Craig Kielburger (Interview)

Founder of Free the Children, co-founder of Leaders Today, author, speaker, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee

Interview by Cate Malek
July, 2005

profile of Craig Kielburger is also available.

Q: In Free the Children, you mention one of your first speaking engagements in which a group of older students stumped you with questions such as, "What gives you the right to go to these countries and tell them what to do? Aren't you simply white imperialists coming from a rich country, telling these people in the third world how to raise their children?" It seems that this question is a difficult one for people trying to work on issues that do not directly affect them. How did you answer this question?

A: If all of us had disregard for the other and only addressed issues that affected our immediate circle, no change would ever be initiated. Abuse, violence, exploitation, and neglect are problems that starve all of the world's children of having a childhood. They are barred from exercising their rights, receiving an education and thus, reaching their full potential. Regardless of whether particular problems do or do not plague certain communities, the underlying notion is that the overall protection of our children should be the world's shared responsibility.

The purpose of my first trip to South Asia was to meet with children and their families and ask them about solutions and how Free the Children could assist them. All of the families that I have met with on my travels want to escape their circumstances. They have expressed their faith in education as a sustainable solution to the challenges they face. At Free the Children, we are not dictating to the developing world, but listening to them, and forming partnerships with communities to find solutions. We provide the tools to empower and free families from exploitation and poverty.

Q: In the last ten years since FTC was founded, how have you faced typical problems that plague activists, such as burnout and disillusionment?

A: FTC has been in existence for the past 10 years, and we have grown from a group of 12-year-olds with a bold mission of changing the world, to the largest network of children helping children, with over 100,000 members worldwide. We have truly reached unimaginable heights. However, on the road to success, there have been road blocks and hurdles. Yet, with every obstacle faced, we have persevered because of our passion, resilience, and the strength we draw from the children we help.

During Free the Children's infant years, we had the daunting task of breaking down the barrier of belief that children were incapable of being key agents of positive social change. As young people with such a powerful message, we were often seen as idealistic in nature; dreamers who could not translate words into action. We often felt discouraged and helpless and asked ourselves, "Could young people really change the world?" However, as we continued our research we realized that we held more cards than anticipated. Who could better understand children than children themselves? This realization allowed us to press forward, and we felt unstoppable!

When I first began meeting with children and hearing their horrific stories, I would often find myself struggling with feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness. Then I would remember the silent promises that I made to the children — taking the message of their stories to others and challenging people to push for change. Moreover, I soon came to realize that there was no value in these emotions because it did not change the situation for these children. I am a firm believer of channeling frustration and negative energies into positive social action. Instead, when I feel discouraged, I choose to concentrate on the positive — the 400 schools that we have built, the 30,000 children who have received an education, the $9 million US worth of medical supplies that we have shipped — and I think to myself, "There is more work to be done. What more can Free the Children do to help?"

Q: Child labor involves extremely complex issues and probably nobody has a silver bullet cure for it. How do you deal with this complexity? Is it ever discouraging?

A: Free the Children focuses on the solutions that have been proposed by working children and their families. Rather than dwelling on the complexity of the issue and feeling overwhelmed, we tackle each contributing factor head-on. Through a multifaceted approach, we work with vulnerable communities to come up with long-term solutions. For example: through meeting with the children and their families, we learned that many of them are illiterate and unaware of their rights, thus leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. The children have expressed a desire to go to school, but we realize that families will only invest in education if it is economically feasible for them to do so. This is why we provide free education for children through our school-building program and bring alternative income projects to the families. Children, who were family breadwinners, can go to school, while parents are helped to develop a sustainable livelihood.

Q: On your website, you have a section where you discuss typical solutions to issues such as child labor and gang violence and then you suggest more effective ways of dealing with the problems. Why do you think so much time, energy and money are poured into ineffective responses to child labor issues?

A: The issue of child labor is intricate in nature, and all too often premature attempts to solving the problem are made without truly understanding the issue and without careful consideration of the implications of these attempts. Most of the time, resources are poured into short-term solutions that barely scratch the surface, or worse, perpetuate the problem. These short-term solutions show quick and easy results, but never truly take aim at the heart of the problem. The challenge of child labor cannot be solved in a single solution, but must be tackled from different angles with long-term and sustainable solutions.

Q: What is your advice for others who wish to address difficult issues such as child labor, but aren't quite sure how to go about it?

A: It is easy to feel overwhelmed when facing such issues, but a desire to make change is already the first step. Because these issues are so complex, scoping out as much information as possible is crucial. Knowledge is power. Calling human rights organizations, taking a trip to the local library, surfing the Web, speaking to teachers, are all ways of researching. Once you are equipped with knowledge, you can take action! It is important to keep in mind that starting an organization or traveling half-way around the world to help others is not necessary to make a difference; instead, small, simple actions go a long way! Keeping the issue at your heart is key.

Q: It seems that FTC has expanded your focus from only child labor issues to other issues such as peacebuilding. What are the issues you are most concerned about right now and why? What issues would you like to address in the future?

A: Free the Children's development involved a shift from focusing on problems, to finding long-term sustainable solutions. In our infant years, we concentrated on child exploitation, but we soon realized that finding solutions was just as important as raising awareness. This is why Free the Children places such a great emphasis on education. Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, said, "Education is peacebuilding by another name." Peace is a culture that we build by educating young people, by providing them with the tools to learn about each other and the global community. We also focus on the issue of youth empowerment. Young people are faced with the stereotype that they are naïve, idealist, or too immature to understand the world's problems. At Free the Children, we are continuously striving to help young people realize their potential as agents of positive social change, and instill within them a sense of civic responsibility and global citizenship. By investing in education, we are investing in peace and tolerance training, and helping to address the gap between the rich and the poor.

Q: Are there other stories of courageous or inspirational people you feel we should include in our collection?

A: Over the years, I have had the opportunity to travel the world, meeting with heads of state, royalty, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities, and corporate leaders. Nevertheless, I am most impressed by the street children and child workers that I meet. I draw inspiration from their resilience, their spirit, and their selflessness. Jose, a street child that I had the opportunity to meet in Brazil, is a shining example.

I spent a day in Salvador, Brazil with a group of street children, their ages ranging between eight and fifteen. They told me about their lives and took me to the abandoned bus shelter where they lived. One of the children invited me to play a game of soccer, and dashed off to find a "soccer ball". He began searching the ground until he found an old plastic water bottle. It was partially broken and had been thrown away. He began waving the bottle back and forth, and exclaiming, "We have our soccer ball, we can now begin." I had a wonderful time, but eventually night came, and I had to say goodbye. Jose, the fourteen-year-old boy, turned to me and said that he wanted to give me something to remember the street children. Yet these children lacked possessions. Nevertheless, Jose gave me his only possession — the soccer jersey from his favorite team. He removed the shirt off his back, not thinking that he would no longer have a shirt, or that he would be cold that night; rather, he instinctually acted selflessly. Jose insisted that I take the shirt, and grinned from ear-to-ear when I put it on. I gave him my shirt in return. Jose's shirt is framed and hangs on my wall — a constant reminder of the power of sharing, perseverance, and spirit.

Q: Are most of the founding members of FTC still involved in the group? What are your — and other founding members' — future plans?

A: We celebrated Free the Children's 10th anniversary on April 19th, and on that day I was presented with a scrapbook with contributions from Free the Children members from around the world. The scrapbook contained letters written to me by some of the founding members, full of memories and best wishes, and I received several e-mails from them, too. While they have gone on to pursue other life interests, we will always share friendship and a sense of ownership over the creation of Free the Children.

Currently, I am studying peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto. In the future, I hope to continue my studies toward a PhD. It is my dream to work in the area of conflict mediation, a dream which came about as a result of a promise I made to a young child. In 1997, I was honored to have been named as the Children's Ambassador in Bosnia. I met a 13-year-old boy who had lost his parents. When I asked him what he wanted to be when he was older, he gave no response except for a blank stare. I tried to encourage him by telling him of my desire to become a doctor and work with Doctors Without Borders. The boy replied, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need doctors because the bombs didn't fall in the first place?" That day, I made a commitment to work with nations on the brink of war to help them end conflicts before they erupt into war.