I started leasing out properties and subletting them, and I learned a tremendous amount about what people were looking for. But mostly I based it on my extensive travels and what was important to me. I loved having a luxurious and comfortable mattress, being in a great location, having great amenities in the building, friendly staff, and internet access that was free. And that’s what I put together and developed.

One day I was sitting in my office working on my business plan, and I started thinking I was confident that with hard work and dedication I could make this work. I thought out almost everything in detail and told myself I’d be crazy if I didn’t at least try it. If things didn’t work out, I could always come back to the U.S. and easily find another executive level job. But I may only have one opportunity to move to South America and try to executive my business plan while real estate prices had artificially had fallen so low.

Rooftop pool at a Koh apartment in Buenos Aires, photo by Esteban Lobo

At what point did you realize your attention to detail and commitment to providing great service was the key to capturing an entire market niche there?

I noticed it right away. The big difference between the first world level of working and Argentina was night and day. Argentina is not third-world by any means, but the way they did business here when I arrived was really horrible. Companies didn’t spend any money on marketing, and they didn’t get back to a request in a timely manner with their potential clients. Sometimes I’d email companies and not hear back for 4 or 5 days. Also, no one at the time was marketing investments to Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Australians and Asians. I started doing that, and immediately I could see I had a huge advantage being American with very strong references from the USA from the likes of the Federal Reserve Bank, who was a good client of mine.

I told myself that if I created a good product that competed with the 4 and 5 star hotels, then I’d be successful. When I started coming to Argentina in 2002, there were no organized apartment rental companies because there wasn’t much tourism at the time. Before the financial meltdown here in 2002, there wasn’t much tourism here because it was more expensive to come to Buenos Aires than it was to go to Paris. Remember at the time the dollar was stronger than the euro, and the Argentine peso was at parity with the USA dollar 1:1, so it made flying to Paris cheaper than coming to Buenos Aires with everything being priced in dollars here at the time.

I have always been very detail-oriented and very quick to respond to my clients. In my professional career my pet peeve was never going to sleep at night before every single email is answered, and I am proud to say that I have maintained that level of commitment even to this day when I often get 400-500+ emails a day.

When I was buying my first few properties for myself, I saw the way the realtors worked here. It was really disorganized with them often giving out wrong information, never really answering my tax questions, or giving out inaccurate information, and never any advice to do an inspection or any due diligence. They wanted to close a sale as quickly as possible so they could earn their commission. And others just outright lied. So I wanted to provide a service that was always ethical, honest and very informative, and always very responsive.

A well-appointed kitchen plus balcony with view at a Koh apartment, photo by Esteban Lobo

Once I created a company that provided those things, the business exploded. I basically created the model that almost all of the local rental companies have copied and are using today. I’ve had multiple competitors tell me they outright copied our business model, and I’m flattered by that. There is something to be said for creating an entire industry in one of the largest cities in the world, and I’m really proud of that.

The actual point when I realized that I created something different was when every single day I was getting dozens of calls/emails from potential investors to invest their money and buy a property here. It may sound crazy, but I haven’t met many of my clients face to face. In the early years, once I qualified an investor and they retained me, I took a power of attorney document to buy and manage their property, and then they would give me free reign to purchase what I wanted if I felt it was a strong investment.

It was a bit surreal for an investor to say, “Michael, I have $1 million dollars, and I want you to buy what you think is the best property. Or buy a few properties. Or buy something and renovate it tastefully.” I really loved that, and when I saw the trust that people had with me investing over $100 million dollars in cash, I knew I had created a special niche market. Keep in mind, the market here is all 100% cash over the table with no mortgages or loans, and at closing you are actually handing over $100 US bills, so it’s very surreal! The amount of trust needed by investors sending in cash is tremendous. Most foreign investors definitely wouldn’t trust a local with this kind of transaction. In one transaction many years ago, I was buying an old building for a hedge fund client of mine. The purchase price was $3 million U.S. dollars, and the seller demanded all-cash at the closing. So imagine going to the bank and counting out $3 million in $100 bills! It took hours to count it. So you can imagine the amount of trust and faith investors had in me being an all-cash market.

A quiet sanctuary in a Koh apartment, photo by Esteban Lobo

………….

“From the start, I knew that I wasn’t competing with other cheap apartment rentals. I wanted to compete with the 4- and 5-star hotels. These hotels are very expensive, and the average hotel room in Buenos Aires has about 290 sq. feet. They charge up to $20 US per day for internet access. My goal was to buy, renovate and furnish well-located properties and then rent them out for a fraction of the price of high-end hotels. And we have succeeded.”

Michael Koh, photo by Jamie Waters

To read the full interview with Michael and hear his great advice for anyone thinking about their career, buy my new book Field Trip: Volume One, featuring Michael and 11 other mentors in different fields of work. Available on Amazon here!

http://www.kohinvestments.com/

http://www.mikesapartmentsba.com/

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Azby Brown is an architect and design theorist whose in-depth study of Japan provides inspiration for the future of sustainable urban living. Raised in New Orleans, Azby originally studied theater and dance until a series of chance opportunities led him to move to Tokyo and build a life and career devoted to smart design. He has written books profiling the ingenuity of space-constrained Japanese architecture and showcasing the bold solutions from pre-industrial Tokyo to fend off environmental and resource catastrophe. Now serving as the director of a design lab and think tank, Azby connects the cultural, creative, and economic dots that illustrate the rich potential of sustainable design.

Natural Wedge House, designed by Masaki Endoh and Masahiro Ikeda, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown; photograph by Toshihiro Sobajima

Find an expanded interview with Azby Brown in my new book Field Trip: Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my book here.

You originally studied architecture and sculpture, and over time have immersed yourself in the study of Japanese architecture, urban design, and sustainability. How would you describe your current work and where it’s taking you?

I studied architecture and sculpture at Yale, and I came to Japan with this interest in the oldest traditional ways of building — I was really fascinated with that. But like a lot of people, when I got to Japan and actually started living here, contemporary Japan looked more and more interesting. How did it become this way? What are they doing? What are they thinking? And I really became interested in urbanism — specifically, how these people design for these very, very narrow, small spaces. And this incredible ingenuity.

I spent a lot of time studying the areas under railroad viaducts. There are a lot of elevated railways that date back more than 100 years, which became these incredibly lively spaces that after the second World War had black markets. And then people were living there, and now they’re full of these tiny bars where you have to fold up the bar to get in. They’re amazing spaces! So I did some really very intensive academic research on that.

The more I studied different aspects of Japanese life and design, the more these things seemed connected. I’ve written books on Japanese carpentry, small house design, and the sustainable practices of the Edo period. Now I’m the director of the Future Design Institute, a design lab and think tank in Tokyo that is part of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology.

House in Moto-Azabu, designed by Mutsue Hayakusa, Cell Space Architects, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown; photo by Azby Brown

Having grown up in New Orleans, what drew you to such a different culture? Was there anything in your childhood that makes your path make sense?

New Orleans is a great place to grow up. Our neighborhood was built in the 1920s and was in the middle of the city. I’d always assumed it was urban until I went to the east coast and saw what real urban areas were like, but it was a really wonderful neighborhood. Life was pretty much centered around the church and the schools, and I really started to get interested in neighborhoods and houses and buildings, even way back when I was a little kid.

I mean, I never thought about architecture and design per se, but I was fascinated with how buildings were put together, and I would climb on roofs, climb into attics. As kids, our neighborhoods were wonderful for exploring that way. I remember as a kid discovering the way up to the bell tower of our local parish church and being able to climb up and look out over this flat city. And being able to climb into attic spaces where I could look at these incredible beams and trusses. So I was really interested in communities and very fortunate to grow up in that kind of environment.

Meanwhile, my mother was a painter and I was always interested in creative things. In high school, I really was very interested in music and theater more than any other creative thing. When I was looking at college, I thought, ‘Well, Yale has a really good theater department and maybe that would be good for me.’ So I went to college fully expecting to be a theater major. I did a lot of dance back then, a lot of training. But I was a little disappointed at the offerings of the undergraduate program in theater.

I attended a lecture by Vincent Scully, a great architectural historian, who back in the 1940s almost single-handedly directed people’s attention to the vernacular of where people live. He was a remarkable lecturer and very passionate, and that really got me fascinated in architecture. I also took a good sculpture class with a teacher who had spent time in Japan. Meanwhile, one of my roommates had spent time in Japan, so I had a lot of exposure to Japanese design and aesthetics and architectural context back then. So eventually when I was picking a major, I was on the fence between architecture and sculpture, and I picked sculpture. This was the late ’70s, and at the time there was an explosion of new ways to approach sculpture and a lot of artists working in an architectural vocabulary. And my own interest in building at the time was as much about craft as about design and planning. So I majored in sculpture, but I took all of the required architecture design courses.

I had been interested in coming to Japan, applied for some grants and didn’t get them, so I spent a couple of years in New York doing theater. But then I was tapped to go to Japan to participate in an outdoor street performance festival in Tokyo. And that was it, that was all I needed! I hit the ground running. I was paid about $100 a day, they put us up in a hotel, and I saved my per diem and stayed in Japan for a couple of months. I got another job and then got a TV commercial and other things that allowed me to stay about three months.

I went back to the States and applied for a grant — there’s a fabulous grant program that the Japanese government has had for 20 years or more for foreign students, and I applied for that and got the grant. And I’ve been here ever since then. One of the things that I was really most interested in seeing when I came to Japan was traditional wooden architecture, particularly temple carpentry. And it was through a long, round-about series of chance misunderstandings, but I was able to meet a man named Tsunekazu Nishioka, who was considered the last great Japanese temple carpenter. He was very warm and welcoming, and I was able to spend several years studying his work while I had that grant. And that really changed my life. The first book I wrote, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, came out of that work while I was still finishing my masters thesis.

Have you applied your architectural studies toward designing your own projects, or are you working more on the research and writing end of it?

I do design work, but I don’t have much of a practice. It’s funny, because I’m more of a house and lifestyle doctor. I’ve done a few projects and sort of decided that my interest is not as much in having a design studio as much as in thinking about the issues. So I’m much more of a theorist, but I have a steady stream of projects consulting with people who want advice about how to plan their houses. So I do a lot of planning, which then usually gets handed off to a different designer who will actually realize the project. It’s pretty gratifying.

Small Spaces, by Azby Brown

The Very Small Home, by Azby Brown

In 2005, you published your book The Very Small Home, which showcases some marvels in Japanese residential architecture. What are some of your favorite ideas you discovered?

There’s an incredible store of ingenuity, ideas and experience here, because every designer, every architect certainly, and most homeowners — everyone, for that matter — they grapple with these issues. ‘This is all the space I have — how can I deal with it?’ And the architects learn from each other, and they come up with ways of squeezing bathrooms in narrow corners, making things fold down and convert and move. But I guess the biggest eye-opener for me was that you have to make decisions about what your life is about and how your home is going to accommodate that. In the book, I call this “The Big Idea.” And it really means editing your life.

But, in fact, very few people can do it. And when I give talks about the book, I make sure I show a few photos of how people here actually live. What I’m showing in the book are the best examples, usually photographed shortly after they’re completed. People just accumulate stuff in life, and it’s never quite as neat as it looks in those books. But there is a lot more discipline about life in general here than certainly in the United States. I found that if you understand your life as a flow over time — you’ll spend a certain amount of time in the bedroom, a certain amount of time in other spaces — and let that be reflected in the design of your house, then you’ll realize, “Well, the bedroom really doesn’t need to be much because I’m hardly ever there. And when I’m there, I’m not even conscious!” But it can be comfortable, and storage is absolutely essential. It has to be well designed. That’s a tricky thing. When I talk with clients, they ask, “Is it better to have one big storage area or a lot of little ones?” And I say, “Better to have one big one and a lot of little ones!” Because they should be convenient to where you are so that you’ll use them.

So it’s really about looking at your life dispassionately and also looking at it a bit idealistically. If you aim for a fairly high ideal, you’ll end up with something very realistic. If you aim for something realistic, you’ll end up with something disappointing. So you have to be idealistic about it. But ultimately you have to be very honest about yourself.

The following series of photos shows the ingenious kitchen design and storage solutions by Tomoyuki Utsumi, Milligram Studio; profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown (all photos by Azby Brown):

Kitchen with work surface nested into wall cabinets...

Kitchen with work surface pulled out from wall cabinets.

Raised kitchen floor allows for storage of infrequently used items.

A small but spacious feeling kitchen and living area.

The conditions in Japan in the ’90s that gave rise to this interest in small home design are oddly similar to what’s happened in the U.S. and other places — economic turmoil, political tension, a devastating natural disaster, anxiety about terrorist activities, and a reaction to the excesses of a ‘bubble economy’. How optimistic are you that other cultures might embrace small house design?

I’m very optimistic, especially for urban areas. I participated in a symposium last fall in New York hosted by an organization called the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC). They were founded in the 1930s by an independent citizens’ group to research and advocate for housing issues and to advise and keep an eye on the government. So they looked at what had been happening in New York and what they expect to happen in New York going forward. In particular, a few years back Mayor Bloomberg instituted a 25 year plan for New York that looks at having 1 million more people come into the city, simply because the city has become more attractive. So they asked, “How can we accommodate them?” The CHPC decided to look into this because the city already has a housing shortage, and it’s already very dense.

It turns out the housing policy in New York dates from the mid-twentieth century when there were a lot of nuclear families and the government implicitly encouraged the construction of housing for nuclear families — big apartments with several bedrooms. But, in fact, those families only represent something like 17% of the households in New York now. Whereas 30% of people are single, and you have a lot of adults living together in roommate situations. But it’s against the law in New York to have more than three unrelated people living together, and this dates back to the early twentieth century when you had these horrific conditions with twenty people crammed into a basement room. So regulations were passed to alleviate that, but it’s time to rethink them.

So the CHPC held a symposium and invited me and a Japanese architect, because they’re looking very much at Tokyo and at how flexible and open-minded people are here about how to live. And they’re also looking at how people here adopt new technology. These are ideas that a city like New York really needs to look at for the future. And they’re not alone: almost every major city on the planet will be grappling with density issues. And most of them are welcoming lessons from the Japanese experience.

The Glass Shutter House, with street level restaurant and residence on 2 upper floors. Designed by Shigeru Ban architects, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown

The following video from the National Geographic Channel shows the Penguin House, one of the architectural projects profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown:

Tell me about your work with the KIT (Kanazawa Institute of Technology) Future Design Institute in Tokyo.

I had written a second book called Small Spaces, which looks at contemporary life and the whole way that Japanese designers accommodate the constraints of working with narrow spaces. Right around the time that book came out and I was finishing up at the university, I was approached by professors in the architecture department at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology who were looking for a design teacher. And they took a chance on me. They said, “Well, he’s a foreigner, but let’s try that.” So I started there in ’95 in the architecture department. Then about six years ago, the university started a media informatics program. They wanted to have design courses, and I was asked to move to that department. It really wasn’t that good a fit in terms of culture — this new department was full of engineers. When we were discussing the curriculum and I was told I had to teach a course in 3D design, which they imagined would be 3D computer graphics, I said sure. And I thought about it, and because these students had never had any background in design, I came up with a syllabus that included 4-6 weeks of making things by hand. My colleagues freaked out. At the meeting they literally gasped, ‘By hand?!?’ But they eventually got it.

In the meantime, I’d put together a proposal to set up the Future Design Institute, this little lab in Tokyo, which would be an open place where we would do design research and do collaborative projects and have exhibitions and do writing. And some people in the university really supported it, and they allowed me to do that. So instead of being in the architecture department, I had this laboratory and until recently was also teaching in this media department. Now I spend all my time here at the lab, and it’s like heaven because now I’m a full-time researcher doing various projects. It’s a think tank. My book Just Enough on the Edo period came out of this work and these shared concerns.

Just Enough, by Azby Brown

In your new book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, you researched the Edo period when Japan was faced with many of the same resource problems we face today and developed a highly sustainable society. What did you find? And do you think there has to be a cultural and political tipping point for people to move as aggressively as what you describe?

The main thing is that Japan has such limited arable land and has always had a large population. It was always a challenge to have enough agricultural production to feed the people. And it was always a challenge because it was a warrior society that experienced centuries of war. They were building castles and had massive defensive building projects that really did a lot to deforest the country. So in the early 1600s, the country was unified and the government wanted to continue these big building projects, they found it was getting very difficult to source timber, and the whole process of transporting the timber was damaging the watershed. They were cutting trees, it was weakening the riverbanks, and there were bad repercussions for the farmers. And the farm production was not keeping pace with the population increases.

So there was this whole cascade of looming disasters. And the government did something very, very smart. They didn’t call a moratorium on forestry, but they did a tree census. They said, “Hold on. Let’s see where all the trees are. Let’s look at what we’re going to have to do to prevent these problems from happening and to increase agricultural production.” So they established forests that were out of bounds. No one could go into them to cut, and they established regenerative forestry — one of the first examples anywhere that we know about. And having to work well with customs and the social structure, they knew there would have to be generations of people on-site taking care of the forests. Part of it was top-down, with a few regulations that were very strictly enforced. I mean, if you entered this forest with an ax — I’m sorry, you were dead. It was very, very draconian, because it was that kind of society and the forests were that important.

But the main thing is that it worked well with the existing values of the people. They were very frugal to begin with, they had been living in these same valleys for centuries and had a very good understanding of the natural flow of how the watersheds worked and how the weather might change and what the various animal species were. So it was a wonderful way to leverage the value system of the people with this overarching goal of creating a sustainable, well-managed environment. It didn’t happen instantly — it took a couple of generations and different features developed at different paces, but eventually they did it. A big issue that we could really learn from has to do with understanding the relationship between urban areas and rural areas and understanding the flow of items and materials that need to go back and forth.

Illustration of natural cooling from Just Enough by Azby Brown

Illustration of tenement courtyard from Just Enough by Azby Brown

One of the big breakthroughs was when they decided to maximize the use of human waste as a fertilizer. This is an example of what I call a ‘multiform solution.’ Here’s the problem: in our situation, our cities as far back as the 19th century were horrifically polluted. Human waste was left in cesspools, and, compared to that, the sewer system and the flush toilet represented a wonderful hygienic advance. But we didn’t really think far enough ahead, and now we’re in the situation where we waste an amazing amount of fresh water. Half of our fresh water is used in toilets and showers, 30% or more of our fresh water is for the toilet alone. We’re using our fresh water for our toilet, and then it’s going into water supply and polluting it. And then we have to use all this energy and effort to purify the water again. This is obviously absolutely insane.

The Japanese realized this stuff works well as fertilizer. Initially the farmers were being paid to take it away, but eventually they had to pay for it. And the people who owned toilets were getting income from that, and it was having a wonderfully mutually beneficial effect on the water system, the lack of pollution, better food production, and health benefits for the city because the latrines were constantly being cleaned out. It was really a great win-win situation. We find this sort of thing all over, in almost every sphere of life in Japan and the way they handled things.

It was rarely one person with a breakthrough or one government ministry saying, “From now on we’re going to use, you know, human power for this.” It’s just that, because of the economic value of things like waste products, these processes evolved. And it’s really remarkable how well integrated it was and how deeply this attitude and these systems penetrated the society.

In the following video of his presentation at TEDxTokyo, Azby Brown discusses some key characteristics of sustainable life in Edo (an area that is now part of modern-day Tokyo):

What are they doing in Tokyo now? Are they still using human waste?

Well, the funny thing is, no. Everyone wants to be hooked up to the sewer system, so in that sense it’s fairly backward. Until recently there were places that did use human waste as fertilizer. And there are still places that are not hooked up to sewer systems, and there are septic tanks and trucks that come around and take it to a treatment plant. But in remote places, as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, they still use human waste as fertilizer.

In your book Just Enough, you describe how urban waterways are a smart component to an overall sustainable city design. How realistic do you think it is to retrofit cities with these urban waterways?

I think it’s very realistic in dense cities. If you have an area that has a lot of pedestrian activity to begin with, I think it’s fairly easy to integrate a water system. The trick is always going to be to separate the vehicular traffic from the pedestrian traffic. If you can make headway with that, then it’s fairly easy to do. In most cities, I think if you had a boat system — and I don’t mean just one kind of boat, but different varieties for moving people, for moving cargo, for different purposes — I think it’s very, very realistic. And most of our cities had these very lively water systems which disappeared because of the rise of trucking and wheeled vehicles. They just killed the canals.

Illustration of Edo village waterways and community from Just Enough by Azby Brown

Amsterdam is certainly one city that comes to mind with a great waterway system…

Amsterdam, but also London, Paris — most of these cities had systems of boats and canals for use quite frequently, especially for cargo and other goods. In London, people were constantly using the river for transportation, though Amsterdam and Venice are special cases. Certainly it’s easier if the place is flat to begin with, and those parts of Tokyo that were criss-crossed with canals were flat. Any city that has enough flat area makes it easy to dig those waterways.

Part of Amsterdam's waterway system

Is there any interest in Tokyo in bringing this back?

There is. What’s ironic is that Seoul recently revitalized its main urban waterways in a way that Tokyo would love to do! Tokyo made a big mistake back in the late 1950s and early 1960s when they were building for the Tokyo Olympics. They built expressways all around the city and basically built them all over the canals and rivers. That was open land, and they could just build it there quickly and easily. They did the quick and dirty thing and basically killed what was left of those waterways. So there is interest, but when you go to Tokyo now, the streets are very clogged with vehicles. There are a lot of pedestrians, and the train system is so well developed that, for long- and short-distance travel, people take the trains. The government made a conscious decision back in the late 19th century to de-emphasize wheeled vehicles in favor of railroads and boats. And then the boat system died, and the wheeled vehicles came in anyway with inadequate infrastructure.

Restoration of the Cheonggyecheon waterway in Seoul

But I think it’s realistic for a lot of reasons. Waterways are fun, they have a natural appeal, but they are also very useful. I can imagine if we could utilize waterways for cargo traffic, for transporting goods, that would bring quite a few benefits. I don’t see any reason why technically it couldn’t happen.

Political will is probably the bigger challenge.

Political will is a biggie. How do these things happen when they happen? It’s easiest for it to happen when someone is in a position to make a lot of money doing it. We see this constantly. These things need constituencies. And if we look at what’s happened just with simple things like recycling or community gardens, when a local constituency makes its will known, then it can happen.

But industry is a constituency, and as we see playing out now, it really has too much representation. Just like with green energy, until the energy companies are in a position to make a lot of money at it, it’s going to be hard to see it deployed on a large enough scale. Until some underdog comes through and is making a lot of money and everyone wants to be in on it! So it has to be a combination. I look at the Edo Japanese, where the average person saw they would benefit from recycling or selling items, and the government either stayed out of the way or implemented policies that made it easier for that to happen. By and large, the free market works very well once people see a benefit from it. And it could also happen as a result of scarcity, and then the whole ballgame shifts.

Bed loft in Naka-Ikegami house, designed by Tomoyuki Utsumi; profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown, photo by Azby Brown

What do you love about your life and work in Japan?

I like the human interaction here, I like the way people communicate. Which is really surprising to me, coming from New Orleans, because we think of the Japanese as being very, very reserved. But I find that people are considerate and that they think before they talk. And they’re fairly open-minded. I never thought I’d say this, because when I first came to Japan, I was constantly struck by what I thought was people being repressed and enduring all kinds of constraints in daily life in their behavior. But the longer I’ve been here and observe the parallel changes happening in the United States, I’d say Japan is a more liberal society than the U.S. is now. There are not many value judgements on people here. They think a lot about what is appropriate for a particular situation — that’s very important. And to say that people are appearance-conscious, part of that is demonstrating that you care about the other person.

And in terms of political life, there is a much broader spectrum of political viewpoints represented here. There’s still a Communist party, there’s a Socialist party, there are very, very right-wing parties — they’re all represented. But it’s a very middle-of-the-road society overall, so these fringe groups never get a majority. But they do have influence in the way problems are approached and framed. It’s a very liberal and free society compared to the United States in many, many respects.

Plus being a foreigner here who is interested in Japan and who spends the time getting to know the country and learn about it, the society returns that multi-fold. It’s a culture that is very concerned with not being understood or appreciated, so when someone like me who’s spent an entire career getting very deeply into some things that even Japanese people don’t know about, it’s a very good thing for them.

Plus, it’s fascinating. My motor is turning 100% all the time. I have to be very, very engaged just to function in everyday life, and that’s a good way to be. I can’t be complacent, I can’t take things for granted. And Japan remains an amazing place!

Azby Brown

In the following video clip of his presentation at a PechaKucha event in Tokyo, Azby Brown goes into more detail about his research of sustainable life in Edo:

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Craig Kielburger’s life mission began when he read an article about slain child slave Iqbal Masih. Just twelve years old, Craig embarked on a journey through Asia to document the horrific conditions of child laborers. Wise and articulate beyond his years, he created the non-profit Free The Children, which has now built over 500 schools and taken on countless related issues affecting children and families around the world. Together with his brother Marc, they have created an innovative company Me to We to help fund Free The Children and have inspired over 1 million kids to take action. Though one of Craig’s great gifts is his ability to encourage and mentor other young leaders, it seems the universe had unique designs for this remarkable young life.

Craig Kielburger working with a student in Kenya

Find an expanded interview with Craig Kielburger in my new book Field Trip:Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my new book here.

You created Free The Children, with extraordinary guts and vision, at the age of 12 after reading in the newspaper about the murder of former child laborer and activist Iqbal Masih. Did you have a sense at that time what it was you were embarking on?

Thinking back to the day I found Iqbal’s story in the newspaper, brought it to my class, asked for help and saw 11 hands shoot up, I can honestly say I had no idea that Free The Children would become what it is today. We never set out to start a charity. Instead, we were looking to make a difference on an issue that we felt needed attention. But when we got started, we really had a hard time finding ways to get involved in global issues.

We would ask organizations just how we could help. More often than not, they would ask for our parents’ credit card number. It was really discouraging. But that’s why we started coming up with our own projects. Today, Free The Children’s network has grown to include more than one million youth involved in our education and development programs in 45 countries. So far, that network has built more than 500 schools in Africa, Asia and South America, providing daily education to more than 50,000 students. The network has also equipped 23,500 women to be economically self-sufficient through micro-loans and alternative income programs.

Here in North America, we try to celebrate the young people who are part of this movement through We Days. These annual events are akin to a rock concert for social good. Last year, we hosted more than 32,000 students in stadiums in Toronto and Vancouver before an incredible lineup of inspirational speakers including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dr. Jane Goodall, Elie Wiesel and Robert Kennedy, Jr., as well as entertainers like Jason Mraz and the Jonas Brothers.

We Day 2009 event, photo by Vito Amati

I don’t think any of the 12 of us who formed Free The Children could have predicted that. Most people tend to think that young people are apathetic to the issues affecting our world. But, once we started asking for help, we very quickly found thousands of other young people just like us who were eager to change the world.

In the following documentary video, we see 12 year old Craig Kielburger embark on the mission of a lifetime:

Initially it was your goal to shed light on the issue of child labor and the terrible living conditions of so many children around the world, but you grew to take on a series of intertwined problems very holistically — building schools, paying for teachers, helping families create a stable income, working to create clean water sources, and so on. Do the complexity and enormity of the problems to be solved ever overwhelm you?

When I was travelling in India, I got the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. In that meeting, I asked her that very question. She said, “You have to realize, in our lives we can do no great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

I think these are words to live by. Sure, the world’s problems can seem daunting. But through your daily choices, we can make a difference in someone’s life. By simply drinking fair trade coffee or wearing an organic, sweatshop-free t-shirt, our actions have an impact on someone, somewhere. As long as you are committed, you are making a difference. If we all do these small things with great love, we are sure to do great things together.

The following video clip of Free The Children’s India Initiative shows the enormous complexity of interrelated problems Craig and his team are working on:

Conceiving of Me to We required an understanding of how the nature of business is evolving. Can you explain how the two organizations work together and what you think this model means for other businesses and industries?

It was really important for us to start pushing the boundaries of charity. It’s an incredible thing to write a cheque or volunteer. But so often, when we go home at the end of the day, it’s our consumption choices that end up perpetuating poverty around the world – just the thing Free The Children is fighting against, each and every day.

It was out of this realization that we started Me to We, a new kind of social enterprise for people who want to change the world with their daily choices. Through our media, socially-responsible choices and leadership experiences, we support Free The Children’s work with youth creating global change. Every trip, t-shirt, song, book, speech, thought and choice equates to helping make a difference.

Additionally, Me to We donates 50% of its annual revenue to Free The Children as a way to help that organization bring its already low administrative costs to zero. The other 50% is then reinvested back into Me to We to help it grow and sustain over time. This, we hope, will help redefine the bottom line to be measured by lives changed, contributions made, and the positive social and environmental impact we make.

Kids at their new school built by Free The Children in Salabwek, Kenya

Me to We book by Craig and Marc Kielburger

Health clinic funded by Free The Children in Kenya

So many people feel they need to wait until they’re old enough, wait until they know enough or have earned their degree, wait until they get a lucky break, and so on. But one of the great lessons of your story — and the message of your organizations — is not waiting, that now is always the right time to act. What kind of transformation have you seen happen with young people when they get involved with Free The Children?

When young people get involved in Free The Children, one of the first things they learn is that there are thousands of others just like them who have been inspired to create change. In a society where “cool” is so often determined by what labels you wear or what device you’re carrying, I think it’s refreshing for young people to find a huge network of others who define their success by the difference they make.

Young people become even more empowered as they find a cause they truly believe in and use their skills to make a difference. Through a dedicated team of youth coordinators (who are young and enthusiastic about making a difference themselves), we try to support every person who gets involved through each step of raising funds and awareness in their communities.

We find this feeling of empowerment isn’t fleeting. It’s something that can last a lifetime. With the right support, we can help develop a generation of globally-aware and socially-conscious citizens. That’s a feeling that can last a lifetime.

Free The Children staff digging a water system

Young Free The Children leaders

One of the great mysteries of life is the balance between destiny and free will. Looking back at that one moment in time when you learned of this little boy being killed for speaking out against child labor, what are your thoughts on this? And now that you’ve been on this mission for most of your young life, what has kept you going?

A few years ago, my brother Marc and I attended a forum where philosophers, religious leaders, heads of states and great thinkers discussed what is the greatest threat facing our world today. The issue they agreed upon was not terrorism, the environment, or nuclear proliferation. As the Dalai Lama phrased it in his closing remarks, the biggest threat is that we are “raising a generation of passive bystanders.”

Studies have found that the more witnesses there are to an injustice, the less likely we are to do something about it. This is called the bystander effect, in where we assume someone else will take responsibility – some government, aid agency or other individual.

It comes down to choice. We can choose to do nothing or we can choose to do something. In order to combat the bystander effect, we need to start with youth and change their perspectives. Done right, this feeling of empowerment and moral leadership can last a lifetime.

In this video montage of We Day 2009, Craig and Marc Kielburger lead a Free The Children event to inspire 16,000 members of a new generation of leaders:

You talk with such passion about everyone having the opportunity to answer a calling. Yet so many people, young and old, get a little trapped into habits in their way of thinking and in their actions. What is your advice to someone of any age who yearns to do something more meaningful and purposeful but who doesn’t know how to find that calling?

The truth of the matter is that you can do something meaningful every single day. We are constantly making choices in our lives that affect others in different parts of the world. Think about it: you wake up in the morning and throw on a sweatshirt out of the laundry. You fire up the coffee pot and sit down to read the latest news of political strife in a distant country. You hop in your car and crank up the radio for the long commute to your job.

Now take a step back. Where was that shirt manufactured? The tag on your T-shirt only tells you where it comes from. That’s just one part of the story. What about the person who made it, the conditions in which he or she had to work, the environmental impact?

Then go further. Who picked the beans for your coffee? How does that faraway country’s turmoil affect the average citizen on the street? What are the economic and political realities behind your daily commute?

When’s the last time you stopped to think about the child who worked a 15 hour day picking cotton or coffee beans? Or the woman who spends seven days a week hunched over a sewing machine, hoping to take home $25 each month for her family? Chances are the products you hold have crossed many hands and many borders before ending up in your closet or in your cup.

Now ask yourself: are there different choices I could be making? Are there actions I can personally take — right now — that help others? Can I reduce my environmental impact? Is there media with a more positive message? Is there a more meaningful life I could be experiencing? By asking these questions, it’s easy to find purpose. That calling is all around us. We just have to start questioning those things that become habit in our daily routines.

In this Speakers’ Spotlight excerpt, we hear the tale of how Craig Kielburger managed to start his Free The Children journey and organization and how each of us can become engaged in the world:

Is there anything you’d like to share regarding how Free The Children and Me to We are evolving or what your goals are?

I don’t think any of us expected Free The Children to grow as much as it has. But every year I am amazed as more young people join, more schools are built, and more lives are changed around the world. This year, our We Day celebrations are set to get bigger once again with events in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

As for goals, our hope is that we can continue on with our work and hopefully engage more young people. We have no idea what’s to come. But, one thing is for certain, we will still be doing this for many more years in the future.

Craig and Marc Kielburger in Kenya

Editor’s note: This interview with Craig Kielburger is an excerpt from my upcoming book due later this year. Stay tuned for details!

In the meantime, please visit the Free The Children and Me to We websites for more information about how you can get involved.

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