Drawn as much by a desire to make a difference as by the smorgasbord of celebrities who came to urge them to do so, about 20,000 Illinois students converged on the Allstate Arena on Thursday for We Day Illinois.
They were treated to an all-star lineup of actors, musicians, corporate CEOs and youths just like them who have gotten behind the international youth empowerment movement founded 20 years ago by Canadian brothers and social entrepreneurs Craig and Marc Kielburger.
“Today is about 601 schools across the state of Illinois committed to running a yearlong service learning project with us,” Craig Kielburger said. “The kids all had to do at least one local action and one global action. Charity starts at home. It just doesn’t end at home. And with that, they earned their ticket to We Day.”
There was actor and singer Selena Gomez, the event’s host and apparent idol and heartthrob of thousands of screaming elementary and high school students, who swooned each time she took the stage.
“Selena was who I wanted to see the most,” admitted 11-year-old Neida Rodriguez of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a student at Chicago’s Daley Academy.
There was Oscar and Grammy winning actor and rapper Common, who co-chaired Thursday’s event, along with the CEO of sponsor Allstate, Tom Wilson. Common performed a spoken-word piece.
“I think a lot of the negative ideas about teens is incorrect. We Day is one of the avenues through which we can show how young people really do care and are passionate about not only bettering their own lives but also bettering the lives of other people, which in turn will better the world,” Common said.
“When you see young people participating in something as powerful as this, you know that in the core of who they are, they want a better world, and it’s just about giving them the avenues and the opportunities to seek out that world, through their dreams, through service,” he said.
Among the fan favorites were singer and fellow Chicagoan and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who brought the house down when she closed the five-hour event with her hit song “Whatever Makes You Happy,” accompanied by a high school band. She brought along a friend, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who joined her on stage for a surprise appearance.
Hudson is national chair of We Day, which has scheduled 14 such events in the U.S. and Canada this year, targeting 200,000 students and 10,000 schools. Sixty-three percent of the students attending Thursday were from schools with predominantly low-income populations, many in Chicago.
The Kielburgers’ international charity, Free The Children, and their Me to We social enterprise have created a global network of more than 2 million youths committed to leading social change through We Day.
The teens were treated to performances and motivational speeches presented by the likes of musicians Babyface, The Band Perry and Colbie Caillat; actors including Dennis Haysbert, Marlee Matlin, Martin Sheen and Tyrese; and entrepreneur Magic Johnson. They also heard from inspiring figures such as Mustafa the Poet; author Spencer West, who was born with no legs; and Ezra Frech, a successful 9-year-old athlete with an artificial leg.
“I felt very excited, especially hearing from the kid that had one leg. His story really made me more inspired to do more,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t believe that he didn’t let anything stop him.”
Hudson called the event “one of the most inspiring celebrations I have ever experienced. The energy of We Day is like nothing else, fueled by positive energy and amazing hearts,” she said.
Kielburger said the most impressive aspect is seeing the diverse and innovative cause campaigns the youth have come up with, from helping the homeless to supporting clean water in developing countries and creating apps that solve a need.
“We’ve seen awesome campaigns. These are incredible students making incredible impact,” he said. “The core of our program is simple. Youth are not problems to be solved. They are problems solvers, and We Day provides them truly the coolest classroom in the world.”
Maurice Sanders, 17, of Roseland, a student at Fenger High School, said his school earned tickets by tackling the tense relationship between police and inner city youth.
“We got to speak to the police commissioner and talk to him about why all these things are going on, and how to fix it. We listened to his ideas and he listened to ours also,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to promote trust between us and police, so we can see that they’re not all bad, and they can see that we’re not all violent.”