A Teacher’s Experience at “We Day” Montreal (2017)

On a not-so-sunny, but not-so-cold, winter morning, I was asked to chaperone fifteen Grade 8 students on a trip to Théâtre St-Denis in Montreal. I happily accepted, as I had never been on a field trip as a student-teacher before and was intrigued to see how “We Day” would be organized and conducted.

We arrived at 8:30am; it was a spacious theatre, filled with fun bags awaiting each individual at their seat. It was great that the venue location was decent and next to a metro. (Note: each little bag consisted of a We Day volunteer booklet, a few coupons, a baking tool decorated with “WE,” among other tiny things, like stickers and pamphlets, to entice the audience.)

The POP/Dance music was blaring as soon as we all took our seats. Students from all over Montreal trailed in behind us, making their way to their soft, cushioned, black seats. Some private schools had even paid to reserve VIP seats at the front of the auditorium. Us? No…we “public schools” like to take a chance on finding seats. Where’s the thrill in already knowing where you’re going to sit, anyway? If there’s one thing I have to say about We Day, it’s that the DJ’s music was decent, relevant to modern day teenagers, and got the crowd excited.

On our tickets, it said the show would commence at 9:00am. But, no. it started at 9:43am…almost an hour late. Music aside, my students were bored in their seats, hoping that their phones would keep them awake, snap-chatting every moment to make it look more enjoyable. To be fair, I, too, was snap-chatting… 43 minutes of waiting can take a lot out of you, just like free healthcare can make you wait 6 hours in the emergency room to see a doctor. If we were comparable to patients, we were not very patient at all.

The Show Begins.

Everyone gets up out of their seats and starts clapping and “woo-ing” for the two Québécois hosts: one male and one female (supposedly popular individuals that I’ve never heard of until 9:43am). Everyone was so excited until they heard the hosts speak. Their English was piss-poor, almost incomprehensible, with tons of stuttering and bad word choices. As a French province, it is understandable that le français should be understood and spoken…but for an English “We Day” concert, this was so poorly done.

The Kielburgers

Otherwise known as Mark and Craig, these are the brothers who started the Me to We company back in the day. Craig came on-stage for a few minutes to hype up the crowd and spoke in an exuberant fashion. He told a brief story about how when he was 12 years old, he wanted to help people and so he started a company from the ground up. To be brutally honest, it was a very vague story and could have used more description. I would have liked to hear where he got the money to start the company and how he was distributing money today, company-wide, too. Regardless, it was a good first speech opening for the crowd.

The Teleprompter.

At 9:44am, just a minute after starting, a student sitting next to me poked me. She said: “Miss…I think the hosts are reading off a big black screen in the back.” I turned around and saw it. The teleprompter. That evil, stupid teleprompter. It must have been just as big as a home theatre screen, large enough to attach every single word from every single speech that would take place on that stage.

Immediately, I was thrown back. I felt a sense of anger partially consume me. As a former high school and college actress, memorizing my lines and conveying passion to my audience was always what I was taught to do, regardless of time or effort. Passion is everything; any entertainer knows that. If you are a performer and you don’t remember your lines, what are you supposed to do? People make mistakes, sure…but that’s why we give students cue-cards in oral presentations, for example. We allow them to make mistakes, to learn, and to remind themselves, to “cue” themselves, of their speech…not read the whole speech off their cue-cards. Otherwise, we teach people to rely on external resources and not to rely on what they have within themselves. (Note: Ironically, I had just taught a whole unit on motivational speeches and rants, and my grade ten students were just about to do their presentations…I definitely had some things to say to them when I got back to school the next week after seeing these “We Day” speeches.)

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind that the teleprompter was there. I don’t care that it existed. I was most bothered by the fact that every single person that went up on that stage (minus three individuals), read from the teleprompter…they read every single word. At one point in mid-morning, one of the hosts stopped speaking mid-sentence because the teleprompter froze. The other host looked at her and said, “well, it looks like we’re having some technical difficulties, folks. DJ play a song!” WHAT? Technical difficulties? No. A technical difficulty happens when the lights stop working, or when the sound goes wonky; a technical difficulty does NOT happen when you forget your lines, Mr. and Mrs. Host. In my opinion, it was very disappointing to witness this; to see two “apparently trained entertainers” cease speaking because they weren’t passionate enough to memorize their lines for a very big, Montreal-wide show.

The Speakers.

The hosts aside, the speakers had some interesting things to say. Some speakers came on stage and told some very personal, relevant stories. For a few examples, there was a man who spoke about religion and losing his son, a woman with vitilago who talked about the importance of difference and loving yourself, a young adult who was born missing a leg and an arm who explained how he still lives his life to the fullest by playing sports, a blind man who emphasized that we are all capable human beings, and, so on, so forth. While all of these speeches were lovely and received well by the audience, they were all “faked” in a sense. As mentioned before, only three speakers spoke with passion, without reading the teleprompter. Everyone else stood in one place on stage like a frozen stick in the winter-time, their eyes up front, clearly reading; no hand-gestures and no eye-contact with the audience. As a teacher, and as a student, I am very upset about this for a few reasons.

  1. If you are inviting thousands of students to your show and you are on stage without emotion, just reading your entire speech off the teleprompter, then you are sending a message to those students that it is OKAY to be unprepared, to be disorganized and to not have any passion for the words you speak.
  2. The whole concept of We Day is to help others, right? To take initiative in your community, to make baby steps, and to raise money to help people in distant lands, no? If this is what the message is, then it wasn’t stated to the audience. The only message we received loud and clear is that you are taking our money for this We Day show (that our students have fundraised for months) and you are giving us an impersonal, informal message in return: “you can succeed, if only you read.”

The We-Day Dance.

Okay, so while the speakers and the hosts pretty much read off the teleprompter and seemed quite fake, there were some good things about the morning. For instance, every 30 minutes or so, a group of dancers would come on stage and do the We Day dance with the audience. While the idea seemed cool and the audience got up from their seats to stretch and move, it only lasted one minute and a half each time. Personally, it would have been very fun to continue the dance and have more than four moves, because then the audience participation would have been that much higher.

Crowd Pleasers.

About 50 young adults were running around from the beginning, trying to get the crowd excited and to promote dancing and smiles. I’ve got to say, I was impressed. These crowd pleasers, who volunteered their time for the day, did a swell job. They genuinely cared about the students and made an effort to get the audience to participate. Funny enough, though, it was too good to be true… the crowd pleasers were also on their phones for a lot of the time, using snapchat and messaging their friends. I suppose that this is a downside to hiring young adults as volunteers. I guess they didn’t take it as seriously as we had hoped, but thankfully my students didn’t catch on. Maybe the We Day employers should have given these volunteers more than a piece of pizza for their pay.

The Entertainment

I was absolutely blown away by two artists: Jordan Smith, winner of the Voice 2015, and Tyler Shaw, a well-known Canadian pop singer. They each had the luxury to perform two songs each, but they were clearly the highlights of the We Day show. In my opinion, these two performers were the best things about We Day. Instead of calling it “We Day,” it should have been called a concert…because really, that’s what it was. The pros consisted of cool dance routines, amazing, but short, performances by these singers, and some decent, personal speeches emphasizing self-love and care. I would have liked to see more of THAT, because compared to the rest, there is no comparison. Also, Jordan Smith’s voice is angelic and I think we can all stay happy leaving this event because of him.

Propaganda/Advertising and Transitions

You can’t have We Day without consistent ads, it seems. Every time the hosts were on stage, they had another “thank you” to deliver to all of the companies that donate money: Ford, Jugo Juice, David’s Tea, Scene, Cineplex, RBC, and the list goes on and on, just like a really bad tune that you can’t get out of your head for the life of you. I wouldn’t have minded the ads, if not for the terrible placement of the “thank you’s” in the speeches. It didn’t transition well at all. They went from saying one thing, to not ending their speech, and re-directing the audience to a video or picture from an advertising company, and then bringing the message back to the speaker. Verrrrrry poor transitions, to say the least. If you’re going to advertise or promote something, at least do it RIGHT. Include it into your speech, somehow. Integrate it so that the audience doesn’t lose track of your thoughts.

Moreover, every 20-30 minutes or so, someone would come on-stage and remind everyone to use the hashtag #WeDayMontreal to show their dedication. So all of the students would get out their phones and post to Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, to show that they’re “part of a bigger movement.” While this is a good marketing strategy, I think it takes away from the show as a whole. In addition, the students aren’t told “why” they are posting the hashtags, they are just told to DO it. I am left with questions but no answers.

Merchandizing

Throughout the show, the speakers and the hosts kept campaigning and trying to sell merchandise to the students. “At the break, please go into the lobby and purchase some jewelry made by the lovely people of Kenya!” They show you a brief video about how women in Kenya can have the opportunity go to school if you just buy one bracelet. They do not tell students where ALL of the money goes or how it is distributed. Nothing is transparent about this company. The video is beautiful, but does not really capture reality. It looks like everyone is happy, that even in poverty, people can smile and keep on keepin’ on. This is not truth. This is not real. This is a North American philosophy, not just adopted by Me to We, but by all of us: we think we are better, stronger, richer, and happier than the Other. We think that by helping others, we benefit them…but really, we are only benefitting ourselves. We are reassuring ourselves that selfishness is at the heart of North American values. Selfishness has taken over. We should re-label this event to “I-Day,” or “Me-Day” because there really is no “We” involved here. However, We Day speakers are clever. They know that we are influenced by what we see and know, so showing us a video can “prove” that everyone is happier and will benefit if you buy a bracelet in the lobby. Interesting tactic, I’ve got to say… I wish my students weren’t so naive and would question where their money is going. As Allison Atkinson points out in her blog post critique, is We Day selling brands or inspiration? (Atkinson 2013). One of my students came back from intermission sporting a $15 dollar bracelet from the lobby. “Miss, don’t you love it?” she asked. I had to hold back my true response. First off, $15 for a bracelet is ridiculous. It better be silver if I’m spending that kind of money. Second off, where oh where is that money going? I’d like some more information before I buy something from the lobby. I even asked a few employees and they said they were 100% clear on the fact that all of the proceeds go to charities. I asked them where they found this information and they said they were “told.” Word of mouth isn’t enough. A simple “accountability” page on the Me to We website isn’t enough. Proof is needed.

Inclusivity and Diversity

It becomes problematic when Me to We identifies inclusivity and diversity as an action plan, but yet promotes contest winning and competition throughout their show. At certain times throughout the day, the DJs and hosts would come into the crowd and throw t-shirts. “WHO WANTS A WE-DAY T-SHIRT??!?!” They would ask. And, of course, everyone applauds and stands up, because really…who doesn’t love free stuff? The idea of things being “free” is also an issue. It becomes a concept that consumes us. Would we jump this high out of our seats to compete for something that we would have to pay for? No, absolutely not. “Free” things have become associated with “selfishness” and “competitiveness.” For example, my students were jumping up and down and not once did they receive a t-shirt. No. The t-shirt throwing was reserved specifically for the VIPs in the front row… no one had a chance. There was no real competition for the 2000 people in the audience. The t-shirts were never really “free” at all. This adds to my argument about the “fakeness” of the entire show – everything was “fixed” and set in stone. You know when you go to the horse races and you bet on a horse to win because he’s a world-class favorite? And, then, all of a sudden, the horse starts slowing down as he reaches the finish line and the horse right behind him wins? Well, that’s because the race was “fixed.” The owners of the horses made a deal before the race began. Just like this horse race, We Day was “fixed.” Even the students who would “win” prizes during the show would just stand up with a microphone and read off of the teleprompter. They were asked to “win” beforehand. I don’t know how else to express my discontent at this lack of diversity or inclusivity than to say “hmmph” in a loud, anti-aesthetic, displeasing sigh. It bothers me even more that all of the winners were white students. I mean, come on. Is this the Oscars from 2016 all over again? Just when you think the world is getting more diverse and accepting, something comes along and tells you otherwise.

Voluntourism

In a recent course taught at McGill University, we had one full week of discussions on the topic of “Me to We” as an organization and how it contributes to a concept called “voluntourism.” As someone who has travelled, worked abroad, and been on many organized trips, the concept of “voluntourism” is something that has been on my mind for a while now.

Voluntourism is very well defined by Iram Sarwar: “Wealthy western tourists who pay to go to developing countries to build schools and work in orphanages prevent local workers from much-needed jobs; waste the time and efforts of the institutions they travel with as they are constantly having to upgrade facilities and security; and vulnerable children who have often been abused or abandoned become attached to these tourists, who add to their trauma when they up and go home” (Sarwar 2014).

Not only does it become frightening for the foreign children, but “we” are contributing to the problem just as much as we think we are “helping” them. Thus, voluntourism is a way of life for students who think they are genuinely helping others abroad. It is a way for students to pay for trips, to end up at all-inclusive resorts and spend most of the day at a hotel, and then a few hours helping out the locals by picking up garbage, churning cement, building a house, or hanging out with the children of a community. Students are buying into everything that We Day tells them; they truly believe that they will actually make a difference by going on volunteer trips, when in reality, these trips only spend a short period of time actually “volunteering,” so to speak. I have also worked for a company that involves mini-volunteer days…but is this considered volunteering, then? Are we genuinely helping them? In addition, the students go on these trips only to post pics on Instagram/Facebook to show they are helping out a community and get “likes” or be liked by others. Taking pictures with little foreigners is problematic all on its own; it promotes an idea and a value that shouldn’t exist. It tells everyone that we are the helpers and they are the needy. It promotes difference in a way that isn’t actually “helping” anyone. These kids genuinely think that by raising money for Me to We that they are contributing to something good, but once again, they do not know where it is going or how they are helping.

In an article by David Jefferess called“The Me to We Social Enterprise,” he mentions that often times, we, as North American travelers, do not even know what we are contributing to when we pay to go “volunteer” abroad: in other words, when we go abroad on trips, such as “Me to We” volunteer trips (i.e. trips to Kenya), we tend to reinforce a consumer-capitalist culture in which we privilege ourselves over the other culture, even though we think we are helping them (Jefferess 2012). In addition, Jefferess discusses that companies like “Me to We” tend to privilege self-help and the self over all else. While it may look like the Me to We enterprise is out to help others, there is no real humanitarianism effort here.

I have so many questions about voluntourism that I never know where to start. What can I do as a teacher if my students go away for the holidays to the Caribbean or on a cruise ship? What can I do to instill a critique of the way we see the world? How can I ask my students to question the difference between wanting to help others abroad and the actual reality of voluntourism and our relationship to this cycle? When students go abroad to volunteer, they typically post about their journey on social media, ultimately posting pictures with children of the foreign land. How can I ask my students to think about the implications of social media and volunteering and what can I do in my lectures to get them to think about why they do these things? As a teacher, these are questions that have been on my mind for quite some time and yet, I still have no concrete answers. How can I make a difference in changing the Western values that have been adopted by my students?

The Day’s End

Just as the day started at 9:43am with a poor opening from the hosts, so it ended with a poor conclusion and a simple “goodbye and see you next year!” Right after Tyler Shaw finished his performance, the two hosts ran onto the stage and said “Thank you and have a great day!” What a poor finale. No wrap-up. No message. Nothing.

In addition, the day was supposed to end at 2:00pm, but instead ended at 1:00pm. It may seem as if one hour would make no difference, but what about the educators who ordered and scheduled busses to pick them up? What about the students who had notified their parents about where to meet them and at what time? What about the teachers who didn’t have anything planned for an hour? What about the train times and the bus times? This, in itself, was another flaw in the We Day design. We Day essentially ended their event early without realizing the implications and repercussions it would have on the teachers and the students.

My Take-Home Message

While my entire post may look like a giant critique for Me to We and We Day, it is important to note that I see both sides of the argument. If your message is to inspire others and to take initiative in your community, then that is a fine message to promote. It is vague enough that anyone can uniquely interpret that message in their own way. If your message is to promote social justice and humanitarianism by being a good person and putting others first, then, again, that message is clear and shows students that “helping” in general, is a good value to uphold. However, if your message is to volunteer abroad and to help the people from foreign communities, then this message needs to be reformed, edited and re-stated. We Day can indeed inspire individuals to encourage their own self-help and the help for others, but where it lacks is in its transparency for volunteering, and in its accountability for where, or who, the “money” goes to. The way I see it, We Day should just have been a concert with speakers that are passionate about inspiration and self-help. It isn’t a completely selfish organization; of course, their minds (and possibly their hearts) are in the right place…but we need to look at the effects, selfish or otherwise. We need to question what our students are “buying” into, merchandize, volunteering or otherwise. We need to question what kind of message is being embedded and molded into our students’ brains. We need to promote the “don’t believe everything you see or read” mentality; thus, we should teach our students that critical thinking is an important tool…especially for an event like We Day.

References

Atkinson, Allison. (2013). “A Teacher’s Critique of ‘We Day'” Retrieved from: https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2013/10/30/A-Teachers-Critique-of-We-Day/

Jefferess, D. (2012). The “Me to We” social enterprise: Global education as lifestyle brand. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices. 6(1), 18-30.

Sarwar, Iram. (2014). “We Day to Me Day: The Damaging Effect of Voluntourism.” Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/iram-sarwar/voluntourism-travelling_b_4931814.html

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