In his short life, Joe Opatowski was a jokester, slam poet and speaker who used his voice to inspire change in everyone who knew him. But it was his improbable vow of silence that became his most enduring legacy. This is the story of one remarkable orator whose greatest impact came from not speaking at all.
Today, Kim Plewes is a senior advisor at WE, but when she first met Joe she was a 14-year-old volunteer. She was in the audience at a leadership camp in 1999 when the assembled youngsters were asked about the causes they cared about. The question was met with a long, awkward silence, until Joe stood up.
With an air of utter earnestness, he described his frustration with public bathrooms that only stocked one-ply toilet paper. If two-ply tissues were used, he noted, money would be saved because everyone would then need to use less toilet paper.
Everyone burst out laughing, and the ideas and issues flowed freely after that.
“He walked the line between class clown and someone who cared, thought and felt very deeply,” Kim remembers.
Born to communicate
Raised in Scarborough, Ontario, Joe’s childhood was marked by violence and abuse. He and his two younger brothers were so regularly visited by Children and Youth Services that he knew the officers by name, remembers Erin Barton, WE’s chief development officer, and one of Joe’s closest friends.
“There would never be a day without drama,” Erin recalls. “He didn’t create it, but he always seemed to be at its intersection.”
When he was 15, Joe found an escape from the chaos at home in volunteering for his local WE Club, then called a Free The Children chapter.
He was talkative and exuberant, and quickly became known for his ability to connect with those he met. By his senior year of high school, he was leading the chapter. When he graduated in 2001, he went to work at WE full time.
As a facilitator, Joe worked at leadership camps and led volunteer trips to Ecuador, Thailand and India. In 2003, he began touring across North America as a motivational speaker for the organization.
Joe was phenomenally good at this. In one year, he spoke to 100,000 children. In a 2004 interview with the Toronto Star, Marc Kielburger, co-founder of WE, described Joe as “amazing.”
“Kids really related to him,” Marc said of Joe’s impact. “He could really connect because he spoke their language and they were moved by his presence and his love and his passion.”
The value of silence
After every speech, Joe would get calls from young people who wanted to go on a WE trip but couldn’t afford the costs. His decided to raise money for a travel scholarship so others could travel and enjoy the sense of community that comes from being involved with WE.
Joe had an audacious plan.
He would give up speaking—for seven whole days.
He would give up speaking, the thing that fuelled him and helped him ignite the passion of those around him. For 168 hours he wouldn’t debate, or joke, or offer words of encouragement or consolation. And for every day that he remained silent, he asked that people donate to a scholarship fund for at-risk teens.
He called his project his “Vow of Silence.”
By all accounts, this was a difficult proposition for him. Joe loved the sound of his own voice. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and never steered away from a good debate.
“Upon finding out that I was going to take an entire week of silence, most people laughed out loud,” Joe wrote in one of the project’s earliest flyers.
But he was serious. For an entire week, he carried laminated business cards explaining his vow of silence to everyone he encountered and asking that they pledge to the fund. By week’s end, he had raised $5,000.
The idea inspired others throughout the organization, including Kim Plewes, who replicated the campaign in her high school a month later—to resounding success.
“It was new and different,” recalls Kim. “No one had ever done something like that at the time.”
An enduring legacy
In 2004, Joe was killed in a car accident on his way back from Scarsdale, NY, where he’d given a speech to a group of high school students. He was 21.
But his idea lives on, and 14 years later, WE Are Silent remains one of WE’s most successful campaigns.
The campaign has inspired hundreds of thousands of young people to go silent for a combined equivalent of hundreds of years. It has drawn the support of celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Hudson, Seth Rogen, Edward Norton and Jason Mraz. In 2014, 10 years after Joe died, the renowned girls’ rights and education activist Malala Yousafzai led the campaign for youth in over 40 countries.
In the 2017/2018 academic year, 1,226 schools, 42,131 youth and 3,678 educators across North America went silent for a total of 7,356 hours to raise money for scholarships and other educational resources through the WE Villages Education Pillar.
Most of Joe’s influence on the organization is invisible. He embodied the idea that social activism could give at-risk youth a needed sense of place and purpose and this, according to those who knew him, helped the organization become more inclusive. But for Joe, the purpose of his vow-of-silence campaign was always clear: He wanted a loud, busy world to stop and refocus on the most important issues.
“The idea came from my own realization that sometimes I close myself off to ideas that come from unlikely, and often quiet places,” Joe wrote of his vow. “It was not only a chance to learn about what it feels like to not have the privilege of speaking and being listened to, but to see what I had been missing all the time that I am too busy spouting my own opinions.”
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor, and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling them or not.