We Day: A party with a purpose softens skeptic

A youth pumps up the crowd at WeDay, a star-studded event to celebrate a year of community service. (Photo by Sara Stogner)

At first, We Day seemed like an elaborate star-studded party to entice youth to care about social causes. Which is why at 6 a.m., I rode a bus packed with cheering, youth “crowd-pumpers” to We Day to find out for myself.

When I was a kid, international engagement came in the form of pennies in a cardboard box.

My best friend’s mom used to organize a trick-or-treat for UNICEF campaign in our neighborhood. I remember standing awkwardly at the door while I waited for neighbors to scrounge up change and my eagerness to collect enough pennies that I could get back to the business of filling my pillowcase with candy.

Growing up I was too young for Live Aid concerts and anti-apartheid movements. Sally Struthers and her teary infomercials were probably the most regular reminder of international causes I had in my life.

Caleb Dawson, left, and Napoleon Huynh, right, pump up a packed bus full of youth in a Federal Way cheer. The group of "crowd pumpers" left Federal Way High School at 6 am for We Day at Key Arena on March 27.  (Photo by Sara Stogner)
Caleb Dawson, left, and Napoleon Huynh, right, pump up a packed bus full of youth in a Federal Way cheer. The group of “crowd pumpers” left Federal Way High School at 6 am for We Day at Key Arena on March 27. (Photo by Sara Stogner)

But that’s not the case for the students of Federal Way High School. At 6 a.m. on Wednesday, about 50 teenagers piled on a bus wearing glow-in-the-dark “YouthSpark” bracelets donated by Microsoft, and red T-shirts that read “We Have the Power to Change The World.”

These kids, along with thousands more from 400 schools across Washington, have spent the school year organizing around one local and one global issue with the support of a Toronto-based organization called Free the Children.

Federal Way High students organized fundraisers to fight hunger and homelessness as their local causes. And they began working toward “adopting a village” in Sierra Leone as their global cause.

As a reward for a year of hard work, Free the Children threw all participating students — roughly 15,000 kids — a star-studded event called WeDay at KeyArena on Wednesday. Guests included singer Jennifer Hudson, YouTube star Kid President and actor Mia Farrow (as well as the surprise guest, hometown-rapper-made-good, Macklemore.)

“I’m a crowd pumper,” says 18-year-old We Day organizer Caleb Dawson as students behind him pulse their YouthSpark bracelets — which are activated by movement — by performing a series of synchronized claps and cheers. “We’re [at We Day] to get the crowd pumped up, we’re the energy, the ones kind of setting the tone.”

Maybe it’s my roots in grunge — a counterculture known for suspicion of sleek marketing. Maybe it’s because we’re at the year anniversary of Kony 2012 — a campaign to end the use of child soldiers that capitalized on young people’s enthusiasm, but has been dogged by controversy.

But I’ve struggled to get right with We Day.

The matching outfits and choreographed dances, the celebrities and hand salutes (a three-fingered “W”) and relentless branding can make it feel more like a trendy spectacle than a deep movement.

Magic Johnson addresses 15,000 youth in Key Arena who "earned" a ticket to WeDay through a local and global act of service. (Photo by Sara Stogner)
Magic Johnson addresses 15,000 youth in Key Arena who “earned” a ticket to WeDay through a local and global act of service. (Photo by Sara Stogner)

Free The Children co-founder and spokesman Craig Kielburger is adamant that the millennial generation has been unfairly characterized as “slacktivists” only superficially interested in social causes.

Kielburger believes that technology has raised awareness about the urgency of global issues and that young people are ready to seriously engage. It’s all about providing the opportunities.

“In previous generations [charity] was the thing you did at tax time,” says Keilburger.

By contrast, Free the Children provides a platform for young people to “amplify” global and local causes year-round.

They also organize We Day, run “adopt a village” campaigns in poor countries and provide international volunteer opportunities and curriculum for teachers. They even have a publishing division and a clothing line.

Martin Sheen shakes hands with YouTube celebrity Robby Novak, aka Kid President, at a WeDay press conference. (Photo by Sara Stogner)
Martin Sheen shakes hands with YouTube celebrity Robby Novak, aka Kid President, at a WeDay press conference. (Photo by Sara Stogner)

Kielburger talks about “touching every place” that a young person “lives and breathes” as a way of cultivating “global citizenship” as a lifestyle — a far cry from the once-a-year penny drive of my childhood.

Back on the bus to We Day, Caleb Dawson agrees. He also feels his peers are often underestimated, especially at his high school, which he describes as an “underdog.”

Dawson doesn’t care if young people show up for a cause because it’s trendy — because getting them to show up is the start of getting them to do more.

“Even for the students that get into it for the trend of it, they still experience something … and so they have a new perspective after.”

Maybe the early morning was softening my skepticism.

But looking at Dawson and his friends I saw young people positioned to be the first truly global generation — a designation that’s going to come with way more responsibility and tough choices than it will Microsoft swag.

And frankly, I was glad someone was throwing them a party.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.