Before Craig Kielburger took three days off school in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill to visit Washington last week, one of his American hosts recalls he had only two personal requests— to meet consumer advocate Ralph Nader and tour the White House. The 13-year-old founder of the Free the Children movement did get to discuss his campaign against child labor with Nader. But a clamor of demands on his time by the media, politicians and other groups cost him his White House tour. Despite the testing timetable, the chipper, articulate youth captivated the U.S. capital. In doing so, he fulfilled his primary purpose— to gain momentum on a crusade in which, he says, “our eventual goal is to eliminate child labor and the exploitation of children.” Dapper in jacket and slacks, by turns playfully boyish and maturely earnest, Kielburger also wowed Washington personally. Interviews on three TV networks and Na-
tional Public Radio, following an earlier date on CBS’s 60 Minutes, vaulted him into U.S. celebrity status. Among a dozen events in 60 hours, he put his case to a Democratic party policy committee and at a Capitol Hill news conference. Vice-President Al Gore invited him home for a talk with his family. Kielburger’s high-profile agenda promoted a second aim of his growing year-old youth movement. ‘We’re also pushing for young-people empowerment and bringing about change.”
The change they seek is to empower the estimated two million children worldwide, some as young as 5, forced into debilitating and dangerous work by bondage or just to stay alive. How to do that? By boycotting
child-labor products and pressing importers and politicians to demand reforms. Most important, Kielburger adds, “you have to go to the root cause—dealing with the families, dealing with the children themselves, getting these children out of those families and into families that will love them, giving these children options besides going to work.” During his rounds, Kielburger was unfailingly polite to patronizing adults (“Very impressive,” exclaimed one; “I have just enormous admiration,” burbled another). But a flicker of impatience greets a question on whether his very youth accounts for his success. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or older,” he says, while conceding that his youth may open doors. “Once you know the cause and you feel passion about it, you can still get the message out and bring about a change.” If his encounter with Washington is a guide, the change Craig Kielburger and his colleagues passionately seek is becoming ever more imminent. □
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