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Yes, #WeHaveAProblem—and Not Just Because of Trudeau

I wrote my thesis on how organizations like WE Charity use celebrities to manipulate young people—I’ve seen this coming for years

Pretend for a moment you’re a teenager again. You’re still on cloud nine from that amazing concert you went to last week—on a school day, no less—with all of your friends and classmates, not to mention your crush. You sang, you laughed, you heard a pretty moving story about a girl in Kenya, and you sat through some semi-boring speeches—then you finally got to see Shawn Mendes perform live and you definitely made your followers jealous by posting it on IG Stories, Snapchat AND TikTok.

That concert you attended wasn’t a concert at all—not in the traditional sense, anyway. It was a youth rally called WE Day. The price of admission: a few acts of goodwill and volunteering projects you did with your classmates (and the permission slip from your parents).

WE Day, an event that many Canadians have either heard about, watched on television (CTV was a media partner) or online, or have even attended or sent their children to, is the flagship event hosted by Toronto-based WE Charity. It’s held in more than 15 cities across Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, features star-studded performances and motivational speeches from the likes of Selena Gomez, Malala Yousafzai, Nelly Furtado and Justin Trudeau (both as a private citizen and as prime minister) and has been attended by 1 million young people to date.

WE Charity calls WE Day “the greatest celebration of social good”; it’s also been the cornerstone to the organization’s meteoric rise to international fame and strong standing in the humanitarian, entertainment and corporate communities. And, lately, it’s been central in national media coverage about questionable practices that the organization has taken in its quest to change the world.

The charity has been under increasing scrutiny over the past month for having accepted a sole-sourced contract from the federal government that would have seen them distribute nearly $1 billion worth of summer student volunteer grants, sparking the hashtag #WeHaveAProblem. The deal fell through after WE pulled out amid ethics concerns that the Trudeau family has longstanding ties to the charity. In addition to Justin Trudeau’s participation with WE Day, it was revealed that WE paid Margaret Trudeau (Justin’s mother) and Alexandre Trudeau (Justin’s brother) between $250,000 and $320,000 each for their speeches at events. Other speakers were told that they would not be paid; notably, Jully Black posted a video on Instagram about her shady experiences with the organization. And this is all just a wormhole into the complicated, controversial and downright confusing operations of this very prolific Canadian charity.

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What is WE Charity, anyway?

It’s a simple question—but you’ll get a different answer depending on who you are talking to.

If you ask the Kielburgers, or any official mouthpiece for WE, they’ll tell you that they’re an international charity that’s been creating positive change around the world for nearly 25 years. Originally called Free The Children, it was founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995, when he was 12 years old and inspired by Iqbal Masih, a child factory worker in Pakistan who was outspoken about child labour there. Even though the circumstances around Masih’s death, years later, remain unclear, Kielburger has told the story in a way that explicitly links his activism with his death: “He was killed because he stood up, because he spoke out.”) [Correction: An earlier version of this story alleged Kielburger continues to tell the story in this way, but the latest instance we found is the above linked video footage from WE Day 2010.] One of the group’s first activities was starting a petition to free another labour activist imprisoned in India, obtaining about 3,000 signatures.

Today, the organization aims to motivate other young people to similarly get involved in global issues, primarily through WE Schools, “an innovative series of experiential service learning programs that engage educators and youth globally to empower them with the skills, knowledge and motivation to bring positive change in themselves and the world,” according to the website. Plain English explanation: It’s a “free” school curriculum that incorporates WE Charity’s programs, opportunities and overall mission into classrooms—while essentially grooming participants for WE Charity’s international programs and projects. For example, to get access to WE Day, students at registered WE Schools must complete a series of workshops and tasks. Then, during WE Day they are presented with the many opportunities to financially support WE Charity—being inspired to purchase a Youth Volunteer Trip to a WE Village in countries like Kenya, Ecuador and India, or being informed that buying certain products from key sponsors will benefit kids just like them abroad. The strong encouragement to tweet, record and post their experience also gets their friends curious and involved. All of these actions ultimately promote and fund WE Charity’s for-profit arm, Me to We, which Craig founded with his brother Marc Kielburger in 1999.

Here’s where most people get lost. WE is essentially a two-part organization: WE Charity is the public non-profit on one side, and Me to We is the private “social enterprise” (read: for-profit) organization that funds much of the activity of its charitable arm. There’s been much confusion about the relationship and the flow of money between the two entities; Charity Intelligence Canada—a non-profit that evaluates charitable organizations—reported about the “blurred lines,” noting that We Charity paid Me to We $3.6m for travel, leadership training services and promotional goods in 2019. In an interview on CBC’s The Current, CIC Managing Director Kate Bahen noted that while the practice of corporations giving money to their philanthropic arms is commonplace, the practice of charities giving money to their corporate entities is unusual, stating “we haven’t seen the backwash before.” And it gets even more complicated when you consider the Trudeau government’s involvement in all of this. As Bahen said: “When you have two organizations that are so close together, it causes massive confusion; was the government contract with WE Charity, and how was Me to We, the private business, going to benefit from that?”

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That brings us back to the current controversy surrounding the organization. In addition to the government scandal, a number of stories—mostly published by Canadaland since 2018—have questioned WE Charity’s corporate partnerships, workplace culture and their operations abroad in Kenya. Notably, Me to We partnered with major corporations such as Unilever, which has been accused of knowingly tolerating child labour in its supply chain, particularly as it relates to the production of palm oil, cocoa and sugar; and numerous former staff have spoken out to detail various accounts of a workplace operating under a culture of fear, racism and disillusionment. [Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested Me to We knowingly engaged corporations that actively use child labour. WE’s publicity team reached out to FLARE to clarify that prior to entering these partnerships, WE vetted these companies and determined that they were “committed to eradicating child labour from [their] supply chain.” The earlier version also referenced allegations of unethical measures the organization has taken to maintain operations in Kenya, including paying local government officials to act favourably towards the organization. The source of these allegations has since retracted them and apologized, so we have removed them here.]

Celebrity endorsement is not as altruistic as it seems

WE Charity’s relationship with politicians and celebrities began quite early. In December 1995, Craig Kielburger went on an eight-week tour to South and Southeast Asia, meeting children living in poverty and hearing first-hand accounts of their experiences. During this tour, Kielburger met with then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, convincing him to take a public stand against child slavery. From there, Kielburger was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, wrote the first of his several books on humanitarian aid from a youth perspective, and Free the Children began seeing early success, including numerous private donations.

The first “National Me to We Day” was held in Toronto in October 2007, organized as a way to rally youth—and their local school boards—to meet the challenge of raising money to build schools for impoverished children around the world. To do this, the Kielburgers employed a little star power to inspire the 7,500 youth who attended: Among the speakers and performers were the band Hanson and then-private citizen Justin Trudeau. The event was a success, reportedly leading to the construction of 50 schools, 10 clean water systems and 200 alternative income projects in the developing countries that the charity supports.

Since then WE Day, and its celebrity speakers, has been the key to the charity’s international success, especially through the use of what’s called “charitainment”—the phrase coined by James Poniwozik in Time magazine back in 2005 to describe the phenomenon of celebrity culture mixed with selective activism that serves to promote a celebrity’s personal brand as much as it does the issue with which they’re associated. Notoriety, he writes, is a charitable asset. In this manner, WE Charity’s assets have been amplified exponentially by the presence of celebrities performing and speaking (often about their experiences abroad at the charity’s development projects in Africa and South America) at WE Day events. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Not only does celebrity involvement raise the profile of WE, it helps the individual celebrities, too (and not just in the form of a fat cheque). At WE Day, celebrities—including the Kielburger brothers themselves—build their personal brands as compassionate superhumans who are out there saving the world.

I wrote about this eight years ago in my award-winning master’s thesis. (Full disclosure: I also worked for UNICEF for several months in 2017.) After six months researching post-humanitarianism, media events, celebrity advocates and authenticity in humanitarian communication, I concluded that charities often employ many strategies seen in political comms to successfully convince everyday people—and in WE’s case, the coveted, keyed-up and impressionable demographic of people aged 13 to 19—to devote their time, money and, in some cases, lives to a cause and organization they likely didn’t know or care about before. One of the strategies I examined was the use of “varying judgement” by these public figures to shape the thoughts of their audience. We’re getting deep here, but stay with me. Varying judgement is a term that describes messaging that quickly identifies what’s right and wrong within the context of complex discussions. For example, the general gist of WE Charity’s key messaging is that children should be children and not be used for slavery, hard labour or suffer the consequences of extreme poverty; they should be “free” to do what they want (and that this organization should help them do that). Celebs help to point the audience’s attention towards the causes they (and WE) deem most important. As Poniewozik wrote in his TIME article, “In a world of endless woes, you can be overwhelmed into inaction. Or you can make, at some level, an arbitrary choice. [Celebrities] are attention filters, the human equivalent of throwing a dart at a map. A pretty face and a famous name are a convenient excuse to focus on one problem in the midst of a thousand equally unignorable others.” In short: The audience is compelled to believe that if their fave celebrities are giving themselves to this particular cause over all others, it must be the most worthy of their attention, time, money, too.

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Motivation or manipulation?

These celebrity speeches motivate people to act quickly by simplifying the issues. And in doing so, they propagate a problematic portrayal of human suffering informed by Western ideological, normative and (mis)representational framing. For example, while watching a video of Mia Farrow’s speech at WE Day Vancouver in 2009, I noted that when speaking on the conflict in Darfur, she identifies the Sudanese government as the major reason for the suffering of children in said conflict. While it was indeed alarming abuse that needed to be talked about and actioned upon by the international community, Farrow’s speech gave no explanation of the many situations at hand contributing to that particular moment in time (a genocide AND a civil war, not to mention the complex history of Sudan and its people). All that mattered was that the children and their families were suffering, the Sudanese government was the perpetrator, and that *something* needed to be done about it—and that something is determined by what WE Charity deems important, not necessarily what is actually needed to remedy the situation, never mind that an actually sustainable solution would take years to implement. (What’s also important to note is that the sufferers themselves don’t have a say in their own “salvation” here.) It’s a simplistic reduction that motivates the audience to act; but because the audience isn’t aware of the complexities of the situation being described to them, they are instead encouraged to somewhat blindly trust the perspective of the organization, and the celebrities working with it. And that celebrity endorsement counteracts the normally teenage impulse to question why they should do what they’re being told.

Kids can certainly be manipulated into worse things than “saving the world,” but here’s why WE’s maneuvers are so problematic: The combination of charitainment and philanthro-capitalism mixed with the genuine desires of young people wanting to make a difference in their communities and beyond makes for a situation where said desires are used to reinforce Western views of who gets to be saved, who gets to do the saving—and most of all, who benefits from it all (arguably, those at the helm of a successful charitable organization). And when you consider that its programs are hugely ingrained into our public education system—not to mention dangerously intertwined with our federal government—WE certainly deserves the close investigation and criticism it’s currently facing.

WE are not alone—but they are especially problematic

Though WE Charity is currently the one under the microscope, they are not the first organization to employ tactics that combine celebrity culture, humanitarian issues and philanthro-capitalism. The concept has been used by other NGOs for decades, way back to when the United Nations appointed its first celebrity Goodwill Ambassador, movie star Danny Kaye, in 1954.

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Regardless of how they disseminate their message and promote their cause, following the money and activities of a charity should be a relatively easy process—especially when you consider the amounts of federal government funding that’s typically used to assist their activities abroad. Many organizations, though increasingly conflating humanitarian aid with capitalist tendencies, are almost always able to show where and how donations are spent via an annual report, with mundane yet important details of all of their transactions, savings, spending and overhead costs. This usually includes any corporate partnerships the organization has vested interests with and also commercial transactions—the common practice is to tie products and services directly to causes and operations done by the charity; for example, think Girl Guide cookies, UNICEF Canada’s Survival Gifts or Plan Canada’s Gifts of Hope (the one with the talking goat commercial).

WE Charity goes about this in a completely different way. Its for-profit arm, Me to We, uses what they call a “closed loop system that empowers the people [they] work with.” They partner with various companies to use their branding on products in stores in Canada and the United States, and also have several Me to We stores in major shopping centres, selling products made by artisans living in areas where WE Villages operate. Because Me to We is a for-profit business, the revenues from the sales of these items is not disclosed and is not included in WE Charity’s reporting (which, for the record, is done in the form of “transparency reports,” a different format from that of the usual annual report that charities do).

At WE Day, Me to We products are part of the spectacle, being presented/pushed towards their young audiences like a Happy Meal toy—the difference is that at We Day kids are told that their purchases can help someone in need and change the world, when in reality that claim is unverified at best. The motivation of “tracking your impact”—a sort of gamification of the process—further complicates it in that the real impact does not appear to be who is helped, but who profits from the purchases of well-meaning youth.

Do Charities like WE even have a place in 2020?

It all begs the question of whether WE and charities like it should even have a place in our schools or other programming aimed at young people. Especially in 2020, when kids—with endless access to information and inspiration via social media—are already motivated on their own to speak up and act on the issues they care about.

I continue to be inspired by young people every day, especially because they inspire themselves to take on the challenges required to make change, without an organization telling them how to do so. The current global revolution against anti-Black racism started with a group of young people in Minneapolis taking action after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneaoplis Police Department—after sparking protests in all 50 states in the U.S., the protests are now worldwide, corporate entities are having a moment of reckoning, and laws everywhere are being challenged, rewritten or dismantled altogether. Here in Canada, organizations such as Not Another Black Life and Afro-Indigenous Rising are making their own waves to address anti-Black racism through the power of grassroots organization via social media.

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Then there are young environmental activists like Autumn Peltier, Mari Copeny (aka Little Miss Flint), Helena Gualinga and Greta Thunberg, who all started their activism independently, leveraging social media to further their causes and raise awareness to the issues in their communities—to the point that organizations sought out their expertise and experience.

Following the recent uproar, WE Charity themselves seem to have realized that they need to rethink how they operate moving forward; on July 15 in light of the ongoing investigation by the Ethics Commissioner into the federal government’s now-cancelled deal to deliver summer student volunteer grants with WE, the charity announced that they would be undergoing a “governance and structural change,” prioritizing their international development work—and, for the foreseeable future, cancelling all WE Day events, opting to offer school-based service-learning programs through digital platforms instead. But is that shift enough?

With traditional charitable organizations appearing to be either too large, too slow or too unwilling to recognize and adapt to the changes, sentiments and actions in the world moving faster than a viral TikTok video, young people have been taking the lead into their own hands—the difference now is that everyone, young and old, is watching, listening—and finally, finally beginning to act, beyond the rigid and often problematic framework of a charity.

That’s the kind of real change we need to keep pushing for.