Annual event combines motivational messages with arena-rock theatrics
We Day never gets old for Mike Gibson.
The social studies teacher from Kate Andrews High School in Coaldale was one of the 16,000 spectators who packed into the Scotiabank Saddledome on Monday, Nov. 3 for the inspirational rally dubbed We Day. Founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger of the Free the Children organization, the annual arena event was making its third stop in Calgary.
“It was my third time and it just doesn’t get old for me,” Gibson said. “What a great time the students and I had.”
We Day is a day-long event that blends the fervour of a religious rally with the hooting, fist pumping and dancing of a hip-hop concert. It combines high-energy musical performances with motivational speeches from prominent achievers — all meant to inspire youth to believe in themselves and their ability to effect positive change in the world.
This year’s speakers included actor-musician-activist Tom Jackson, actor-activist Mia Farrow, Forbes Media editor-in-chief Steve Forbes, astronaut and medical doctor Dave Williams, former Olympian Silken Laumann and motivational speaker-activist Spencer West.
We Day tickets are free, but attendees have to earn them through ongoing charitable efforts.
The power of we
The theme of this year’s We Day was “empowerment.”
“This is the generation that believes in the power of we,” said We Day co-founder Craig Kielburger during one of his two impassioned speeches to the crowd. “This is the me-to-we generation.”
Kielburger’s message is to get youth thinking in terms of “we” rather than “me.” He wants youth to understand that problems a world away should matter to people here in Canada.
“We realize we are all connected,” he said.
Later, he said the key to making a difference is finding a cause you’re passionate about, then using whatever specific talents you may possess to effect change.
During a brief press appearance, Kielburger said his efforts are having an effect.
“This is raising a generation who cares, and they keep taking these amazing actions to benefit the community,” he said.
“Changing the world, in the eyes of these young people, is possible and it’s cool.”
Kielburger first rose to fame as a 12- year-old in 1995. The Thornhill, Ont. resident stumbled upon a Toronto Star article about 12-year-old Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child labourer turned child-rights activist who was killed for speaking out against the carpet industry that had him working in shackles when he was four.
Kielburger rallied a group of Grade 7 classmates, and the Free the Children organization was born. At that time, social activism wasn’t cool.
“We were practically shoved into lockers in the early days, it was so uncool to care,” he said.
Free the Children has gone on to build more than 650 schools and school rooms and has provided clean water, health care and sanitation to one million people around the world. In 2007 the organization started We Day.
Kielburger said he never imagined that his charitable crusade would grow beyond the schools in his own neighbourhood, never mind fill stadiums across Canada.
“Young people today who are 12 and 15, they dream of changing the world. Our dream is to empower them,” he said.
The idea of We Day is to provide a fun day as a reward to students for their charity work, but also to inspire them to return to their communities and engage in projects to help on a local and global scale.
Gibson and 23 students from his school earned their front-row We Day tickets by orchestrating a seven-month drive to raise $10,000 to build a classroom in Kenya.
Having been involved in various fundraising efforts at his school over the years, Gibson was inspired to take it to the next level after attending We Day last year. What followed was a campaign that captured the interest of the whole town of Coaldale (near Lethbridge), to the point that people were coming up to Gibson at the grocery store and presenting him with donation cheques.
“It was such an internally rewarding experience. It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever done,” he said.
This year’s We Day was the first for teacher Megan Wade of Calgary’s Haultain Memorial School. She said her students took the We Day message to heart and, a week after the event, were still enthused about taking action.
“Now that they’ve gone, there’s a definite focus on helping others, and they see they need to see locally and globally. A lot of the talk afterward was about global, that they didn’t realize some of the issues that were raised at We Day and that they could help.”
Teacher and vice-principal Simon Clarke of Jennie Elliott School in Calgary said he’s seen a change in students’ interest in helping others during the time that his school has been involved with the Kielburgers.
“We’ve seen a huge shift in the last 10 years as we’ve been working on this,” he said. “We’ve really embraced the whole me-to-we philosophy with huge numbers of our students.”
However, the veteran of four We Days said he’s also noticed a shift in the We Day experience.
“I’m finding We Day is getting more and more commercialized. That’s my biggest concern with it. There’s a real promotion of Free the Children whereas when we first started working with Marc and Craig … they focused a lot on just getting kids inspired. It wasn’t necessarily about their organization, it was just getting kids inspired to take action and be involved.”
The event is also getting slicker and its elements delivered in a more rapid-fire succession. Where speakers used to spend 15 or 20 minutes delivering profound messages, now they’re on strict timers.
“There was real substance to the talks. Now it’s five-minute sound bites or two-minute sound bites,” Clarke said.
Despite his concerns, he noted that his students were thrilled with We Day, and he readily acknowledged that the Kielburgers are spreading a positive message.
“Overall, the work that they’re doing is very good. They’ve done some great things, and they are getting kids excited.” ❚