When I was in high school, Craig Kielburger was my idol.
A Canadian activist who founded the charity Free the Children, Craig was a big name at my school. In our Global Service club, we raised money for Free the Children campaigns and read his books. We bought t-shirts from Me to We, the social enterprise that is the sister organization to Free the Children. When Craig visited Kelowna for an event in my final year of high school, a group of us student leaders actually met him and interviewed him in person. It was a huge fangirl moment.
He’s a rock star activist – a rocktivist, if you will – who appeals to the Millennial generation to make change. Craig was 12 years old himself when he founded Free the Children. Since my involvement with the organization some six or seven years ago, it’s grown substantially, and today one of the major youth engagement initiatives of Free the Children and Me to We is something called We Day.
For the uninitiated, let me explain. We Day is a event for youth designed to inspire participants to create social change. According to their website, it’s “the movement of our time.” Actors and musicians speak and perform, and there is some educational content about development issues and Free the Children’s programs. This year, there were We Days held across Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver, as well as three in the US and one in London, UK. I had never been to a We Day celebration before, so when a friend told me she could get an extra ticket for me for the event in Vancouver in October as part of a UVic delegation, I accepted.
I’ve learned a lot since high school—and my critical thinking skills have been sharpened considerably. I’ve taken courses and I’ve met people who question the basic premises of traditional “development.” I’ve also spent a short time in a “developing” country that has opened my eyes to how difficult (and often misguided and ineffectual) development work can actually be on the ground. All of these things make me more critical of Free the Children and its programs. Though the organization may have the best intentions, I find its work problematic, often falling into the “saviour” narrative that encourages young Canadians to “help” poor, uneducated people around the world without any nuance or discussion of power and privilege.
But We Day is now such a massive spectacle, and from what I understood, a largely successful endeavour to engage this so-called Me Generation in something beyond themselves. I went because I thought there might be interesting lessons to take away from We Day—and there were.
1. The (Scary) Power of Celebrity
The Vancouver show’s list of celebrity guests included Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes, and Nick Jonas. If you don’t recognize all of those names, then you are probably, like me, not a person between the ages of 12 and 17. But the 20,000 other people in the stadium who did fall into that age category certainly seemed to know who these stars were, from the volume of shrieking. The power these celebrities had over the crowd was astonishing, and slightly frightening. While I can appreciate that it’s better for a celebrity to spread messages like “You can change the world!” rather than messages of indulgence and frivolity with their words and actions, I still wonder if the power of celebrity can actually distract young people from the issue at hand. For example, one of the most troubling moments of the day was when a video featuring Malala Yousafzai came on the JumboTron. A few seconds into the video, the screaming started somewhere on the floor—as Selena Gomez entered the stadium through a different entrance to set up for her next shot. The attention of the crowd was directed to the actress, not the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner and brave advocate for girls’ education from Pakistan.
2. Be Good Sheep
The overall message of the day was, ostensibly, to challenge common messages of “Me, me, me,” but those critical thinking skills encouraged were not at all directed to the production itself, which had a pretty significant corporate agenda. Throughout the day, CEOs and senior executive staff took the stage to promote their companies’ efforts to promote social and environmental change. Someone from London Drugs talked about their campaign to encourage customers to “go green”; another person from Potash Corp talked about his corporation’s programs to address food insecurity around the world. It felt, at times, manipulative—here was a stadium full of young people who were getting corporate messaging mixed in with encouragement to social action, all day long. The manipulation for a media spectacle was also pretty evident for much of the day. Vancouver We Day was being filmed for a TV broadcast, which meant our hosts and performers said their lines over and over again for the camera, and we as the audience were asked to cheer and holler again and again—sometimes for performers who were not actually there. Instead of the regular advertising young people often see that sells an image-obsessed culture, it was just a different kind of advertising campaign that was trying to sell something all the same. “I’m having a hard time with this,” said my friend Claire. “This whole, ‘We’re all sheep, let’s be sheep for good.”
3. A Broad Audience Means a Diluted Message
We Day was open, as far as we could tell, to anyone from elementary school students to university students. It’s a huge age range and a huge difference from one end to the other in understanding of global issues—and as a result, the message is tailored to be one that everyone understands. After the show, we ran into my high school counsellor who has been to every We Day that has been held in Vancouver, and she told us the programming has been aimed at younger audiences over the past few years. “It’s caring-lite now,” she said. It still has its benefits—this kind of programming can be a gateway for those not otherwise engaged to begin to learn more—but considering all the students there “earned their ticket through service,” I was disappointed by the level of engagement with the issues at hand. Global economic development, gender inequality around the world, global health crises like HIV—these are not simple issues and they do not have simple solutions.
Maybe when engaging 20,000 youth, it makes some sense to pitch this content in a way that’s straightforward and easy to understand. But I would think for most audience members over the age of, say, 15 or 16, the messaging would not have been substantial enough to make an impact. I was hungry in the morning to hear about something real and by the end of the day I felt like I had only been fed cotton candy and cheezies.
4. Selling Social Change as “Cool”
At one point during the day, Macklemore took the stage and pronounced, “Some people might tell you that changing the world isn’t cool. But I think it’s the coolest thing you can do!” (To deafening screaming, of course.) It was clear throughout the day that part of the pitch is that doing this work—thinking about others, raising funds, taking action—is “cool.” And when targeting an age demographic to whom popularity and acceptance are critical, I guess that’s an important thing to emphasize. But it makes me uncomfortable to hear that pitch. Because “cool” is still about you—that’s not me to we, that’s me me me. I’ve found that the more I learn about the world, the more I realize how small and meaningless it is to be cool, how little it actually matters. Doing good should be about living well and treating your fellow humans well because it is right and just, not taking action because of how it will make you appear to other people. This is also part of the celebrity culture of the event that made me uncomfortable. Why not promote the voices and stories of ordinary young people doing extraordinary things (in Canada and in “developing countries”). There were a few presenters like this, and their stories were far more meaningful and moving to me than the moments the celebrities spent on stage. If creating change really is cool, then we should shower attention and praise on people doing the actual work, like Malala and others!
I know that as a cynical and jaded 23-year-old (however jaded and cynical you can be at such an age), I’m not the target audience for this event. But I went as someone who occupies space between that target demographic of high schoolers and the educators or professionals who work with youth to put these messages into action. And I saw it as lacking. But talk to a thirteen-year-old who got to touch Selena Gomez’s hand and is now getting involved in her school’s Free the Children club, and you’ll probably get a different story. So take my thoughts with caution and perspective—I speak with my own authority, but that is all.