If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person.
If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house.
If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.
Who would have guessed that a 12 year old boy would take on the world? Shocked to learn about the murder of a child his own age, Craig Kielburger, now almost 24, is the founder of Free the Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education. He's also the co-founder of Leaders Today, the world's top youth leadership training organization. He has a degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Toronto and holds two honorary doctorates degrees.
Craig has received many awards for his work, including the Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award, the World Economic Forum GLT Award, the Roosevelt Freedom Medal, the Governor General's Medal of Meritorious Service, the Human Rights Award from the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations and the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child, also known as the Children's Nobel Prize. Craig is the youngest person ever selected as one of Canada's Top 40 under 40.
Free the Children has helped more than one million young people around the world by building more than 450 primary schools providing daily education to more than 40,000 children. Free the Children helps families in the areas of education, alternative income, health care, water and sanitation provision and peace building. Leaders Today, founded in 1999, reaches more than 350,000 youth each year through leadership education tools to inspire them to create positive social changes.
Craig has traveled to more than 50 countries to visit underprivileged children and to speak out in defense of children’s rights. He has shared the podium with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Queen Noor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
Craig's written works include books Free the Children, which won the Christopher Award and has been translated into eight languages, national bestsellers Take Action!-A Guide to Active Citizenship, Take More Action, Me to We: Turning Self-Help on Its Head, and his most recent, Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World, co-authored with his brother Marc. He also writes a column with Marc for Canada's largest newspaper, the Toronto Star and for Canada's most read magazine, Canadian Living. His works have been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, CBC, BBC, 60 Minutes and profiled in The Economist, Time and People magazines.
JANET ATTWOOD: I am so excited that you are with us tonight and it is indeed an honor. Why don't we just get started? Is that good for you?
CRAIG KIELBURGER: My thanks to everyone who has been so patiently waiting and listening.
JANET ATTWOOD: Well, everyone, do you hear that? I know that it is well taken. Thank you. We all know that things happen and it has been an opportunity for all of us just to be on the self. So here we go.
Will you share with us how you gained a passion for the plight of children in other parts of the world and how Free the Children emerged from that.
CRAIG KIELBURGER: Absolutely. When I was 12 is when we first started this organization. It was 11 years ago, now, actually. I grew up in the suburbs, so not very different from young people who might be listening or the children of the people who are listening. One morning I was looking for the comics in the paper. I was just flipping through the pages and I saw this picture that made me stop, it just captured my attention.
It was this young boy and he had this bright red vest and his fist was clenched and his arm was high up in the air. I was looking at this picture and I saw the headline that read "Battled Child Labor, boy, 12, murdered." I was 12 years old at the time and so I looked at this headline and I started reading this article about a young boy in Pakistan whose name was Iqbal Masih.
When he was four years old, his parents were so desperately poor that they actually sold him into slavery. They took out a small loan and when they couldn't repay it, it was the equivalent of 12 U.S. dollars, he was taken away from the family and he was brought to a carpet factory and forced to tie thousands and thousands of tiny knots, weaving hand-knotted carpet until he was 10.
He escaped and started traveling literally around the world. He actually went to Europe. He came to the states, went to Boston, speaking out against child labor. Then, at the age of 12, he was returning home to Pakistan and just in front of his house, he was shot dead. He was assassinated at the age of 12. I looked at my life and I looked at his life and seeing those differences in our lives made me angry.
I can't remember what other emotions were running through my mind, disbelief, especially anger. I remember tearing out the newspaper article and shoving it in my backpack and bringing it to school that day. Just riding on the school bus and uncrumpling it and looking at this article and reading the story and wanting to do something, but not knowing what I could do because I was 12.
Standing in front of my grade seven classmates, and holding up this newspaper article and saying, "I need your help. Who will join?" Eleven hands went up and that is how we started. In fact, our first nickname, because if you count me with those 11 hands, they called us "The Group of 12 12-year olds."
It was just a group of kids. We did car washes and bake sales and we tried to raise enough money to build one school in India and we have done a little bit more since that. We now have grown around the world, the world's largest network now of children helping children through education.
JANET ATTWOOD: I love this story and it must have been so intense for you because you were also 12. Isn't that correct?
CRAIG KIELBURGER: It was like looking at a mirror of our own age. I think all of us, at different times, are confronted with issues. We see it everyday around us, the poverty or the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or violence, or political issues for those who are listening in the states with the elections happening. But, for some reason, there are one or two issues that also just leap out at us. In this case, because this boy was my own age, it almost was like a mirror in some ways.
Our lives were incredibly different, but because of that one similarity, I was able to look at that picture and to feel something that I never really felt before, that anger and that frustration and that sense of injustice. I honestly believe everyone has an issue, something that they are passionate about and they want to change in this world. Maybe they have quieted it down, maybe they pushed it out of the way, maybe others have said that you are too young or you can't change things or it is not the right time in your life.
For some reason, they have kind of shoved that emotion off to the side, but I believe that we have to listen to that. We all have some type of issue. You call it a passion. We call it an issue, whatever word you want to use, but something that we want to change in this world. We all have a gift that will help make that change.
For me, it was being able to find the courage to speak in front of my grade seven class and speak to other young people. That is how we built the organization. For other people, it might be art, to express this injustice through paintings or for others maybe it is music or for others being a good listener for a friend who is going through a hard time. We all have some type of gift. The question of bringing that issue and that gift together, I believe, is the simple but powerful equation for a better world.
JANET ATTWOOD: Thank you for that and thank you for just knowing to stay open and move forward at such a young age. How incredible. I know that your brother Marc is now chief executive director of Free the Children and you both have written a wonderful book together. How did Marc get involved and how has it been to work on these projects with your brother?
CRAIG KIELBURGER: I couldn't imagine it any other way. My older brother was always also involved in social issues. For him, he got involved about the same age, actually. There is a six year difference between us. When he was 13, he did a science fair project, an alternative to home cleaners. Ways to help protect our environment using simple recipes with baking soda and vinegar, instead of the over-the-counter cleaners that are bad for the environment.
It was just a science fair project. It was nothing big, but I remember watching him six years older, like a great inventor and thinking if he can do it, I'll bet I can do it. That same type of positive reinforcement that I think we need those heroes in our lives. In my brother's case, Free the Children was growing as an organization and he was also growing academically. He was involved and off doing his studies at the same time.
He went on to Harvard and then got a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at Oxford. He had all of these offers to go into investment banking or to consulting or going to Wall Street, with many zeros at the end of these offers for paychecks. Free the Children was growing as an organization at the same time as he was doing his studies.
We started as The Group of 12 12-year olds, but we have grown now to 450 primary schools that we have built and operate around the world. We have half a million women going through our clean water projects and 20,000 women going through alternative income cooperatives. We work with about a million kids around the world through our development projects.
Marc finished his studies and he had a choice. Does he go to the investment banking world, the consulting world, that world where you certainly make a lot of money or does he decide to do this. He chose to join as executive director to serve in the non-profit world, and it is quite literally, non-profit. In Marc's case and in my case, neither of us receives a salary. We are very fortunate to have fellowships that help cover our living expenses.
He literally turned down offers in Wall Street worth all of this money, but it is interesting because years later, a lot of his friends at the time were teasing with him and joking with him and saying you know, "How can you do this? You're going to give up all of this money. You're going to be a non-profit."
But years later, so many of the people look at their own lives, and this is not to say that the corporate world is necessarily unfulfilling because for a lot of people it is very fulfilling, but some of his friends look at their own lives and they reassess priorities and they realize that there is something more than just nine to five. There is something more than just going to work and at the end of the day, there is something more than just earning money.
I think that really the book Me to We was greatly influenced, also, by that personal choice that Marc had to make; do you go into the corporate world or do you go into the non-profit world? For him, wrestling with that decision of how do you define happiness; is happiness a new car, is it a BMW, is it the nice penthouse, is it the designer suit or is it in the non-profit world, the old beat up car, but having a chance to work with kids that you absolutely love to work with, the late hours, eating pizza out of a box as you are sitting around, helping to figure out projects or developing overseas working and digging trenches and building schools, working in developing countries.
That same choice that he faced, do you do the corporate or do you do the non-profit, I think in a small way, we all face those types of choices. In our daily lives, we all face those opportunities to make choices about what is good for me or what is good for we. That influenced a lot of our writing and a lot of our thinking is because I know he struggles with it and I struggle with it and everyone struggles with that. How do you make a living while also making a life? I think that answer is what we have at least found in our life was what influenced a lot of the books that we wrote.
JANET ATTWOOD: It is such a beautiful story. I love what you said "What is good for me?" When you think about it, what is good for me is really good for we because really what is good for me is really living a life of purpose and dedication and passion as you are. You said it so wonderfully that it is not the BMW, it is not the Jaguar, or whatever you said.
It's really how much did you give today and all of us, when we look back, would never remember the new dress, the new cars, the new this. What we do remember, and what really goes deep in our hearts, are those moments where you have those connections where you are really helping and you're walking your talk and you're out there really doing something that means something so deep in your heart to you. Is this what you are doing?
CRAIG KIELBURGER: Absolutely. You know when we sat down and started researching for the book, we started contacting experts and asked the question of what really makes people happy and all of the studies behind it. We hear lot of things, money doesn't make you happy. We hear that. But truthfully I think a lot of us kind of shrug our shoulders or wink our eye or just say, "You know, in reality, sure it does." Would people have been listening? Does $500 in your pocket make you happier? Yes, absolutely. Would one thousand, one hundred thousand? Sure, at first.
What the studies show is that it is such a quick curve that it brings that momentary happiness, that new car smell, that quick moment of splurge, that new dress, that new car, that new computer, whatever that one moment. But it is not necessarily the fulfilling happiness. When you look at the research, it shows spikes up and down.
If you want to see people who have that long, really fulfilling happiness, what Aristotle called, "Eudemonic happiness", what researchers call everything from "demeaning happiness" to the happiness that we get what we call the "we centered happiness." That idea of a type of happiness that at the end of the day, when you are tired and you are exhausted and your eyes are heavy and you are going to sleep at night, you smile because you know you've left the world a little bit of a better place.
I think at the end of the day, in our lives, at least, and I think this is true for a lot of people who we have worked with, I think the moments of greatest happiness I think of the time with family and friends. I think of the volunteer work that we have done with Free the Children. When I think of the greatest happiness, I think of this summer we were in Kenya. We were building schools for kids.
I mentioned that we have about 450 schools that we have built and we operate, and we finished this construction of this school and we looked out at all of these kids who are all standing around in this tiny village, this Masai and Kipsigis community, this tribal community in South Kenya and we said to the kids, "The school is finished."
We say these kids, literally, they were like jumping up and down, they ran to their school and they stood outside the door and they stopped. They started arguing with themselves. We didn't know what they were saying. We leaned in and we heard in Swahili that they were arguing over who gets the honor of opening the door for the first time. When they had settled, they picked the head girl, she was in grade eight, she had the highest marks.
They threw open this door and raced inside and they sat down at their desks. These are kids who never had desks. They held their notebooks in their hands. It used to be six kids would share a notebook and three kids would share a pencil. These are kids who never really had the chance to have their own school. They sat at the desks, so excited, just looking up at us.
As volunteers, we didn't know what to do because it was Sunday and there was no school. We literally picked up the chalk and we started teaching the first lesson. There was just that moment where I look back on that day and seeing those kids, we all know it to be true, but those are the moments that really do bring the greatest happiness.
JANET ATTWOOD: When you started, being just a bunch of kids and then today, you have this international organization, a number of very sophisticated websites, you're touring with some of the most well known and respected people in the world. For many of our listeners, it seems totally impossible. I mean you're 23.
Will you describe in more detail how you went from a 12-year old boy with a group of friends to the 23-year old global leader and what happened along the way? How did you make the transition from a bunch of kids doing something to help to a global well organized organization? How did you do that?
CRAIG KIELBURGER: With a lot of help and a lot of good luck, and also a lot of faith. When I say faith, I don't mean in the religious sense of the word, I mean faith in people and faith in humanity. I don't think you can actually do this work without having that type of faith. When we started with those group of 12 12-year olds, we were doing car washes and bake sales and pop bottle drives and just helping out in our local community.
At the age of 12, I got this crazy idea in my head that in order to really understand child labor, as much as I could growing up where I grew up which is North America and the suburbs, that I would have to go see it with my own eyes. I remember I wanted to go backpacking through Asia, so I remember planning how I was going to tell my parents this and walking downstairs to the kitchen table and looking at my mom and dad with the most mature voice that I could manage.
I said, "Mom, Dad." I realized that it was a lost cause with my dad. So I said, "Mom," and saying, "I wanted to take two months off from school," which wasn't the best way to start, "and I want to go backpacking. I want to go through Pakistan, India, Thailand, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I want to meet these kids. I want to research child labor, like Iqbal, that young boy who was killed and I don't want you to go with me. Can I go?"
I remember that my mom looked at me and she actually laughed. She shook her head and she said, "Craig, we love you very much, but you're 12 and we don't let you take the subway by yourself. So, no, you can't go to Asia." I kept pleading and kept begging and kept asking and they actually banned the use of the word Asia. My mom wouldn't even let me bring it up in the house any more.
She got so frustrated one day, she actually said to me, "You can't even ask, you're not allowed to even bring it up unless you can prove that you'd be safe and you can raise half the money." She was trying to stop me, but I thought to myself, "Well at least I know what I am dealing with now." I come from Canada, so I started shoveling driveways and earning spare money.
I got a chaperone who was from Bangladesh who was 25 years old and recently graduated from University. Low and behold, the two of us, the chaperon and myself, and I was 12, almost 12 years ago, I left in December 1995 backpacking through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Nepal meeting these kids.
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