Q&A: Social activist Craig Kielburger talks about the evolution of Free The Children

Monday, November 23, 2015 - 2:28pm
Sarah Jane Silva
Countdown to Success - Craig Kielburger chats with Hugh Gunz, IMI Director
IMI Countdown to Success 2015:  Photo by Ryan Cerrudo.

Free The Children co-founder Craig Kielburger was at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus last Thursday, where he sat down with the director of the Institute for Management & Innovation, Hugh Gunz, to discuss the charity’s success. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:


HG: I’d like to start the conversation by asking about the ideas that drive you. You quote the Dalai Lama, saying that, “The greatest challenge in the world is that we’re raising a generation of passive bystanders.” You yourself cite a related challenge - getting past the paralyzing thought: “I’m just one person. What can I do?” Can you tell me more about what you mean about these challenges?

CK: I was about 15 years old. The phone rang in my house. It was the chief of staff for the Dalai Lama who said he was convening a gathering of thirty individuals – theologians, philosophers, and heads of state. He convened us in Sweden for a week to answer one question: “What is the single greatest challenge facing our world today?” This group came to the conclusion that the single greatest challenge is that we’re raising a generation of passive by bystanders.

At the root of so many of our childhoods, consciously or unconsciously, we were taught one of two things: someone else will solve our problems and so it’s the government or the NGO’s responsibility. It’s not our responsibility. Why? It’s because I’m only one person. What difference can I make when faced with such massive challenges?

It’s partially why we do these giant Me To We stadiums. It’s a reward mechanism to thank students for their incredible service that helps 1,000 different charities every year. But mostly it’s to say, “Yes, we can change the world and we are not alone and the problems of the world are not too much.”

HG: It was the story about the death of a Pakistani child labourer that sets you on this extraordinary odyssey. The ground must have been prepared for you to react like that.

CK: My mom and dad are both schoolteachers. I’ve had a very ordinary and humble upbringing. We’re from Thornhill but when we went to downtown Toronto, my mother could not walk past someone who was homeless without helping in some way. In my childhood, I remember her always stopping and asking that person their name and where they’re from and how long have they been on the streets, and my mother, God bless her, has a mom purse. It takes forever to find anything. As she searched through the purse she’d continue a conversation with them. My brother and I would try to race ahead of her because we wanted to go to the Eaton Centre or go to the movies. She would just patiently hold these conversations and pull us into them.

Recently she told me that half of the reason why she did it was to be helpful to them. But the main reason was so that my brother and I would look at that person in the eyes and hear that they had a name.  

HG: How was it like putting an international organization like Free The Children together?

CK: We had a lot of luck in terms of how we grew in scale.

We started in Thornhill in 1995. It was twenty years ago this year. I turned to my friends and I said, “I need your help. Will you join?” Eleven hands went up plus me. So we named ourselves: The Group of Twelve 12-Year-Olds. It worked for like two weeks until one of us had our 13th birthday.

It is helpful when Oprah does a show on your charity. They should teach that in business school. Oprah made a pledge on air. Her show is live-to-tape. She said, “I love what you do. I want to build a hundred schools with you.” Then she said, “We’ll be right back after commercial break.”

That was not preplanned for anyone including Oprah’s lawyers. Before I even left the couch, her lawyers walked out and said, “Shouldn’t we tape that again?” Obviously they wanted to recreate the moment and film it without the pledge. They leaned in close to her and whispered, “We don’t know anything about these people…they’re Canadian!”

She kept the pledge, thankfully. It was the first time she ever gave internationally.

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UTM’s fourth annual Countdown to Success was sponsored by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario. CPA Ontario serves and supports its more than 84,000 members and 20,000 students in their qualification and professional development in a wide range of senior positions in public accounting, business, finance, government and not-for-profits.