At the age of 12, Craig Kielburger and his friends launched (Kids Can) Free the Children, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to ending child labor in developing countries. Today, it is the largest network of children helping children in the world. In just seven years, the youth volunteers raised enough funds to build more than 300 primary schools in 21 countries, bringing daily education to more than 20,000 children worldwide. Their work earned Kielburger and Free the Children a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. In an interview with GlobalTribe, Craig talks about what he has learned about youth and life as an "active citizen."
CRAIG KIELBURGER: I was 12 years old when I first became involved in human rights. One morning, when I was getting ready for school, I began to search for the comics section of the newspaper. On the front page was the picture of a young boy from Pakistan who had been sold into slavery as a carpet weaver when he was 4 years old. According to the story, he worked 12 hours a day tying tiny knots to make carpets. He lost his freedom to laugh and to play. He lost his freedom to go to school. When he was 12 years of age, the same age as me at the time, he was murdered. I had never heard about child labor and the differences in our lives shocked me. I was able to relate to him because we were both the same age.CK: I believe that every young person has, at some point in his or her life, felt motivated to speak up against an injustice. Perhaps it was hearing a racial slur in the school hallways, seeing a homeless person on the streets or reading a newspaper article about child labor. I believe that he or she cares - and wants to help. Sometimes a discouraging word or lack of adult or peer support can be the difference between an international organization like Free The Children and a young person who does not act.
I went to school with the article in hand and asked my classmates for help. Ten of my friends, all 12 years of age at the time, gathered at my home over pizza and we dreamed up this crazy idea to start an organization called Kids Can Free The Children, made up entirely of children and youth. Our goal was not only to free children from child labor and exploitation, but also to free children from the idea that we were powerless and could not change the world.
Young people want to get involved; however, our society does not nurture that sense of youth as leaders of today. In my travels I have found two extremes. In many developing countries, children are often asked to work long hours at hazardous jobs with no opportunity to play or to go to school. They are not allowed to develop physically, intellectually, and emotionally - as they should. They support entire families. They fight in wars. They are given too much responsibility at too young an age.
On the other hand, in many industrialized countries everything is done for children. They are segregated most of their lives with members of their own age group and are given little opportunity to assume responsibility, to develop a social conscience, or to learn through interaction with adults. Every year advertisers spend billions of dollars to buy the minds and the hearts of children. Through media young people learn to be consumers, to gain their self-image through the shoes on their feet and the brand name labels on their clothing. They too are exploited but in a very different sense of the word.
A fundamental distinction that I have discovered between most children in the developed and developing world is that the children in third world nations feel needed -- needed to help their families survive, needed to protect their friends. But young people in Australia, Canada, the USA and Europe often feel as if they have no real role to play in society. They are merely adults-in-waiting.
CK: The children. When I meet a child I make a silent promise. We cannot help every child but I will share their story with other young people back home and call them to action. Also, we have seen amazing changes over the past eight years. We have grown from a small group of 12 year olds into an international network of children helping children active in more than 30 countries. Our young people have made presentations before well over a million people -- Congressional hearings in Washington, international gatherings of lawyers and judges, educators and business groups, unions and students from elementary to university level on children's rights. Through the combined efforts of our youth members, money has been raised to build 350 primary schools, providing education every day to 20,000 children. We have built three rehabilitation centers and several medical clinics for children in the developing world. Our young people have put together more than 100,000 school kits and shipped 2.5 million US dollars worth of medical supplies to families in the developing world. They have helped to establish alternative income programs for families to free their children from hazardous work and allow them to go to school.
CK: I don't think that we ever truly appreciated our power as young people. We may not be presidents or Prime Minters, CEOs of companies or wealthy, but our strength lies in our numbers. By the year 2025, half of the world's population will be under 25 years of age.
As students, we often feel powerless in the face of suffering. But we must never forget that historically, it is young people who have been at the forefront of the great social justice movements. Students who were shot as they marched against apartheid in South Africa or raised their voice for democracy in China, children who marched in the streets of Brazil and lowered the voting age to 16 to give themselves a greater voice, students in the US who organized their campuses to be sweat-free support workers overseas. We don't often hear these stories; they, don't make the front page of newspapers, but they are real heroes.
CK: Take Action! You don't need to start your own organization or travel half way around the world to help others. Start with small, simple actions. You might decide to put together a basic need kit for a child in Afghanistan, work against racisms on your campus or start a petition against child poverty. It doesn't matter if your action's big or small, by yourself or with a group, local or international --- we change the world through helping one person at a time.
If you are interested in becoming involved with Free The Children, here are three challenges:
a) Gather support from faculty, students and other schools in you community and band together to raise funds for a 'friendship school' in another country. It costs about 5,000 - 7,000 dollars to build a school in a country such as Nicaragua, India or Haiti. The United Nations, governments and aid groups agree that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and providing children with a brighter future! Koffi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN and Nobel Peace Prize laureate stated that, "Education is peace building by another name."
b) Volunteer overseas. Every summer our sister leadership organization, Leaders Today, organizes volunteer trips from young people (12-25) to spent 10 days to a month in India, Kenya, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ecuador and Thailand. Teach English, work in a medical clinic or help build a school!
c) Start a Free The Children chapter in your school! It costs nothing and the only requirement is a desire to help improve the world! We send you updates and action packages - just add energy and passion!
CK: I met Justo in Ecuador when he was 12 years old. He explained to me that when he was 8 years old, his father passed away. A poor indigenous boy, there was little hope for him to receive an education and break from the cycle of poverty. With the help of young people in Kids Can Free the Children, a primary school was constructed in Pulingui, Ecuador. Justo was one of the first students to graduate. Now, in high school, Justo showed me the tree under which he does his homework while tending to the sheep. He dreams of being a lawyer one day and fighting for free education for all children in Ecuador.
CK: In 1997, I was honoured to have been named the Children's Ambassador in Bosnia. During the NATO bombings we traveled by convoy, with Swiss license plates, to deliver supplies to the children. I met a 13-year-old boy who had lost his parents and had lived in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia. I asked him what he wanted to be when he was older. He didn't answer so I tried to encourage him by telling him of my dream to become a doctor and work with Doctors Without Borders.
The boy replied, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need any doctors because the bombs didn't fall in the first place." Ever since that day, four years ago in Serbia, I have wanted to work in the field of conflict mediation - to help stop wars before they begin. I am currently studying Peace and Conflict studies at the University of Toronto, and I plan to pursue my PhD.
I am especially interested in working with young people in countries on the brink of conflict. After wars end in Afghanistan or the ex-Yugoslavia, all these aid agencies go in and rebuild roads and office buildings. For a fraction of that, they could invest it into children. All these children in Sierra Leone or Afghanistan or Kenya have grown up in violence. They've never known peace. You have a mass of people with very little hope and very little future.
CK: Active Citizenship is being a leader of today! Most young people are told that they have to graduate, become 'successful' and get a good job before they can influence change in our world. But instead, that merely teaches young people to be apathetic and to grow up learning to be bystanders, closing their eyes and becoming immune to what is happening to people in the world around us. Parents, teachers and adults have a choice. We can be taught that as youth we do not have the civic responsibility to act, or, we can be taught to participate, to believe that our voices do count, that we are important and that we can help to bring about change.
CK: Yes! We learn so much; not only about the issues, but about ourselves. We learn leadership skills, self-respect and that we have important gifts and talents to contribute to our world. We gain a sense of a greater purpose and we build friendships with many amazing like-minded young people. After you have completed a massive fundraising or collected petitions with friends, you feel an indescribable sense of accomplishment. You are working on a cause greater than yourself, any one person. Most importantly, we learn that our voices count and that we can help bring about a change.