I am about a quarter of a century older than the demographic that We Day seeks to motivate and inspire, but it would have been impossible to attend yesterday’s amazing national We Day event in Ottawa and not leave feeling like you can change the world. As much as the day’s events spoke to my inner 15 year old girl (who is, truth be told, never very far from the surface) I found myself considering the We Day messages and speakers through a maternal lens.
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know it was a very exciting day for Tristan, Simon and me. Together with a few other blogger families, we were invited to cover the event and given media access to some of the celebrity activists and supporters thanks to TELUS. Through a partnership with Free The Children, TELUS is helping to inspire young leaders and build a community of young people dedicated to positive social change. High on my list of “best parenting moments ever” is watching Tristan pose a question to Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger himself – which I will let HIM tell you about in a separate post. But here’s a shaky shot of my boys patiently waiting their turn in the media line.
If you missed my earlier post (and endless Facebook and Twitter updates yesterday) you might be wondering what exactly this We Day thing is all about.
Free The Children is the world’s largest network of children helping children, with more than one million youth in 45 countries involved in their innovative education and development programs. Through domestic programs they educate, engage and empower hundreds of thousands of youth in North America, the UK and around the world. Their international projects have brought over 650 schools and school rooms to youth and provided clean water, health care and sanitation to one million people around the world.
I’ve loosely followed Craig’s story and his Free the Children movement in the media for years. I knew they did charitable and educational work, and I knew through the We Day programs at the boys’ school that one of their primary goals was motivating young people to “Be the Change” in their world. The subtext I missed before attending the National We Day event, though, was how that empowerment works on an individual level. Yes, it’s about providing clean water for Ghana and schools for girls in Africa – but it’s also about having the courage to speak up on behalf of a classmate, about making small but meaningful choices for a better world, about having the courage to know yourself and be true to yourself. Powerful stuff for a pre-teen audience – but truly, who needs that message more than students at this complicated age? And what better way to reach them than through a rocking event with 5000 screaming peers?
I think I personally was most touched by the story of Spencer West. His legs were amputated below the pelvis when he was five years old. I keep trying to imagine what that must have been like for his family, thinking about my own five year old boy. Clearly, Spencer overcame unimaginable odds stacked against him, and in 2012 he climbed Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro - on his hands.
We had the chance to chat with Spencer during the media scrum, and I wish I could have talked to him for about three more hours. This quote was one of my favourites of the day:
Here’s a couple more vignettes from the day.
Most of the Grade 6 class from the boys’ school earned tickets to We Day through their actions on a local and global level. Through one initiative, the school raised more than 170,000 pennies when the Mint announced the penny phase-out earlier this year. For their efforts, they earned a shout-out from Craig Kielburger during a pre-show interview on CBC Ottawa Morning and a moment in the spotlight during the show itself. I’m just glad I had my camera in my hand already! I was so proud of them.
Perhaps one of the biggest celebrities present was actor and activist Martin Sheen. I have to tell you, I was pretty excited at the possibility of meeting him, having never missed an episode of the West Wing. We were standing in the corner, more or less trying to stay out of the way but still have a good sightline to where he would be answering questions, when Martin Sheen “snuck” into the room.
He was supposed to go to the backdrop and start answering media questions, but to everyone’s surprise – most spectacularly, my own! – he walked straight up to me with his hand out for a handshake and introduced himself. He asked me “Who are you here with?” and so of course I introduced him to Tristan and Simon. I’m not sure that’s what he meant by the question, but he seemed delighted with the answer and went on to chat with them about how wonderful the day was and whether they were enjoying themselves.
Eventually, they got him to where he was supposed to be answering questions (after he stopped to chat with a few more people on the way) and he said the other quote that resonated deeply with me for the day:
One of my favourite moments of the day was watching his “handlers” try to get him out of the media room and back to where he was supposed to be getting ready to deliver his address to the crowd. Despite their best intentions to move him along, he kept shaking them off and stopping to chat with anyone who looked like they were under the age of 25 about why they were there and what they were doing. It was truly delightful and more than a little bit funny. Hey, when you’ve been POTUS I guess you prefer to decide when and where you are going.
I was also please to find out that I’m not as much of a dinosaur as I might have thought. While I only recongized one or two of the musical acts by name, I was delighted to find out that I did in fact know the songs, if not the bands. In fact, the boys and I agreed that we’ll have to add a little Shawn Desman and Kardinal Offishall’s Turn it Up to our iTunes collections. This was Kardinal Offishall Turning it UP for the big finale at We Day:
There was so much more – environmental messages in Rob Stewart’s Revolution (click through and watch the trailer!), organ transplant messages from Ottawa’s own Hélène Campbell, a voice from Canada’s northern people and a reminder that Canada is taller than it is wide from Inuit speaker Terry Aulda, anti-bullying messages from visually-impaired teen Molly Burke, RBC’s ONE DROP initiative – the single resonating theme of the day was that there are a myriad ways in which a single person can make a difference, and that a seemingly small action can have enormous and occasionally unexpected effects.
The definition of “changing the world” has changed for this generation, for the children we are raising today. When I was a child, it meant that you grew up to be an activist or someone in a position of power, or you were one of those extraordinary young people like Craig Kielburger himself, who drew global attention to a cause he was passionate about. What I’m realizing is what our kids seem to know intuitively, and what We Day is promoting: you don’t need a megaphone to make a difference, and you don’t need to be famous or powerful or have a lot of resources behind you. Social justice isn’t about petitioning on Parliament Hill and letter-writing campaigns, it’s about the choices you make and the way you live your life every single day.
Choose organic and local produce. Choose to hold a door for someone rather than let it slam. Choose to donate a bag of used toys to charity rather than dump them in the trash. Choose to spend 20 minutes of your time promoting a cause rather than playing a video game. Choose to turn off the tap while you brush your teeth and turn off the lights when you leave the room. Choose to speak up to defend someone rather than stand mutely by and watch bullying happen. Like the pennies collected by the boys’ school, each small act on it’s own may seem so insignificant as to be worthless. However, when you start stacking them by the thousands and hundreds of thousands, they have unmistakable, undeniable worth and value.
Also? It was a really fun day.
A hell of a day, in fact, don’t you think? But wait, there’s more! Stand by, the boys want to tell you about We Day from their perspective next.