WE Movement Co-Founder and Human Rights Activist
Born to Make a Difference
Craig Kielburger is a social entrepreneur and human rights activist who co-founded WE Movement together with his brother Marc. Born in Canada in 1982, Craig attended the University of Toronto and graduated in 2002 with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2009, Craig became the youngest graduate of the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA program at York University. However, long before he could apply to any program of higher education, Craig was already intent on making a difference.
In 1995, when Craig was just twelve years old and searching for comics over breakfast like so many other kids, he stumbled upon a headline in a local Toronto newspaper that changed his life. It was about a boy his age who had been abused, used for child labour, and murdered. Craig was greatly moved by the story and felt a sense of shock, connection, and responsibility. He knew that he had to do something about the situation, despite being just a single voice.
The Headline That Started a Movement
The headline in the paper had been about a Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih, who was killed for speaking up as a child worker against child labour in the carpet industry. Craig started to research the topic and understood that a collective effort would have to be made in order to bring about change. He asked his teacher at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School for permission to speak in front of his classmates about the subject.
Craig and Marc together managed to convince 11 of their fellow classmates to get on board and formed a group that they called Free the Children. The group assumed the mission of rescuing children from poverty and exploitation. Free the Children grew in size and impact, eventually turning into the organization known as WE Movement.
Free the Children – The First Stages
Craig’s parents, Theresa and Fred, helped him and Marc through the initial stages of the group’s formation as it was run out of their own home. The children, just in grade seven, would write letters and send petitions to political leaders across the globe. One of their very first missions included collecting 3,000 signatures in an attempt to petition the prime minister of India for the release of Kailash Satyarthi, a child-labour activist who had been imprisoned. The petition was sent to the prime minister in a shoe box wrapped in brown paper. Satyarthi was eventually released and won the Nobel Prize.
In the same year, Craig went to Asia to see first-hand what life was like for child labourers. While in India, he discovered that Jean Chretien, then the Canadian prime minister, was also in the country. Craig pushed for a meeting with Chretien, and after first being denied, he managed to obtain a 15-minute time slot to speak to the prime minister about child labour. At the meeting, he urged the prime minister to consider the fact that these children needed the help of the Canadian government.
Speaking Out and Being Heard
Upon returning to Canada, Craig made international news and was featured on popular talk shows, including on Oprah Winfrey and 60 Minutes. Craig also co-wrote Free the Children with Kevin Major about his experiences in Asia, his interactions with child labourers, and the process of how he founded his organization.
At the time, Craig and Marc had been raising money for organizations that worked to free child labourers through factory raids and rescues. However, they reached the understanding that the children’s families would often sell them again out of desperation for money and food even after they were rescued. Consequently, the focus of Free the Children was shifted.
Moving to a Holistic Approach
Understanding that there is no simple solution to ending poverty, the organization took on a more holistic approach to projects. It started empowering impoverished communities in places such as India, Kenya, Ecuador, and Nicaragua by developing solutions as to how it could work together with the communities to improve them. These solutions are based on five fundamental concepts of development that include healthcare, water, education, food security, and opportunity.
Since that time, WE Movement has become the largest youth empowerment organization across the globe, changing the lives of over one million children. WE Movement has built over 650 schools and provides educational opportunities that would otherwise not exist to more than 55,000 children daily. Not only does the organization help young children in need, but it has also set up programs that enable hundreds of thousands of children to become agents of change in their own communities and schools. These children grow up learning to speak out and take action for those who are not as fortunate. WE Movement now consists of several projects including WE Schools, WE Families, WE Villages, WE Well-Being, and WE Day.
In 2008, Craig also spearheaded the launch of Me to WE, a social enterprise offering products, leadership training, and travel experiences. Half of the revenue from Me to WE is donated to WE Movement, and the other half is reinvested back into the growth of the enterprise.
Recognition of Efforts
Craig Kielburger was honoured by World of Children with the first ever Youth Award in 2002 for his work as the co-founder of Free the Children (today WE Movement). In 2007, Craig was made a member of the Order of Canada at the age of 25, making him the second-youngest Canadian to have received such an honour. In 2012, Craig was once again honoured by World of Children for his work to help the village of Sikirar in Kenya.
A Young Global Leader
In 2015, Marc and his brother Craig were recognized as the most admired CEOs in the public sector in Canada. He is a Young Global Leader in the World Economic Forum and has been inducted onto the Canadian Walk of Fame. In addition, Marc was awarded the Order of Canada for his work.