Photographs by Adam Pulicicchio.
In the twenty years since Free the Children’s inception, founders Marc and Craig Kielburger have sought to build local, domestic and international communities that share their dream of eradicating global poverty. Those communities – a mix of educators, students, celebrities, government partners, corporate sponsors and like-minded advocates and creators – are no longer just an idea of two brothers from Ontario; they are very loud, passionate and incredible agents of change.
WE Day, a stadium-extravaganza celebrating the efforts of these communities kicked off its ninth year yesterday in Toronto. A full day of programming built on the inspiring stories of community members, musical performances from Nick Jonas, Kiesza, Shawn Mendes, Hedley and others, and discussions of Me to WE’s year-round initiatives attracted the nearly 20,000 students and educators to the Air Canada Centre, each of whom earned their tickets to the event through fundraising efforts as WE Schools. Though the event felt a little over extended due to production (it will be broadcasted at a later date), it undoubtedly planted a deep sense of hope.
The diversity in voices, tales, achievements and ongoing projects across the Me to WE community at Toronto’s WE Day showed, more than anything, the striking power and capability for compassion that any one individual may possess and how those traits can manifest themselves through experience and positive action.
Between Carly Rae Jepsen’s boldly energetic rendition of “I Really Like You”, highlights of WE Schools’ achievements and Magic Johnson getting booed when discussing the idea of the Dogers beating the Jays, local examples of such voices played out. Annaleise Carr, who swam across Lake Ontario for charity at the age of 14, and Leanne Prendergast, who overcame bullying and suicide contemplation by co-writing a book and co-founding Love Our Lives with her sister to support those who face similar challenges.
In WE Day tradition, the festivities connected students with several high-profile guests, performers and hosts, many of whom regularly work with Free the Children and Me to WE to increase awareness and support their international initiatives. Although it may be a few days before anyone’s eardrums will fully recover from the screams for Jonas, Hozier and Mendes’ impeccable performances of “Levels”, “Take Me to Church” and “Stitches”, the nature of such guests’ anecdotes were intimately empowering. For instance, Nina Dobrev, Hedley and Much host Tyrone Edwards all fondly discussed the teamwork and accomplishments during their trips to Kenya and Ecuador with Free the Children and Me to WE.
Demi Lovato, who played host to part of the show, relayed her own experiences with mental health and the role of confidence (a reference to her upcoming album) in her life; Rookie Magazine Editor-in-Chief Tavi Gevinson emphasized the value of finding your authentic, creative voice; and Olympian Silken Laumann and Academy Award-winning Marlee Matlin showcased perseverance through their respective social and physical challenges in their own career aspirations.
“We are powerful. We are a movement. We will change the world!” was the Kielburger’s mantra in both their opening and closing remarks. Convincing the youth of this sentiment by connecting with them through culture, music, technology and community in such a grand and colourful way is not only effective, but optimistically heartwarming, too.