Craig Kielburger on how giving young activists more executive power motivates them to stay involved
In 1995, 12-year-old Craig Kielburger was flipping through the Toronto Star looking for comics when he came across an article about the murder of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child labor activist who was also 12. Upset by this story, Kielburger gathered a small group of his seventh grade classmates to speak out against child labor, and the Canadian-based Free the Children was born.
Free the Children focuses on training young changemakers in the U.S. and Canada, and putting that training into practice with a number of community development programs at home and abroad. The organization now operates in 45 countries, and has helped build more than 650 schools in places like Haiti and Sierra Leone. Kielburger’s enterprise was recently inducted into Oprah’s Angel Network for its commitment to liberating children from poverty and exploitation.
In this interview, Kielburger talks about Free the Children’s peer-to-peer approach to youth activism.
Dowser: Why are this generation’s young people more likely to carry out the work of Free the Children?
Kielburger: Each generation moves a little bit further to becoming global citizens, but I think this generation has done it by leaps and bounds. We’ve globalized technology in the sense that, say, you can offshore to India. We’ve globalized commerce; look at the financial crisis that’s taking place and how the flu in the United States financial system has spread around the world.
The one thing we haven’t globalized yet is compassion. But because this generation has grown up as global citizens – with media technology and so much more at their fingertips – they’re breaking down the final barrier to globalization.
Has technology impacted the work of Free the People?
I don’t think Free the Children would have been possible without the Internet. I look at the way we started our organization [in 1995] and a few years later you suddenly had the Internet boom taking place, email in households across North America, young people able to connect online.
Up until that point, maybe they had a local volunteer club, but you usually didn’t have elementary or middle school students protesting global issues, fundraising, and talking to their peers halfway around the world on a regular basis. Suddenly, because of the technology, that became possible.
What specific strategies do you use to help children channel their energy to take action?
We present simple and concrete ways that children can engage and help with overwhelming problems. And if an 8-year-old or 10-year-old can understand it, then anyone can.
We go into North American schools three times a year, work with the student leaders, do presentations in front of the entire student body, and train the teachers in how to create meaningful opportunities for students to get engaged. Instead of just working at some charity where you’re licking envelopes or moving boxes of canned food, suddenly you’re in charge—it’s your initiative. It’s a shift from just volunteerism to activism.
Is there a make-or-break detail for Free the Children?
Youth engagement. What makes us unique is who we appeal to. People under the age of 18 are responsible for 65% of all our money. Car washes and bake sales. All of our programs are aimed at young people. So what we are trying to do is create this generation of kids to be global citizens here in North America; to care in a very real and tangible way.
What is an example of a core Free the Children project and how has it evolved?
The core of our model overseas is Adopt a Village. We originally started building schools 13 years ago, and girls wouldn’t go. They needed to walk far distances to get water, and during daylight because that was the safest time to do it, and they couldn’t go to school. So we had to bring a water project to the school.
What other changes have you implemented after listening to your Adopt a Village clients?
Once when we brought a water project to the school, they said, ‘Well, that’s great, but these kids are poor, they need to work. If the children are not engaged in child labor, where’s the income coming from?’ So we set up microcredit cooperatives as an ongoing source of income à la Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus, whose daughter, Monica Yunus, is on our board. And then we created healthcare, because kids who are sick can’t learn. This whole model developed where the microcredit cooperatives provided [for] the ongoing operational costs, so everything is self-sustaining usually within five years of the initial investments in the community.
You must have gone through different ideas before actually getting down to working. Was there anything you tried initially that didn’t end up working out?
The greatest part about beginning as young as we were was that we knew we didn’t have the answers. And we still have that same belief. We call it the ‘drink tea’ philosophy in our organization: where you drink tea with a woman, you drink tea with a man, you drink tea with the religious leaders, and you drink tea and drink tea and drink tea, and ask even some of the most basic, simple questions. I don’t think that a lot of adults appreciate that in kids there is a humbleness in curiosity.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Alison Herr