Day Eleven: Free the Children

I was watching 60 Minutes last night. I don’t think I’ve ever just sat down and watched that show on purpose – it’s the kind of thing I would always hear slightly muted by the wall between the living room and kitchen, while standing at my mom’s ankles and hoping she’d share some scraps of her cooking while the dish took form, like a patient, fat cocker spaniel.

It was another show that I was surprised to find enthralling – I’m adding it to the list, and look forward to dedicating an entire future post solely to news programs that I’ve started to watch, and might hope to make habit.

One topic of last night’s show was Free the Children. It’s a charity making about 30 million a year (nice) to free children from slavery around the world (great), and the kicker is that the founder, Craig Kielburger, was 12 years old when he founded it in 1996 (excuse me). The jist of the 60 Minutes piece was as much to talk about the work of helping children to be taken seriously as people with social consciences & awareness, as well as the capacity to really make change happen, as it was a survey of Free the Children’s work.

Craig Kielburger was fascinating. Somewhat entrancing, precocious without being obnoxious, passionate, articulate, and a little off-putting. His story goes something like this: little 12 year old Craig was eating breakfast and reached for the paper to find the comics – instead, he saw a story of a child slave who spoke out for children’s rights, and was murdered (the story reminded me much of Malala, actually). Craig was outraged and horrified, and took action (more on that later). Fast forward 16 years, and he has a multi-million dollar charity, schools, voyages, cadres, Oprah – yes, really, Oprah.  It’s a great story – but I was skeptical. I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me about him.

At first I was turned off because, as a 12 year old, he looked like Joel Osteen (the motivational speaker who must have gotten his big plastic teeth out of a toy machine at the entrance of a Stop & Shop). I was expecting Craig to have blue eyes with no pupils, and talk about the souls needing saving in Africa. But instead, he was totally poised, reasonable, and moving.

The portion I remember most was his interview, as a tween, with Ed Bradley, which went something along these lines:

“But why would you, a child, think that you could make a difference?”

” Because I saw those kids – I didn’t just read about them, I saw them – and I knew I needed to do something.”

“But why you?”

(blank stare.)

“Why you? I mean, how and why did you think you would be the one to really make a change?”

(blinking.) “Well – why not me? If everyone in the world thought ‘why me,’ then nothing would get done, right?”

Quite, little Kielburger – quite.

In all seriousness, I was inspired to see this 12 year old actually go forward with his idea. I remember very clearly being that age, and being choked up with the thought of the future – I felt like a racehorse pawing at the gate, all palpitating, nervous, desperate to burst out with all the energy I could muster to make something happen in the world with my own hands and mind. I also was deeply disturbed by the homeless people who lived in our neighborhood. My mother enjoyed telling me how, as a toddler, I would stop her on the way into Bloomingdales to give money to a homeless man siting on the sidewalk outside; she promised once we came out, she would, assuming I’d forget; once we left the store and made it halfway down the block, I stopped in my  tracks, tears in my eyes, asking why she hadn’t given up her quarters yet. I was horrified to learn that these people had no homes, and came up with the idea to create brown paper bags full of a cheese sandwich, a quarter, and a phone number for a local homeless shelter (yes, these were the days of payphone booths). I wanted to pack up a number of bags, and then walk around the neighborhood giving them to all the people living on the street I could find. My mother told me this was a great idea, but that we wouldn’t do it. I don’t know why we didn’t; I wish I could ask her why.

And I still think it’s a good idea, dammnit. But now I assume there are 20 million non-profits around doing the same thing, so why me? I’m sure there are other people doing it.

Now, is this really the problem – that as adults, we assume others do it? Are we all Kitty-Genovesing our way around social ills?

I spent last night thinking about why it is that these feelings fade. My first thought was that we get more realistic and cynical, we become inured to the bad around us, we are desensitized, we care more about our own business as it grows and becomes more complicated, leaving less and less room for the problems of other people to take up space in our heads and hearts.

But then I thought of something else, similar but importantly different – scale.

As children, our worlds our very small. Our scale of things is skewed – or perhaps, to be more generous, I shall say it is “different.” We think $100 is a tremendous amount of money. We know the world is big, but we don’t know how big. We know less than 100 people. We know what we see, what we feel, and what we want. Those are the boundaries of the world.

As we get older, we become smaller. Not only do we come closer to understanding what it means to be one a few billion, but each of our actions becomes smaller as it falls into the larger narrative of a long life. We have tried to do things, and failed. We have thought of doing things, and not done them. We have watched the signs pass by the window of the car speeding along, and not taken the exit. Perhaps the more things we think of doing, and don’t do, the less inspired we are when we come up with new ideas.

Is it that we feel bogged down by the many many many different ways to go? The infinite ways we could help, or not help? Or is it that living life takes a long time if we’re lucky, and necessarily is full of roads-not-taken; and this, in turn, makes it harder to have a wunderkind moment?

Even take $100. If you have faith in $100 to make a big change – in one person’s life, or as the start of something rolling forward and picking up momentum – then you will treat that $100 accordingly. If $100 is more what you think of as a bill for a very decadent dinner out with wine and dessert, its transformative , transcendent power is somewhat lost.

This got me thinking about other parts of the world where such luxuries do not abound – and as though telepathically, the second portion of the 60 Minutes interview went on to discuss the power of travel. Little Kielburger had raised funds as a teenager to travel to Southeast Asia to visit with the students who were suffering as slaves. He talked about these experiences being incredible, but also the most demoralizing of his career so far – namely, seeing children whom they had freed previously back in slavery. The program went on to feature two Catholic school children – Magdalena (really?!) and Joey (much better) who raised funds in their Connecticut town to then fly to Kenya and help build a school. They built new classrooms, made friends, felt good about their work, were given a goat. In a final interview, they explained that the most important thing they wanted to share with kids at home is that “poverty is real. Children are starving, and it’s real; kids have no schools, and it’s real; not everyone can go downstairs and turn on the tap for a glass of water.”

I went back to cooking as the commercials started, and thought about this. I have never traveled to a third world country  – except for Guatemala, a trip which involved floating in a lagoon, climbing a volcano, deciding that ancient ruins were redundant, and falling in love with fresh banana smoothies. JCrew did a photo shoot for their summer catalogue in the lake town where we stayed the very next year, so I hardly count that as an eye-opening sojourn into the way the rest of the world lives. But yes – I have never traveled to a third world country; I have never done a service trip, where I go with the specific intention of helping on a project; I have never traveled alone. I wonder whether it might be good for me to try one, two, or even – dare I say it – three of these things sometime soon.

I went to bed thinking about Swahili volunteering and why I never distributed cheese sandwiches as a child. I woke up this morning still thinking about Free the Children. I still felt suspicious towards it – they must be skimming money somewhere, or secretly pushing an evangelical agenda to spread the word of baby Jesus in poor places, or using it to advance the Brand of Kielburger Bros Inc. I am put off by their sincerity, skeptical about the truth of their mission, critical of their finances, suspicious about their approach and educations. How can they actually be honest, philanthropic, and intellectual? After more sniffing around their website trying to find the breadcrumbs of gluttony and miscreancy that will expose them for the frauds they really are, I instead find another factoid – they’re Canadian! Suddenly this all makes sense! I feel a cool peace settle over me, as I learn to trust Craig and Marc.

Freed of my skepticism for the moment, I allow myself to really think about the work of Free the Children, and this is what I keep coming back to – how the hell did he do this? The story on the website matches the narrative played on 60 Minutes. Here’s what you’ll find on under “Craig’s Quest”:

Craig’s story began at breakfast one morning when he reached for his favourite section of the newspaper: The comics. He noticed the picture of a boy on the front page. The headline read, “Battled Child Labour, Boy, 12, Murdered!”

Craig, who was also 12, felt an immediate connection and grabbed the paper to read more. He had never heard of child labour before, and decided to do more research. There were more than 250 million child labourers in the world, many working in slave-like conditions.

Craig took the story to school and when he asked for help, 11 classmates raised their hands. Free The Children was born!

What’s now an international charity and educational partner, began as a bunch of kids getting together to write letters, make phone calls, and organize garage sales and lemonade stands.

But this group of young people faced many obstacles—mostly from grownups. When they called a well-known charity to get involved, they were asked, “Do you know where your parents keep their credit card?” After repeatedly hearing they were too young to do anything, the group decided to “be the change” themselves.

At the time, children’s opinions were rarely heard. When Craig and Free The Children decided to speak out, they broke new ground. Not only did they free children from labour and exploitation, they also sought to free young people around the world from the idea that they were too young to bring about positive change.

Craig running with children in Kenya

Craig was invited to speak to larger and larger groups. And, as a 12-year-old, he took a journey to South Asia to see poverty and child labour first-hand. This much-publicized fact-finding mission included a now infamous encounter with the Prime Minister of Canada.

Craig returned home more determined than ever to crusade for children’s rights.

In 1999, Craig appeared on Oprah in an episode highlighting young people making a difference. The encounter eventually led to Oprah Winfrey partnering with Free The Children to build schools around the world.

Seriously? OK. Here is what I hear:

1. Be outraged/horrified. Conduct research; become more outraged/horrified.

2. Get together a small group of people in your living room who are also outraged/horrified/want to do good

3. Call, write, and generally nudge people in positions of power to take notice of the thing about which you are outraged/horrified.

4. Get invited to make speeches & guest appearances.

5. Collabo w/Oprah.

So my question is – what exactly happens between sitting on the sofa in our socks, and freeing children from slavery? How did they free children from slavery? What happened at these garage sales to liberate children in Thailand from human trafficking? 

How long did it take?

Who else was involved?

What did these letters and phone calls ask?

One answer I found was in the description of “Me to We,” a for-profit initiative they’ve started that feeds Free the Children. I read Start Something that Matters earlier this summer – it’s a book about social entrepreneurship by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes – and his message was similar: take a charitable idea, find a way to attach it to something that makes money, and you’ll make the do-gooding financially sustainable and independent of others (be it media or donations). It was a great idea, I thought, and here I see it again.

As the Brothers Kielburgmozov write:

Over the years, as Free The Children grew exponentially, Craig and Marc saw that while young people possessed awe-inspiring passion to help others, few had the practical tools to translate their desires into action.

Me to We became the next stage in this evolution: A family of social enterprises that challenges the notions of how business is done, and redefines the relationship between business and charity. Craig and Marc were able to donate half of Me to We’s net profit to Free The Children (while the other was reinvested to grow the enterprise and its social mission), which effectively alleviated any dependence on media headlines for donor support.

For Craig and Marc, each enterprise truly represents something they wished they had had as kids. They are the opportunities, experiences and products that young people are still seeking. When Craig and Marc desperately wanted to travel overseas to volunteer, they struggled. Travel companies welcomed adults, but not children without chaperones.

  • Me to We Trips provide young people with volunteer opportunities that take them to fascinating places, immerse them in new cultures and enable them to explore social and environmental issues. Youth volunteer alongside communities, develop friendships and support community development in rural regions around the world.
  • In an age where nearly everything is produced overseas, Me to We Style is a sweatshop-free clothing line made in Canada. It’s ethically manufactured. And it’s hip.
  • With the founding of Me to We Leadership, a speakers bureau, and books, there are tools—education, training, curriculum, inspiration and resources—to empower young and old alike to launch their own shamelessly idealistic initiatives.
  • With the creation of Me to We Artisans, ethically-made accessories, fashioned by artisans in Free The Children communities, are available to socially conscious consumers across North America. The purchase of these pieces enables these artisans to earn a fair wage for the work, empowering them to build a future for their family and break the cycle of poverty.

Craig showing Desmond Tutu the Me to We book

Me to We’s impacts speak volumes the world over. Since 2009, Me to We has donated more than $3.25 million to Free The Children through cash and in-kind donations. To date, Me to We has helped plant more than 310,000 trees. More than 450 Maasai mamas are now employed full-time in Kenya, empowering themselves, their families and their communities. And in 2011 alone, 395,600 people were inspired by Me to We’s message through speeches, books and our leadership programs.

The brothers have both been around the world—more than 20 times, actually—and studied many charities. In their travels they have also spent time in some of the most powerful boardrooms in the corporate world.

They realized that the pure business model doesn’t work, at least if your main objective is to make the world a better place. They asked themselves: How could we take the best business practices and infuse them with a world-changing spirit?

The bile rises a bit again for me – I don’t trust these “hip” crocheted accessories by Maasai mamas, or the do-gooding tourism that costs so much just to send folks to see and help in person. It’s too slick, too close to corporate for comfort.

The bad taste in my mouth aside,  this does leave me some things to think about for myself:

1. What issue truly outrages/horrifies me? What is the first that I most immediately think of, were I to be asked that question?

2. What are the things I say to myself (“why me instead of someone else?” or “why this cause instead of an other?”) that prevent me from taking action?

3. How can I find ways to attach business and charity in my own life & work?

4. To whom can I speak in order to better understand those “in between” steps?

Alright – I’m off for now. Maybe I’ll be inspired to pack up some cheese sandwiches on my way to the unethically sourced coffee shop around the corner.


2 thoughts on “Day Eleven: Free the Children

  1. Pingback: Day Twenty Two: Cycles of Poverty | Civicization

  2. Pingback: Day Twenty-Three: Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy | Civicization

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