Yesterday, I received the great privilege of attending We Day in Winnipeg. We Day is a special one-day event to educate youth about social justice issues and to celebrate the important work that is already being done. We Day was started by Free the Children in 2007 and this year was held in 5 Canadian cities.
We Day is just one event that’s part of a larger initiative called We Schools in Action, which encourages sustained education and action for social issues in our schools. Tickets to We Day were free, but attendees had to take some kind of social action — whether it was raising money or awareness — to earn their entrance to the event.
I got to the MTS Centre just as the doors were opening, so I was able to watch as 1000s of youth piled into the arena. Almost everyone was decked out for the event — wearing matching t-shirts and face-paint, carrying signs, and glowing with excitement. Deborah and I decided that the best t-shirts were just a few rows in front of us. They were neon green and said simply on the back “Aujourd’we.”
Anticipation was mounting, and after learning the We Dance, getting a few tips TV etiquette (the event was also streamed live over the web), and a 10 second countdown, the live event was underway.
It was a star-studded day with celebrities, musicians, politicians, and humanitarians all coming together to share the same message: our world has many problems and it’s our responsibility, and opportunity, to take action — change begins with one person.
Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, is case and point. At just 12 years old, Craig read about a child slave named Iqbul who was killed after speaking out against the injustices he suffered. Craig, along with a few of his classmates, took action by writing to politicians, raising money, and increasing awareness against child labour. They called their organization Free the Children, which has since built hundreds of schools in over 45 developing countries.
Craig has since inspired many others to get involved with Free the Children, including Mia Farrow, Al Gore, Rick Hansen, and members of the group Hedley, all of whom shared their experiences with the 16,000 youth who were in attendance yesterday.
Social action can be an overwhelming concept, but We Day did a really great job of showing us how change can start and grow. Another guest speaker was Winnipeg’s own Hannah Taylor, who started the Ladybug Foundation at age 8 after witnessing a homeless man eating from the garbage. Today, the Ladybug Foundation has raised over 2 million dollars to provide food and shelter for Canada’s homeless. Her message hit us hard and was soon launched into cyberspace via social media: “don’t be afraid of homelessness – be afraid of a society that doesn’t care.”
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke in the morning and also gave We Day a local flavour. While attendees may have been shocked to learn from Mia Farrow that many children in developing countries don’t have adequate access to education, Paul Martin reminded us that we have a similar problem in our own country.
Paul Martin, who founded the Martin Education Initiative in 2008 to improve Aboriginal education in Canada, shared some staggering statistics with us. Aboriginal students who live on reserves face a 60% drop-out rate, while the drop-out rate for those who live off reserves is still 40%. He also taught the audience that these schools lack many resources we take for granted – like teachers, gyms, and science labs. He encouraged the youth to bring the Free the Children movement home to address these issues our own citizens face.
I didn’t think Paul Martin was going to be able to rally the kids as much as the speakers who preceded him, like Mia Farrow and Al Gore. I didn’t think he had the same star-power and his message was somewhat less glamorous. Instead of encouraging kids to travel to Africa or India, he told us to start in our own backyards and to bring the Free the Children movement to our own communities.
I, for one, was so proud of the response Paul Martin received. He had the kids engaged and they erupted into cheers and applause several times during his speech.
Throughout the day, the speakers kept talking about the power of strength in numbers. We were told about the many movements that began with just one person. Imagine, we were asked, how great an impact the 16,000 youth in attendance that day could have on the world?
True. But I couldn’t help but first think of what an impact those 16,000 youth would have on our own community.