Imagine if you could channel the boundless energy of youth into local and global social activism.
Imagine if you could then get Oprah Winfrey to back your activism.
Imagine if you could then recruit a veritable who's who of inspirational world political and religious leaders, movie stars, recording artists and premier athletes to help inspire that activism in others.
You would have a pretty powerful movement for change, but what are the chances?
Eighteen years ago, Thornhill, Ontario's Craig Kielburger, along with his older brother Marc, did not set out to do these things, but have managed to do them just the same.
On February 27, approximately 75 Christ the Teacher and 34 Good Spirit students will travel to Saskatoon to join Craig, Marc, a host of high profile speakers and performers and 10,000 to 15,000 other students from across the province for a motivational showcase called We Day.
The Kielburgers launched the program with the intention of "inspiring youth and building a community of young people dedicated to social change."
It is the first time since its inception in 2007 that We Day is coming to Saskatchewan. Speakers for the Saskatoon event include Martin Sheen, Mia Farrow and, of course, the Kielburgers. Canadian supergroup Hedley will perform, as will Shawn Desman, Karl Wolf and others.
We Day events are not just intended to be fun, raise awareness and inspire, however. They are a launching pad for a yearlong program called We Act. Participants are required to make a commitment to one local action and one global action. While enjoying the presentations they are also given the tools, resources and materials to "be the change."
Past speakers have included the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Al Gore, Shaquille O'Neil, Romeo Dallaire, Marc Garneau and many others.
Jennifer Hudson, K'naan, Justin Bieber and Sarah McLachlan are among the artists who have performed.
When Craig Kielburger was 12 years old, he saw a story in a Toronto newspaper that jolted him into action. Iqbal Masih a Pakistani boy Craig's own age, had been brutally murdered for speaking out against child labour. Craig has said what he learned from the story was that the "bravest voice can live in the smallest body," so he gathered 11 of his classmates and formed a group called the Twelve Twelve-Year-Olds (now Free the Children) to carry on in Masih's footsteps.
That led to a trip to south Asia during which Craig famously called out then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was also travelling in the region, for not taking a strong stand against child labour. Chrétien refused to meet with Craig at first, but international attention forced him to reconsider. During a 15-minute meeting, the boy was able to convince the prime minister to bring the issue up with Pakistani and Indian officials.
Free the Children also successfully lobbied the Canadian and Italian governments to stiffen laws against nationals who sexually exploit children in developing nations.
In those early days, it wasn't all smooth sailing, though. In 1996, the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine ran an article in which the writer alleged the charity was not legally registered and donations were going to the Kielburger family.
The young activist quickly sued the magazine and, in 1997, was awarded $319,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
By 1999, the kid who Saturday Night had dubbed "the most powerful 13-year-old in the world" had caught the attention of the woman who has been called "the most powerful black woman in the world," Oprah Winfrey. Craig appeared on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about young people making a difference in the world. That led, of course, to a lot more attention and eventually a partnership between Free the Children and Winfrey's Angel Network.
By that time, Craig's older brother Marc, who had himself spent time in the third world working with AIDS patients, had joined Free the Children. While working on a 2001 project in Sierra Leone, the two brothers said they recognized they would face many challenges maintaining funding on a donation model that tends to revolve around emergency relief rather than sustainable development.
They founded Me to We, a for-profit business that promotes socially ethical products and services. Craig and Marc put half the profits into Free the Children projects and the other half back into Me to We to grow the enterprise.
According to its website, Free the Children has built more than 650 schools or schoolrooms in 45 countries providing education to 55,000 children every day. Through the charity's Adopt-a-Village programming, it has provided clean water, health care and sanitation to more than a million people and helped 30,000 women become economically self-sufficient.
In North America, Free the Children has partnered with thousands of schools and boasts a network of more than a million student volunteers.