Juan Diaz and his classmates have been busy this year. Their class organized a drive to collect food and clothes for a local homeless shelter. They also managed to raise enough money to sponsor the construction of a well in an African village to provide clean water for its residents. Diaz is just one of the sixty students who were a part of community aspect of the Career Academy at Federal Way's Truman High School.
In January of 2013, Diaz learned of an event he was invited to — free of charge — called We Day.
Boasting a star-studded lineup — from Jennifer Hudson to Internet sensation Kid President (Robbie Novak) — and a stadium full of 15,000 students, We Day filled KeyArena last Wednesday with chants, cheers and synchronized dance moves in a grand celebration of youth activism.
The event — the first ever in the United States — was organized by Toronto-based organization Free The Children. There's just one caveat: You can’t buy a ticket to We Day — you have to earn it through community service.
For Diaz, his homeless drive and village sponsorship was his ticket. For Taja Christiansen and Fred Mortimer, students at Kirkland’s Juanita High School, it was the anti-bullying bracelet campaign they organized at their school and the fundraising they did for charity: water, a non-profit dedicated to providing clean water in developing countries.
In total the students who attended We Day raised $26 million for 900 different causes, and racked up 5.1 million hours of volunteer service, backers said to Seattle Times.
“It’s a very proud moment,” said Microsoft Alumni Foundation Executive Director Marylou Brannan. “The idea of getting youth excited in making a difference — whatever their interest may be — is very inspiring.”
The event kicked off with opening statements from Free the Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Building on that, the rest of the day was a lineup of inspirational testimonials from noted figures — Martin Luther King III, Martin Sheen, J.R. Martinez — youth leaders and motivational speakers, as well as various musical performances.
While the synchronized clapping and cheering bursting out of KeyArena last Wednesday was exciting, the movement to encourage youths to be changemakers is not new. Many organizations have already committed to empowering and educating youth to be changemakers in their community.
“We Day emphasizes a lot of what we’ve already been teaching,” said Boys & Girls Club CEO and President Calvin Lyons, “but it’s good for our kids to know that there are other people out there who also want to make a change.”
The idea for a Seattle We Day was sparked two years ago, when Pete Carroll reached out to the Kielburger brothers. Microsoft hopped on the bandwagon after the Kielburger brothers reached out to the company's senior director of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Akhtar Badshah.
According to Badshah, “[We Day] is special because it not only celebrates youths who are change agents, but it’s also a whole year activity, encouraging [youths] to give, while also earning their way back for the next We Day.”
Beyond the upbeat music, flashy LED displays and celebrity guests, We Day is a part of a larger entity called WeAct (formerly We Schools in Action). A year-long campaign that brings service learning into the classroom, WeAct employs various tools and resources, from how-to videos to lesson plans to empower students. Teachers interested in integrating service work into their curriculum can join WeAct by filling out an online form. In turn, their schools receive benefits such as educational resources and action kits for service campaigns and WeAct staff support.
Iolando Spinola is a staff member in the Free the Children Seattle office, who supports school staff in Washington. So far, the office only has two staff members, but they may grow as needed, according to Spinola. A trainee of Free the Children Toronto, Spinola will be moving permanently to Seattle in the near future for the position.
“A big portion of We Day is actually following up with schools,” he said. “After this, I’ll be setting up speeches in schools, as well as mentorships locally and globally.”
The We Act follow-up program focuses on three things: leadership, social justice awareness and mentorships. Throughout the academic year, Spinola will be planning outreach speaking engagements and providing assistance to schools in developing action plans.
One of the schools that plans to take advantage of We Act is Federal Way’s Lakota Middle School. Dean of Students Mike Johnson hopes that the students he brought to We Day will be inspired to stand up to bullying. He plans to talk to language arts teachers at Lakota about implementing an anti-bullying unit in the curriculum, as well as teaching students more about FTC and what it means to take a cause in the community.
Despite its glitzy, star-studded repertoire, the most exciting thing about We Day is perhaps what happens after it's over. If conducted successfully and effectively, We Act could create a new generation of Washington state youth, who are inspired to create change in the world and are supported with more access to resources.
So far, We Act programs have rallied campaigns for many causes around the world, from We Are Silent — a vow of silence for children’s rights — to We Won’t Rest, a campaign educating youths about the issue of homelessness. The campaigns — complete with action kits and how-to videos — are well-designed to keep the momentum of the passion generated by We Day going.
As planning begins again for next year’s We Day in Seattle, organizers are hoping that this year's show will encourage other youths to rack up the community service hours to earn a ticket for the next one.
Truman High School senior Diaz has his own thoughts about We Day. “I learned more things about helping, but We Day is really just a perk. It’s better to help people without even knowing the prize.”