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