Inspiring Kids to Become Activists (AZA 2012, Day 3)


After a wonderful Icebreaker on Monday night (Sept. 10) at the Arizona Science Center (where Dave and I survived a hurricane and a volcano eruption), the Tuesday morning general session officially kicked-off the conference.  During this session, we were treated to a rousing presentation by Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, an international human rights organization based in Canada. Free the Children is an inspiring organization in its own right--empowering children to help other children across the globe.  The organization was originally created by Marc's younger brother after he traveled to South Asia to investigate child labor--when he was 12!  But, that's only part of why Marc was at AZA 2012.

Free the Children and sister organization, Me to We, have figured out how to motivate children, especially teenagers, to not only become interested in world issues, but to become activists for their favorite causes.  A challenge we in the zoo and aquarium industry are constantly facing (with kids, sure, but also with adults!).

Marc described their philosophy with 5 key bullet points.

1.  Make it Cool to Care

Although Marc prefaced this by pointing out that children today are much different than those even 10 years ago--when apathy was the IN thing (Did you see the 21 Jump Street movie this summer? Yeah, that's what he's talking about.)--kids still want to feel like they are part of the in-crowd.  Like they sit at the cool table in the cafeteria.  And they feel this way when all their friends are doing something, and even more so, when that something is endorsed by all the It celebrities.  Yes, we're talking Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Magic Johnson, Jennifer Hudson, and--always popular with the kiddies--Mikhail Gorbachev, among many, many others.  Marc's organizations make it cool by putting on exuberant, over-the-top, arena-sized kid-travaganzas, called 'We Days', featuring inspiring talks and rocking musical performances that can only be attended by children who meet the activism and volunteer eligibility requirements.  These events are experiences that kids look forward to and work hard for.  Things kids brag about attending.  Things the cool kids do-- in other words, 'incentives.'

2.  Gift + Issue = Change 

Everyone has something they are good at, whether its baking cupcakes, drawing unicorns, or selling tires.  Identifying your strength is the first step to becoming an activist.  Getting kids involved means helping them identify their own gift.  It also means helping them understand how they can apply their gift to support an issue that is dear to them.  Once that connection is realized, anyone, including children, can confidently take action to initiate change.  And according to Kielburger, activism can be as small as a bake sale.

3. Call a Minga

Kielburger explained a ‘minga’ as a coming together of many to the benefit of all.  It is a Chilean word with, ironically, no direct equivalent in the English language.  He described the scene when he first experienced a minga—after the village elder woman yelled the word across a canyon in the Andes and a congregation of strangers from the surrounding hills showed up to help out—without explanation, without question.  This feeling of support, of community is something that most of us long for—including our kids.  This generation, more so than any in recent memory, are aching to be a part of something larger than themselves.  To do for others in need, even as many themselves are struggling.

4. Changing Perspectives

Remember the saying, “If you could walk a mile in their shoes”?  First-hand experience is the absolute best way to understand an issue.  In order to inspire, to motivate, kids need to participate, to experience, to see with their own eyes.  Me to We provides these experiences for young people, bringing them to remote villages in need of help--taking children to Africa to build schoolhouses, or carry jugs of water two miles each way so mothers can spend a day with their children.  Authentic, in-the-field experiences that really enforce what they've learned at home.  Kielburger believes these are life-altering, formative experiences that create fundamental and lifelong activists.

5. Keep it Social

This one’s simple: keep the activism where the kids are…online.  Kielburger stressed that kids don’t read email anymore.  They live on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr.  If you want to communicate with them, utilize their favorite forms, and reach them in their own language.

So the question is now…how do we translate these bullet points into campaigns that zoos and aquariums can use?  Can we link these to the physical design of a place, or are we moving more into a place where educational outreach and programming is the only means to create activists?  Personally, I think the physical zoo experience is the foundation for creating activists.  The first step, the platform from which we jump off—not only with kids but with adults too.  Get their attention, provide the base info, then provide a means to take action.  The zoo itself is the means to bring issues to the table.  To make people aware.  Encouraging them to take action will require more than a physical exhibit.  It will require partnerships and programming.  It also requires taking chances and getting creative.

What do you think?