Real Leaders

Leadership Lessons from Children

At age 13, Craig Kielburger decided that his purpose in life was to help others discover their purpose. Over the years, he has worked with some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and social activists to raise awareness among young people that the power to change lies within their hands.

Blinking in the sunlight, 22 children emerged from a dark, fetid shed that had been their home and prison. The building was a carpet factory near Calcutta, where they had toiled as slaves. Chained to looms, the children were fed just one meal a day to keep them hungry and awake so they could work longer. 

It was 1996, and at age 13, I’d just participated in my first raid to free child laborers. I climbed into a jeep and sat beside an eight-year-old boy named Munnilal. Our conversation was interrupted when the vehicle ahead of us got stuck crossing a shallow river. We all surged into the chest-deep water and began to push. Powered by a mob of heaving children, the vehicle was freed from the river. As we piled back into the jeep, Munnilal offered me the blanket rescue workers had given him. I declined. Tiny and malnourished, Munnilal had far greater need. But I’ve never forgotten that moment embodying the Golden Rule: to offer comfort to those in need, as I would wish to be comforted in similar circumstances. 

Even now, child labor is skyrocketing among young Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan and Turkey. In Nigeria, the Islamic militia Boko Haram is kidnapping girls and turning them into suicide bombers. And in a remote northern indigenous community in Canada, poverty and hopelessness are fueling an epidemic of youth suicides. 

Children are like the canary in the coal mine: Their plight suggests where our world is taking a wrong turn. The question isn’t how can such things happen, but why aren’t more people trying to do something about it? As the Dalai Lama once said, “The greatest challenge facing our century is that we are raising a generation of passive bystanders.” 

There are two fundamental reasons people don’t act on the problems they see in the world. The first is a lack of connection to those in communities different from our own. The second barrier is the feeling of powerlessness. There are so many problems in the world; it’s hard to see how one individual could make a difference.

As much as children shine a spotlight on our problems, they’re also the solution. Young people have the power to change the world when we teach them compassion through  service-learning. Children learn about local and global issues — from homelessness to child labor to climate change — first in the classroom and then through volunteering and activism, shifting their perspective from “us and them” to “we.” 

In January 2016, Grade 7 and 8 students at North Ward elementary school in Paris, Ontario, gathered around a computer for a Skype chat with Nena Aqlan and Bushra Al-Fusail, two peace activists from war-torn Yemen. Describing their childhoods, one told a story of drawing straws with her friends to see who would have to knock on the neighbor’s door after they kicked their soccer ball into his yard. Suddenly, Yemenis were no longer strangers from a strange land; they were people just like us.

The children were appalled as the women described the horrors unfolding in their country: indiscriminate aerial bombings, shortages of food and water, children deprived of an education. Afterward, the quietest student in the class — the boy who never raised his hand — stood up and demanded to know why Canada wasn’t doing more to help the people of Yemen. The students wrote letters to the Prime Minister of Canada and to local politicians, made posters, and hung a banner at an inter-school basketball tournament to educate more students. They even launched a social media campaign with hashtags like #YemenMatters to raise awareness. 

 In 2014, social research firm Mission Measurement surveyed almost 1,000 educators and participants in Free The Children’s service-learning program, WE Schools. The survey found that participants were 1.3 times more likely to vote, twice as likely to volunteer, and nearly eight times more likely to start a campaign to address a social issue.

 But what about that second barrier — the feeling of powerlessness? How did a group of kids in small-town Ontario come to believe they could impact a war half a world away? By encouraging young people to take on significant issues as a group, service-learning turns ‘How can I make a difference?’ into ‘How can we make a difference?’ And in changing one word, everything changes. 

Our world today is like the jeep in the river: mired in conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation. And the waters are rising. Standing on the bank are the children of the next generation. Will they remain passive bystanders, or will they leap in and be part of the solution? 

Let’s use service learning to make the Golden Rule a part of the core curriculum in every classroom. Let’s raise young people to feel a connection with others around the world and to understand that working together, they can solve any problem.

This is extracted from Imaginal Cells: Visions of Transformation, a publication from Reboot the Future, which brings together 25 of the world’s leading visionaries and their alternative roadmaps for the future, united by the Golden Rule.

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