When you stand amid the unending vistas of Kenya's Maasai Mara, it's impossible to remain focused inward. Your mind expands to the distant horizons. So it was, as I walked the savannah with businessman and philanthropist Hartley Richardson, that we talked about the future.
Mr. Richardson, a father of three, has seen the profound impact that our Canadian programs – We Days and our service-learning curriculum – have had on his daughter, Celine.
As we walked, he plied me with direct and incisive questions: How many communities did we work with? What were the roadblocks preventing us from fulfilling our dream of reaching the most hard-to-reach communities, like remote Indigenous reserves? How could we expand our reach while reducing the cost per life changed?
I could see he had something in mind, but I was stopped dead in my tracks when he dropped the idea: Why not bring all of our programs together in one place? He wanted to present us with a gift: an institution that would employ cutting-edge technology to connect and engage youth across Canada and around the world, changing the face of education.
Mr. Richardson wouldn't be the businessman he is if he didn't know how to turn ideas into realities. With a few phone calls, he assembled a dream team to support and drive his vision: the Richardson Foundation; restaurateur David Aisenstat; Canadian real estate developer families, the Gilgan family, the Modesto and Filomena Romano family, and the Losani family; the family foundation of British businessman Verjee Rumi; and Royal Bank of Canada executive Jennifer Tory. The funds they raised ensured that We never had to take a penny from programs to realize our dream.
Suddenly, the idea was leaping off the drawing board. Mr. Richardson found a prime space close to the Regent Park and Moss Park Toronto neighbourhoods where We has its roots. Wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding, an old commercial building on Toronto's Queen Street East transformed into something new and marvellous.
When former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon joins us to open the We Global Learning Centre on Sept. 27, I know a 12-year-old me will be staring across the decades, wide-eyed in amazement. Oh, what I could have done with all these tools when I was starting out!
The entire first floor is a dedicated space where schools, youth groups and even families will be able to book tours, training and workshops – like going to a science centre for improving the world.
They'll be able to come in and listen to world-class speakers for workshops and motivational talks in the 200-seat Hartley T. Richardson Theatre, with its huge wrap-around screens. And the theatre is equipped to broadcast those presentations to anywhere in the world.
In the We Connectivity Hub, three global classrooms fitted with Skype technology from Microsoft will bring workshops, leadership training and mentorship to the most remote and unreachable rural communities in Canada – especially Indigenous communities – without having to fly thousands of kilometres to an urban centre. It's all powered by the fastest broadband connections in the country provided by Telus Corp., and made possible by technology from Cisco Systems Canada Co.
Distance and difference become irrelevant as our technology connects youth from Vancouver, Toronto, Iqaluit, Attawapiskat, Delhi, Nairobi – anywhere – to learn from and about each other.
There's another whole floor devoted to supporting educators with coaching and mentoring, using boardrooms equipped with computerized whiteboards from Smart Technologies Inc. Our We Schools team will work with them developing innovative service-learning curricula.
Service learning connects classroom studies to real-world issues, with hands-on activities and problem solving. Youth can study biology and ecology by testing the water in their own community; or learn about statistics, calculating the food supply and usage at the local food bank. And through unique partnerships, youth will gain unprecedented access to experts, like The Globe and Mail journalists who will give their time to speak about current issues.
As Canada's biggest national youth service organization, our We Incubation Hub, sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada, will provide access to office space and equipment, technology, and mentorship for young people who want to start their own campaigns, social enterprises or non-profit organizations. There will be space for young change-makers to work at their own desks, and access to cutting-edge tools, such as video editing suites. Everything I wish I'd had, everything I wish I'd known, starting out all those years ago. And they'll use those tools to carry us further than I could ever have imagined. From now on, young Canadians who want to change the world won't have to wish – it'll be there for them.
And all of it in a building that, thanks to Siemens Canada, features a state-of-the-art smart building automation system that controls everything from climate control to lights, to reduce our environmental footprint.
Thanks to Mr. Richardson and so many others, we're giving the generations an incredible gift: a toolbox, packed with the skills and resources to build the better world that they want.
Craig Kielburger is a co-founder of We