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Get Inspired by a 10 Year Old Environmental Activist Turning Anger into Action

What were you doing when you were 10 years old? Do you remember how you spent your summer? Well, Hannah Alper from Ontario, Canada has had quite the year. She organized a school fundraising campaign to provide clean water for 37 people living without it in Africa, led local cleanup efforts as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, gave a speech on the same stage as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Martin Luther King III, and attended a summer camp devoted to exploring homelessness, child labor, human rights, and poverty. Kind of amazing, isn’t it?

While some of our Canadian readers may have heard of Hannah, I’m guessing few in the U.S. or elsewhere know anything about her. I feel strongly that we need to both highly intelligent critique and dismantling of our current, oppressive systems, and also inspiring visions and experiments in alternative ways of living/being together. So, today’s post is about inspiring visions. Particularly seeing children like Hannah actively stepping up and helping to lead the way.

Here’s part of Hannah’s blog post about the shoreline cleanup she organized.

If we don’t act now, our ocean might just be a giant landfill. What is happening makes me angry. It makes me angry to know that this happening to these animals and we are doing it. Why? Because people are being lazy and irresponsible with their garbage and not disposing of it properly. Last year I did a Shoreline Cleanup at a trail near my house and together my friend and I collected 10 full bags of garbage. I couldn’t believe how much garbage there was and how many people just threw their trash on the ground as they walked or rode their bike, not thinking about the impact.

But is empowering me to take care of our environment and pick up litter around our neighbourhood and save the eco system! I am proud to have made this contribution with my friends and family. Here are some of the amazing (and disgusting) successes of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. Amazing because together people took action and responsibility to clean it up and disgusting because there was so much:

Since 2003 over 400, 000 participants have removed almost one million kilos.

In 2009 15, 930 garbage bags were full.

In 2012 57, 422 registered in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup ready to take action.

In 2012 416, 995 cigarette/cigarette filters have been collected.

One of the refreshing things about young folks is how they tend to be straight forward. She doesn’t spend three paragraphs trying to explain and justify how she feels. She just says “I’m angry. Here’s why. And here’s what I’m going to do about it.” Furthermore, Hannah’s well aware of the power of her voice in the world, something many people spend a lifetime trying to learn. In April, she took a vow of silence for an entire day, and wrote the following:

This year I have discovered that my voice can be so powerful in many ways through my blog, speeches and more social media. Just use your voice and speak out for what you’re passionate about, every little thing adds up to make a big difference in the world. If all of us use our voice together as one it will be so powerful that it will make a difference.

It is definitely going to be hard to be silent for a day because I’m very talkative. Today I shared with my teachers and my classmates that I am going to be silent and why I’m going to be silent.

On April 18th you too can take a vow of silence for children who have no voice.

Seriously, it kind of sends shivers down my spine to think of how this young girl is impacting not only her immediate community, but the broader world with her words and actions. I about cried when it read her silence post, and it made me think about ways we in the Buddhist world might do something similar, built around our teachings and practices.

Much of Hannah’s inspiration over the past year has come from the work of an international organization called Free the Children. Founded by another former child activist, Craig Kielburger, Free the Children’s mission is described in the following manner:

An international charity and education partner, Free The Children believes in a world where all young people are free to achieve their fullest potential as agents of change. We work to empower youth to remove barriers that prevent them from being active local and global citizens.

The charity wing of the organization is financially supported by a social entrepreneurial wing: Me to We. I have to say that I have long had mixed feelings about this kind of thing. On the one hand, building businesses with an actual ethical backbone almost seems like a dream in today’s cutthroat, global capitalist world. The creativity coming from some of these organizations is quite amazing, and it appears to be gaining traction against the more clearly greed driven, corporate world. On the other hand, isn’t social enterprise work merely making capitalism more palatable and maybe somewhat less damaging? It’s quite telling the way former Canadian Prime Paul Martin offers his support for Me to We:

Look, governments are in strained circumstances, and there is a group out there prepared to meet social needs if only the government will give them the same context to operate as it did business entrepreneurs. … If you can’t fund this, you have a responsibility to help meet these needs.

We can view this statement in a few ways.  Martin advocating for law changes to support a new kind of model for running businesses, which might be a way to ultimately put the other model out of business. Or Martin stumping for these social enterprise organizations to take over the social safety net work of the government. And/or Martin recognizing that uplifting these organizations will also allow business as usual to proceed, while helping to give the government a positive facelift.

I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about the whole social enterprise field, and whether folks within it are going deep enough to truly transform economies away from capitalism.  From what I’ve seen, a lot of social entrepreneurial types support capitalism as an economic model, and aim to purge the “oppressive” elements from it. Whereas in my view, the whole model is oppressive, and so any “inside” work should aim for a total transformation – even if that transformation ends up taking generations to complete. The vision needs to move beyond reformism, in other words.

In the meantime, I haven’t been able to find much criticism of Free the Children or Me to We, and clearly they’re inspiring children like Hannah to step into their power and do great things in the world, and also the little, everyday things. Here’s one last piece of inspiration from Hannah’s blog, to close this article:

I believe that a random act of kindness can change the world. it could make somebody’s day awesome! When you do a act of kindness it means you have thought about someone else. Acts of kindness don’t have to be big, they don’t take a lot of planning, time, energy or money. It’s about the little things that add up to make a big difference.

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