Kielburger speaks about child poverty to University crowd

The Social Science Society hosted an evening talk last Tuesday with Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger, about his work against child exploitation and poverty.

Kielburger’s mission began in 1995, at the age of 12, after he read a newspaper article about the death of Iqbal Masih.

Iqbal, a Pakistani boy, was taken into slavery at the age of four and was a carpet weaver until the age of 10 when he escaped. He subsequently became an international voice against child exploitation. Iqbal was assassinated two years later at the age of twelve while riding his bicycle. While this tragedy and many others were shared at the talk, Kielburger also spoke about stories of hope.

Inspired by Iqbal and furious about his death, Craig built Free the Children from an initial group of 12 friends from elementary school, to an organization that has involved over than a million young people in more than 45 countries.

Free the Children is now the largest network of children helping children. To date, the organization has built more than 450 schools, and provides daily education to over 40,000 children globally.

This Herculean effort has garnered the organization international praise. It has been, among other recognitions, nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kielburger’s work has also been acknowledged with numerous national and international awards, including the Roosevelt Freedom Medal and the Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award. He was also the youngest person since Terry Fox to receive the Order of Canada.

Kielburger has written numerous books on the subjects of child disenfranchisement and leadership and had speaking engagements in dozens of countries spanning the globe. His audience ranges from rural children in Kenya’s Masai region to international figures such as the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, and Desmond Tutu.

Kielburger said that for a time he stopped reading the newspaper because “it’s always the same story [of tragedy in newspapers].” Upon hearing this, Desmond Tutu replied by saying that Kielburger saw things the wrong way. These adversities should instead be seen as “a call to action.”

Co-written by with his brother, Kielburger’s most recent book, From Me to We, offers a “blueprint for personal and social change that has the power to transform lives, one act at a time.” It was the ideas in From Me to We that were at the forefront of Craig’s talk.

Although he spoke about international child poverty, he focused particularly on Africa. Kielburger blasted those who dismissed Africa as the “lost continent.”

He talked of the change that Free the Children has able to achieve there, and noted that it worked extensively in Kenya.

The progress that Free the Children has made in Kenya is captured in the documentary MTV Presents: Degrassi in Kenya. The film features Kielburger and the cast of the CTV drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, at the construction of a rural school in Kenya.

Michel Chikwanine, a friend of Kielburger, and a social activist himself, undoubtedly provided the most riveting and intense portion of the talk.

He related an intimate and harrowing retelling of his childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

He told of how, as a child soldier, rebels in DRC had him shoot and kill a friend and how later he was forced to witness the rape of his mother. The audience was visibly shaken.

Near the end of the talk, Kielburger suggested ways that students and the University can take meaningful action.

The first step he believes is a community service requirement of 100 volunteer hours as a prerequisite for graduating. He also advocated for a sweat-free campus in which Fair Trade, organic, and sweat-shop free items are sold on campus whenever possible, and forgiveness through service, where graduates who work in certified volunteer positions are offered student debt interest relief or debt forgiveness. Finally, Kielburger pushed for mingra—an aboriginal term from Ecquador that means “coming together for the common good.”