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Months of preparation led to this day. And people around the world are waiting.
At the WE Global Learning Centre, in downtown Toronto, the mics are hot, the audience is humming with excitement and the WiFi is blazing fast. Meanwhile, teachers in 83 countries are logging onto WE.org.
WE Day Connect is about to start.
Its origin story goes back 10 years to the first WE Day. From the start, it was magic. The big show was lights and music, performances, speeches and spectacle. But the real power wasn’t on the stage—it was in the audience, in the thrum of cheers and the electricity of anticipation. It was in the young people who felt a part of something larger.
Over the last decade, WE Day has grown every year, culminating in 19 stadium-sized events hosted around across North America and the United Kingdom. But there are students giving back with WE in more than 100 countries, and they are searching for community.
This is their story.
In Ottawa, Joanna Harvey turns on the projector in her classroom while her Grade 6 students take their seats after lunch. 2,000 kilometers away, in the Atlanta suburb of McDonough, Georgia, students file past Dionne Gould into rows of chairs. In shows past, the educator would have students watch in their classroom, but with 350 of the school’s youth now engaged with WE, the group has taken over the library. Today, the previously silent repository of knowledge comes alive with energy.
The school day is long done for David Church by the time the teacher opens his laptop from his home office in rural Wales. It’s after work hours, but this dedicated educator is eager to tune in and glean some new ideas from speakers.
They’ve blocked off the following morning to replay the show for their students, but it’s the live event that appeals to teachers Riya Jain and Neetu Dhiman. Gathered in front of their computer in Haryana, India—30 kilometers south of New Delhi—the pair are ready to join buzzing teacher forums chattering during the show.
WE Day Connect is the answer to the question: How do you reach students and teachers no matter where they are in the world? It translates the power of a live show into an online, interactive celebration of doing good and blasts it across wireless frequencies and through fiber optic cables into classrooms around the world. Hosted by ETALK’s L.A. correspondent and WE Day veteran, Liz Trinnear, more than 203,000 people tuned in for in-studio games, videos from their favourite popstars and an inspiring speech from Martin Luther King III.
But the real draw is the students. Using Microsoft technology, WE Day Connect shares step-by-step stories about how young people turn passion for social issues into successful awareness and fundraising campaigns. Using WE Schools resources, teachers and students are given everything they need to tackle local and global issues from their classroom into the greater community.
“You could hear a pin drop,” says social studies teacher Dionne Gould. The normally rambunctious students at Eagle's Landing Middle School were silent as they waited for the show to start. “They were so excited to see other children from around the world that were joining in to make a difference.”
And they had every reason to be excited. They’d just completed their day of action, raising nearly $1000 for WE Villages. They wanted to see what others had done and WE Day Connect was chock full of success stories to learn from.
There was Woodlake Elementary from California, where students were making care packages for the homeless in their community.
From Trinidad and Tobago, there was the Brazil School where students planned a flash mob and silent protest to raise awareness about child labour.
Then there was Pine Grove School in Ontario, where students created an app that promotes inclusive language through videos and games.
And let’s not forget the International School of Geneva, where students dedicated their year of action to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
All that inspiration left a mark, according to Gould, who capped the viewing off by challenging students to participate in a show-and-tell of sorts, sharing everything they had learned from WE Day Connect. “There were a lot of aha moments,” she says. “It changed my students, it opened up new doors for them.” Students were coming up to her for days talking about new projects they wanted to start. Even parents were calling in to share their kid’s excitement. The educator is exuberant as she speaks. “It was an event I’ll never forget, more than I ever expected it to be.”
“For me and for my students, the most important thing is to see the impact of our actions and to see other kids involved,” says Joanna Harvey. The Manor Park teacher has taken students to WE Day for years, but tickets to the stadium-sized event are a hot commodity. In any given year there are around 80 students involved in her WE club, while only 20 make it to WE Day.
“For the kids who go to WE Day, it’s life changing for them. But WE Day Connect allows everyone to be involved, they’re all a part of it,” she says. “The impact becomes more real to them, more personal. It makes them feel like they’re making a difference.”
Knowing the impact it can make, Harvey turns her classroom into a viewing party for the day. Students who aren’t in her class pop in at lunch and recess to join in. The teacher pulls out the class WE Schools kit while watching, and students use it to brainstorm ways to pair the resources inside with lessons from the show for WE Schools campaigns like WE Walk for Water. “The kids are riveted by the stories,” says Harvey. But more than that, they come away wanting to do more. “Hearing from children all over the world doing different initiatives, it spurred them to get more involved.”
While host Liz Trinnear kept the show moving, David Church couldn’t take his eyes off the chat box on his screen. Messages from teachers around the world streamed in, some congratulating the students being celebrated, others sharing their own stories and campaigns. Church rushed to take notes. “People were popping in different ideas, ‘we’ve done this, we’ve done that,’” the teacher recalls. “I was busy jotting down ideas for things my school can do.”
When he wasn’t learning from others, he was doing his best to pay it forward. Five of Church’s students have won a coveted spot on a scholarship trip with WE to India—a testament to his dedication and his students’ passion for giving back. Having seen the impact the trip had on students, he used the chat box to encourage other teachers in the UK to apply as well.
Meanwhile, more than 7,000 kilometers away in India, teachers Riya Jain and Neetu Dhiman were busy congratulating others, while also singing the praises of their students. Their WE Walk fro Water campaign was unique: unlike others that fundraised for a far-off country, they were organizing for villages just kilometers away. They felt pride in knowing their students were part of something larger. “You can see you’re involved in this world-wide, global network,” says Riya. “It’s an opportunity we’d never have otherwise without WE.”
We hear it all the time: the more we rely on technology, the less we connect as people. But it doesn’t have to be this way. WE is working with Microsoft to use technology to connect people. And it’s working.
Students have packed WE Day stadiums for years. Now, one WE Day Connect event can reach more than 200,000 people—the equivalent of a year’s worth of WE Day attendees. And, because of Microsoft technology, the WE movement is spreading to places never dreamed of. Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Education of Microsoft sees this as an opportunity for people around the world to bond over a shared passion for giving back. “We often think of technology as reducing our humanity, but it should be enhancing our ability to connect.”
No matter where you are in the world, WE is there.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.