Rax Interview with Craig Kielburger
4 January 2011
In July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.
At the age of 12, Canadian Craig Kielburger saw a story in the papers about a 12-year-old Pakistani boy who had been murdered for speaking out against child labour factories. Craig started a children's rights campaign (Free the Children) the next day with two friends at his school. Free the Children has gone on to become one of the most successful youth rights campaigns in the world. In 2006, Rax students at Swanlea School in East London had the opportunity to interview him.
Rabbey: At the tender age if twelve, when you started a massive organisation, did you ever miss out on your childhood, or having fun like other children were having?
It was definitely a different type of child hood. I had travelled to more than 40 countries by the time I was seventeen. But truthfully I think I had the most amazing childhood in the world. Child hood is a lot more than video games, TV, hanging around shopping malls. A lot of adults say that’s all there is to youth. I don’t believe it. I think that even if you’re young and you find an issue that you’re passionate about, you take action about it now. Why just be an adult in waiting?
Imran: Although it was inevitable that you would come up against a lot of obstacles in setting up your charity, what was the nature of these obstacles and how did you overcome them?
The obstacles that we faced were many. Everything from tin pot dictators in developing countries when we tried to build schools to factory owners who didn’t want us taking kids out of their factories and putting them in schools. The greatest obstacle wasn’t overseas, it wasn’t a dictator or a factory owner, it was back home, in North America. Adults who wouldn’t take us seriously, who looked at us as young people and said, “Nice idea, you’re dreaming. You can’t eliminate poverty. You can’t put every child to school. It’s always been this way, it’s always going to be this way.” We’ve had two things to prove them wrong. One: research. Knowledge is power. We had the statistics, we could prove that change was possible. And two, we gathered more people. More people, more power. We have a hundred thousand young people all around the world. When they raised their voice, they built 420 schools, they helped a million kids in developing countries, they changed laws in Italy, Canada, they made things happen. That proved the adults wrong.
Ayesha: Did the responsibility ever become a nuisance to you at such a young age? And if so, what did you do about it?
That’s a really interesting question and I don’t have an easy answer to it. Yes it was a lot of responsibility but I think what was the most responsibility of it all was that we met a lot of kids who we couldn’t help at the time and the only promise that we could make to them was that we would carry their stories back. There was a young girl who I met in India who was eight and she worked in a recycling factory and she was taking apart used syringes and needles for their plastics and she had no gloves, she had no shoes and you could see that her hands were cut and she’d never heard of AIDs. She had no idea of the dangers of her job. And we were rushed out because we were told that if her master saw her talking her master would beat her. I’ve gone back to India four times to that same village and every time I have gone back I went with a photo of her trying to find her but we never did. I feel a sense of responsibility that I should have done something to act. In every speech I give, to this day, I share that one story of that one girl. So, it is a responsibility but it’s a responsibility I think we all have. Whenever we see something wrong, whenever we see an injustice, we should speak out. I don’t think we should shrug those responsibilities. We do human rights work not because it’s easy but because it’s necessary.
Deborah: You come from a rich country but now that you have travelled all around the world and seen how all the poor people live, have you changed your lifestyle?
I think to live and to bring about a positive change in the world, there’s a phrase that I always try to live by and I never quite succeed but it’s always a goal. It’s the words of Mahatma Gandhi, he said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world”. A lot of people think that charity ends when you put a few dollars in a cup. But it’s how we live our lives every day. For me, it’s where I shop. Talk’s cheap, so ask where’s the product made? Under what working conditions? Wherever you are from, cast a ballot (vote). I’ll never miss an election, whether it be local, national, whatever, you make your voice heard. People in other countries are dying for democracy. How we spend our free moments. It’s great to go and relax on a beach, it’s fun to hang out with friends but if you have a Saturday off or a school break, go and volunteer in your own neighbourhood or overseas, in one of our own schools. Be the change you want to see in the world. We can’t all be Gandhi but we can at least try and be true to ourselves.
Hodden: How do you motivate people to make a change around the world?
I wish I had the answer to that question. Because you look right now at Sudan, Darfur, there’s a genocide taking place and the world isn’t acting. You look at the issue of education, 115 million kids are not setting foot into a classroom… How do we make world leaders care? You know there’s poverty going on in the world and we spend one trillion dollars on arms, 400 billion dollars on cigarettes, 140 billion dollars drinking beer and 40 billion dollars playing golf each year when all it would take to put every child in to school is 10 billion dollars a year. So how do we motivate people to take action? It starts with caring. It starts with looking at a child and thinking that child may be somewhere in Sri Lanka, London, the States or Thailand but it doesn’t matter, it’s still a child and that child has basic human rights and it’s the responsibility of all of us to make sure that those rights are fulfilled. Educate ourselves. It’s the first step, knowledge is power. One, educate yourself. Two, find how you can take action. Whatever your gift may be. Some people are great at public speaking, some people are great at music, some people are great at art, some people are good listeners, they’re quiet and compassionate, Whatever your gift is, find your gift, find your issue and match them together. It’s the equation for social change.
Lilly: You’re helping a lot of children but I’m mostly concerned with the problem of climate change. What can we, young people, do about it?
That’s an awesome question. We are helping a lot of children and climate change maybe seems like a different issue but it’s not. Every issue is interconnected. It doesn’t matter where you start, you could start at child education, you could start at slavery, you could start at the issue of racism, the issue of sexism or you could start with climate change but they are all interconnected. For example, we work in Kenya and we help a lot of street kids. We often ask them, how did they end up on the streets? They tell us that they came from the rural areas and their family is really poor and so the oldest child got sent to the streets. So then we ask them, why was your family poor? They tell us that their family were farmers and the rain didn’t fall for the past couple of years so their crops didn’t grow. So then we go to their village and we ask why the rain wasn’t falling? They tell us about how all the trees were cut down for export. One case in Kenya, there was an American Agricultural Business that was growing flowers for export and they drilled these massive bore wells that were sucking all of the water out of the ground to so that we could buy flowers for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. When you start asking questions, you learn that all of these issues are interconnected. When the rain doesn’t fall in Kenya because of Global Warming, kids end up on the streets, they end up in child labour, young girls end up in prostitution, young boys end up breaking bricks. Every issue is interconnected and because of poverty, people are desperate, they are going to cut down trees, they are not going to be able to lift up living standards so that they can ensure that cars with lower emissions are used in a country like Sri Lanka. We need to attack it on every single level. So it doesn’t matter what your passion is: environment, animal rights, child labour, education, racism, sexism, you name it… Just take action! Because they’re all interconnected.
Souvik: As adults don’t take us seriously, what can we do to improve the world?
Well the adults have left the world in a pretty good place, don’t you think? Nuclear weapons, poverty, discrimination, Global Warming… How about we don’t take the adults seriously? How about, instead, we do what we want to do which is to create a better world? I’m half kidding but I’m also half serious. When we were twelve we had adults who tapped us on the head and said, “Oh look, how cute, this group of kids are going to change the world.” But you know what? Ten years later, that group of kids support over a million kids around the world. 625,000 families, every day, use our clean water projects, our health clinics and cooperatives for women. 420 primary schools in developing countries, 200,000 students in Canada use our textbooks, 500 students every year volunteer in developing countries with us… That’s because a group of year seven students didn’t listen when those adults said, “You can’t change anything”. I really believe that the most powerful force in the world are young people because it’s an untapped force. In history, we often see these images of great social justice leaders and we see these images of adults but we forget that the people who marched at the front, the people who faced the brunt of the water cannons in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, were students. In India, you had young people who were arrested in the hundreds, school aged children, ten and eleven years old, who were rounded up in Gandhi’s Salt March. In China, in Tiananmen Square, it was students who stood in front of the tanks. In South Africa, against the Apartheid regime, it was students who were shot as they marched. In every great social justice movement, students have been at the forefront of social change in the world. We often forget it because it’s years later when we finally recognise the victories and often those faces are now, instead of young students, the faces of older adults. Students have amazing change when they are empowered to make change, when we actually look through history. So, the answer to adults who don’t take us seriously? Don’t take them seriously in turn. Do the research, have your statistics, have the answers because knowledge is power but at the end of the day, nothing, nothing, nothing should hold you back if you have a dream. Follow it!