Me to We rally draws 8,000

By  Sharon Boase, Catholic Register Special
  • October 23, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - It was the mother of all pep rallies. Eight thousand tweens and teens crammed into Ricoh Stadium on Toronto’s waterfront Oct. 17, not to stoke school spirit but to embolden young people to go out and try to make the world a better place.

A tall order, no matter how old or young you are. But if the energy level of these young people is any indication, they appear, thankfully, to be up to the task.
The second annual Me to We Day, a gathering of Toronto and area students aged 12 to 18 from both Catholic and public school boards with a hankering to brighten their little corners of planet Earth, was, by all appearances, a blast.

Students “Woo-hooed!” and jumped, high-fived and danced to their favourite rock and rap tunes between brief motivational talks by speakers as diverse as Michel Chikwanine, a survivor of Congo’s savage civil war, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Canadian music icon Sarah McLachlan.

The kids cheered for them all.

“This has got to be the only place that’ll cheer a government,” quipped TV host Ben Mulroney as he introduced McGuinty.

They cheered for everybody, even the banker that helped sponsor the event, even the tech guy who took to the stage to ask the kids to stay in their seats. You’ve got to love that kind of optimism.

The creation of Catholic activists Craig Kielburger and his brother and partner, Marc, Me to We Day was hatched as a strategy to raise awareness and provoke righteous indignation among young people over the many instances of poverty and exploitation affecting children today.

The Kielburgers run Free the Children, a Toronto-based aid agency that works as hard to empower North American youth to become change-agents as it does to build schools in developing nations around the world.

“Young people are always at the forefront of change,” Craig Kielburger told the cheering crowd, citing Tianamen Square and Poland’s Solidarity movement.

Only grownups like me who had accompanied youth to the event caught those references so Kielburger followed up with a one-liner that resonated for all: “One person can make a world of difference.”

Kielburger would know. At 12, he stumbled upon the story of a boy in Pakistan, a child labourer, who was murdered for speaking out against the practice of enslaving youngsters in the carpet-weaving industry.

Kielburger, who had been looking for the comics when he came upon the story in the newspaper, got so upset that he rallied the kids in his Grade 7 class to join him in fighting for children’s rights.

Thirteen years and 500 school construction projects later, Free The Children has garnered the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child — the Children’s Nobel Prize.  It’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize four times and partners with Oprah Winfrey to make more of our young people knowledgeable, compassionate global citizens.

“Thirty thousands kids will die today from poverty or poverty-related diseases,” Kielburger told a momentarily subdued crowd. “And yet $3 billion is spent every day on the military. . . $17 billion a year is spent in North American alone on cat and dog food — that’s more than we spend on foreign aid. Then there’s the $11 billion that gets spent every year on ice cream.”

I found myself moved to tears by Chikwanine’s testimony and by actress Mia Farrow’s firsthand account of the horrors she witnessed in Darfur. Momentarily sobered, the kids were soon on their feet again, whooping and waving.

It’s their innocence and idealism that allows them to switch on a dime from hearing about gang rape to doing the wave but it’s that same innocence and idealism that cures my world-weariness and keeps me from despair over the state of the world.

As a Catholic educator, so much of what the Kielburgers preach is second-nature to the way I approach social justice work and the students I encourage to do it. What they would call socially conscious we would call Gospel-driven.

The news media picked up on the rock-concert-like atmosphere at Ricoh Stadium but I’m convinced it was the Holy Spirit lighting a flame in those young hearts.  And if doing social justice work is now cool and hip, that would make Jesus the ultimate counter-culture hipster.

(Boase, a former journalist, is chaplain at St. John’s College in Brantford.)

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