It may seem a heavy burden to bear, but Thursday’s Youth Action Montreal conference, appropriately titled “Living your legacy: A Youth Summit on Community Engagement,” aimed to alleviate that weight and inspire echo boomers to get involved at the local and global levels in concrete, realistic ways.
Canadian keynote speakers Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free The Children and Me to We, bewitched the crowd with their motivational and emotional speeches.
As Lewis recounted the beauty and horror of being involved as a UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS and of his work with the Stephen Lewis Foundation and AIDS Free World, the audience seemed drawn to his every word.
He referred to his listeners as “You students who worry about the world.” He pounded his fists in the air and got teary-eyed when he stressed how pervasive rape is around the world and how it propagates AIDS at an exponential pace.
“I am 73 years old. I thought I understood the way the world works, but I don’t,” he said. “I don’t understand how there can be so much violence and so much determination at the same time.”
Lewis explained that nearly half a million women have been raped in the Republic of Congo alone, adding that everyone sitting in the room probably knew someone who had been raped.
“I want to say that the single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality. How can you have change if you continue to abuse 50 per cent of the planet’s population?” he asked.
He then cracked a big, contagious smile. “We need a generation to bring us on the right course. It is possible to make global, local. Be engaged in issues like sexual violence, AIDS, poverty, climate change. All of these things are fundamental and they make life meaningful,” he said.
The Stephen Lewis Foundation supports grassroots organizations working to halt the propagation of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Since 2003, it has funded more than 700 initiatives with 300 community-based organizations in 15 countries.
AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization founded in 2007 with a small staff that works from a dozen locations in the US and Canada, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. It is especially preoccupied with contagion through sexual violence. For every person they treat, two more are infected.
Lewis’ vision of humanity changed in 2003, when he visited a pediatric ward in Zambia. He met a doctor whose “heart was breaking every day and soul was disintegrating on an hourly basis” as he tried to save the lives of children born in horrid conditions and the mothers who carried them.
What breaks Lewis’ heart is the lack of interest and mobility of the international community which has the funds and resources to help its neighbours in Africa. “The great strength in this world lies at community level; it lies at the roots,” he said. “Students can make significant contributions to the lives of those in between life and death around the world.”
Lewis believes in the power of our generation with so much conviction. As he looked around the room, he uttered these words before he received a standing ovation: “I beg you â€“ individually – to make collective changes.”
Craig Kielburger is a Canadian activist for the rights of children. When he was just 12 years old, he travelled to Asia to see the plight of youth workers. A few months later, he convinced then-Prime Minister Jean ChrÃ©tien to raise the issue of child labour with the president of Pakistan and the prime minister of India during a trade delegation meeting. Now at age 28, he has six honorary degrees and is the founder of Free the Children and co-founder of Me to We.
What if not everyone has it in them to follow in Kielburger’s footsteps, when regular 12 year olds are playing video games and wondering what they will wear to school?
For the Toronto-born activist, not everyone has to become the next Craig Kielburger, Stephen Lewis, David Suzuki, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. to save the world.
“We think of only certain people having the ability to change the world but that’s not true,” Kielburger said. “Those people are symbolic of a much larger movement and it’s that grassroots movement that really has the power to change the world. It’s a challenge for all of us to recognize that we can change the world in very tangible ways.”
The Me to We foundation offers concrete ways to get involved locally, for “shamelessly idealistic” people who can’t afford to go abroad. The foundation also organizes humanitarian trips for children and their families to help across the globe.
“Everyone of us is part of a movement that is larger than Montreal, Quebec or Canada,” he said. “Call volunteer groups and see how you can share your passion and get involved.”
Kielburger’s energy is fuelled by the potential he sees in youth for social change. “At Free the Children, we are lucky to work with children and teenagers because they get it. They probably get it more than most adults – and they stay committed to causes,” he said.
At age 28 and having probably done more good in the world than most people, he is living proof that you don’t have to spend a lifetime to leave a legacy.
“You can live your legacy,” added a confident Kielburger.
Feeling inspired? Here are the projects that were presented by former Concordia students at the youth summit to encourage other students to get involved.
Five Days for the Homeless is a charity campaign founded in 2005 by students of the University of Alberta. In 2008, John Molson School of Business students saw potential in the campaign and decided to implement it in Montreal. By sleeping and living in the streets for five full days and nights and attracting people’s attention with mottos such as “Welcome to my bedroom,” the Concordia chapter has raised more than $170,000 for the Montreal non-profit organization Dans La Rue.
Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program
A non-profit volunteer organization aimed at connecting the youth of Canada with peers in the East African country of Uganda, CVAP offers the opportunity for students to witness first-hand how community development works abroad and learn the skills it takes to help people in Third World countries.
Journalists for Human Rights
JHR trains students in human rights reporting and focuses on the stories that do not receive attention in mainstream media. It is Canada’s largest international development media organization. JHR Concordia’s shows are broadcast on CKUT 90.3 FM twice a month, on Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m.
Youth Fusion addresses dropout rates, delinquency, political disengagement and violence in high schools. It has connected Concordia with students from some of Montreal’s most disadvantaged high schools to motivate teenagers to become socially conscious and responsible and use creative ways to be involved in their community.
If you couldn’t make it to the event, check out an excerpt from the Q&A period with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis:
Q&A with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis