In Conversation: Bryanna Baker and Michelle Vanderzon of WE

For the last year, the In Conversation series has focused on talking with the members of the Victory Square portfolio family. We’ve given you an introduction to the people behind the companies we work with, and a better idea of what these companies do.

Now we’re widening our focus a little to shine a light on the work done by some of our charitable and philanthropic partners. WE, formerly known as Free The Children, is an international development charity and youth empowerment movement founded in 1995 by human rights advocates Marc and Craig Kielburger. The WE Movement is an international family of organizations that empowers people to enable positive social change by making doing good doable.

With WE Day Vancouver just around the corner, we thought it was a good time to have VST’s James Graham sit down with Bryanna Baker and Michelle Vanderzon of WE to find out more about why making doing good doable is important and just how big a party WE Day is

VST CEO Shafin Diamond Tejani with Michelle Vanderzon and Bryanna Baker of WE

James Graham: We should start off with the basic introductions: who are you and what are you doing here? 

Bryanna Baker: I’m Bryanna Baker. I am the regional director for WE for Western Canada and the U.S. I’ve been with the organization for just over three and a half years and have the distinct pleasure of heading up our team on the west coast of North America, located here in Vancouver. 

Michelle Vanderzon: My name is Michelle Vanderzon and I work with Bryanna and the business development team in our Vancouver office, working with family and corporate engagement.

James: When I’m talking to one of our portfolio companies my follow up question to that is usually what’s your elevator pitch? So you’re locked in an elevator for 30 seconds, tell me what WE is?

Bryanna:  WE is an organization that’s been around for 25 years. WE started as an organization that was all about kicking down doors to free children from child labor overseas. That stemmed from when Craig (Kielburger, WE founder) found out about some of the issues that existed in developing countries when he was 12 years old.  In that time we’ve grown to have over 200 corporate partners from coast to coast to coast and all across North America and the UK. We’re in nine countries overseas helping to lift communities out of poverty through our five-pillar development model called WE Villages and domestically, we’re in over 18,400 schools and school groups helping partner with educators and youth to help them find their cause or issue that they care about. We’re helping to make doing good, doable, whether you’re an employee, a family, youth or a community overseas. 

James:  Why do we need to make doing good doable in this day and age? 

Michelle: We know that people inherently want to do good, whether it’s a parent raising kids and wanting them to grow up to be empathetic human beings or companies who have a responsibility within their communities and the larger global community to make an impact. People want to do good but don’t necessarily know where to start or how to go about it. 

We’re uniquely positioned with this incredible network of people and organizations to provide people the tools and resources they need to do good. 

We have a lot of resources to help with that, like through WE Care Vancouver, which is a program that we partnered with Victory Square Technologies on to work with families and communities to take action by volunteering. A lot of the time it’s just starting with a conversation. 

Bryanna:  As we looked at ways that we could create additional resources and initiatives locally in Vancouver, we were taken by a 2017 Vancouver Foundation report stating that only 45% of Vancouverites volunteer. It’s not because they aren’t interested, it’s because they don’t know where to start. As an organization, our fundamental philosophy is based around connecting people with the interest and desire to do good with the organizations and tools and resources on how to do that.

Shafin Diamond Tejani with WE’s Carrie Patterson and Bryanna Baker

James: You’re giving them that nudge. 

Bryanna: Exactly. We’re giving them the tools and resources to link them with causes that they are discovering and caring about. When Craig was 12, one of the things that struck him reading about the story of Iqbal Masi, who was shot and murdered in Pakistan for speaking out against Child Labor, was as a 12-year-old, what could he do to make a difference? As the organization has grown at home through 18,400 schools, nine countries overseas and a thousand staff, the fundamental foundation of making doing good doable really started from that. How do we enable people to have small actions that build up to a big impact in their everyday lives? 

James: I think a lot of people probably know you guys best for WE Day. What is WE day and why is WE Day important? 

Michelle: WE Day is the best day of the year. If you’ve never been to a WE Day, picture it like a big social justice concert. Throughout the school year, we bring together over 200,000 youth and educators globally and we fill arenas across North America and the UK. You can’t buy a ticket to WE Day, you earn it through service by taking one local and one global action. It’s a celebration of the impacts that have been made throughout the year by the thousands of schools that we work with.

Here in British Columbia, we work with 1160 schools and over 400,000 youth across the province and on November 19th, we’ll be hosting 20,000 young people who have earned their way throughout the year. They’ll hear from everyone motivational speakers and performers to local heroes to really celebrate the impacts and mark a commitment to another year of action through the WE schools program. We’ve had incredible performers and inspirational speakers like the Dalai Lama and Malala on stage. 

Bryanna: The fact that those thousand-plus schools and school groups that Michelle mentioned are earning their tickets through their service actions throughout the year is what makes it so special and unique. Every single young person in that arena on November 19th will have done something good in their local or global communities to earn their way to be there. 

Shafin Diamond Tejani on stage at WE Day

James: Now if WE Day is one prong of the WE movement, what does WE Schools entail?

Michelle: WE Schools is a service-learning program and there are two ways that we work with schools. The idea is to make doing good doable for schools by providing tools and resources. We have a kit and digital resources that we provide to every school involved in the program. Schools in the broad sense of the term as we have also curricular groups, extracurricular groups and community groups who are involved. They take actions throughout the year using our resources and campaigns. We’re cause inclusive so you can take action on any issue that you’re passionate about. The idea is that groups are choosing one local and one global action and we support them with tons of different resources like a curriculum that helps really explore the root cause of the issues. The service and learning are both equally important parts of the program. Throughout the year, students are learning within their classrooms and taking that learning and translating it into actions. 

James: The other prong that we can talk about is WE Villages, what does that entail? 

Bryanna: WE Villages is our international development model. It’s a five-pillar approach all centered around helping to lift communities out of poverty by removing barriers to access education. When we first started as an organization, we realized that education was at the center of opportunity and helping to lift communities out of poverty. We started by building classrooms and quickly realized that classrooms weren’t enough alone to help remove some of the systemic causes that create poverty. We added other pillars such as access to clean water at the schools. We found that even with the building of classrooms, the majority of kids going to school were young boys. Young girls were still not able to attend because they had to walk four kilometers every day to provide access to clean water. 

We introduced the water pillar so that they could gain access to water at school and bring it home to their family as part of that daily chore. We realized that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. We introduced the food security pillar where we have school gardens and community gardens and lunch programs. Students attending school can be provided with a healthy, well-balanced lunch. The risk of water-borne diseases is very high in some of these developing countries, so introducing mobile health clinics and preventative training in terms of healthcare became very incredibly important as well.

Last but not least, our opportunity pillar. Something to help so that kids can go to school and they can increase their income as a family so that they can provide for their students and allow them to go to school. That established our sustainable development model where we partner with communities and within five to seven years we actually will walk away and leave them to be self-sustaining. Our fundamental focus is sustainability in everything we do and our WE Villages model reinforces that. In Kenya for example, we’ve actually exited out of seven communities where we no longer partner with them. We’ve established the model and they’re self-sustainable on their own with community leadership and ownership.

James: A lot of people out there trying to do good in the world right now. What differentiates WE from the other charitable organizations that are out there? 

Bryanna: First, our absolute focus on sustainability and transparency in everything we do. One of the things that makes WE so unique is our partnership with Me To We, which is our social enterprise that was really launched in order to ensure a consistent funding stream for the charity. It helps enable us as an organization to not only impact more lives but also challenge the status quo of traditional charity where charities are investing in marketing dollars or street canvassers to help get the word out. Me To We was launched as a social enterprise where we could actually connect some of the traditions and income-generating activities. One of the ways in which we’re able to get our mission out in the work we do is through our retail partners where we’re in thousands and thousands of stores across North America without having to incur any marketing costs that a lot of traditional charities lean on in terms of getting their word out. 

The second big thing is sustainability. Everything we do, whether it’s our domestic programs like WE Schools, WE Day or our international development work; our goal and our hope is that we’re eventually put out of business. It’s our hope that our programs, partnerships, and work will become self-sustaining on their own through the partnerships, leaders, and alternative income-generating activities that we establish. 

The third thing is that from my perspective having worked in the nonprofit sector for 13 plus years, a lot of large long-standing charities can get caught in a more traditional and cautious mindset. One of the things that I think makes WE unique is our entrepreneurial nature. We’re constantly trying to challenge ourselves as an organization and as a business on how we can drive the biggest impact in everything we do. That means making sure that we stay relevant, not only in terms of nonprofit industry trends and themes and areas of opportunity but in terms of business as well. We’re not afraid to pivot as an organization as well if something is not working or we see a really exciting new opportunity. Our new WE Wellbeing initiative is one example of an opportunity and a need that we’ve seen as an organization in the last couple of years. We’re so excited to be like focusing on in a really, really big way to provide Canada’s first national mental health curriculum for kindergarten to grade 12. 

Michelle: I think what sets us apart as well is we’re very youth-focused. We always have been because we started as a group of 12-year-olds who were young people helping young people. Even today at the core of what we do, young people are at the forefront of creating change. If you come to WE Day, you’ll see the most incredible student leaders who have taken on their own initiatives and are their leading change in amazing ways. Even just when we look at the impacts that have been made through the ripple effects of WE Schools. In 2018/2019 – BC students involved with WE Schools volunteered 737,208 + volunteer hours and contributed $26, 378,192 CAD. in social impact value. All because young people are addressing issues that they care about. They’re fundraising, they’re volunteering, they’re collecting food, and I think that even 10 years ago, that wasn’t happening. We’ve seen volunteer rates increase and due to the amazing network of schools that we’re involved with, we’ve seen that growth. That’s a direct impact because of the WE Schools program and youth believing that they do have something to give and their voices do matter. Having grown up as part of the program myself, it really is helping to shape a generation who are the future leaders of the world.

The way that we partner with communities that we work with is something that I really appreciate and I think sets us apart as well. We use local resources, we hire local foremen and workers. The community members are part of the process every step of the way. Our in-country teams have started these relationships often years in advance of any projects actually starting. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that community members are involved in terms of the actual development of the projects and how they work. They’re trained on business and community leadership so that years down the line, once we’ve left the community, they’re not only monitoring water intake and ensuring that the project is sustainable, but they know how it works. They know how to fix it. That way we never have wells that dry up. That to me is so important when talking about sustainability. 

James: What don’t we know about WE that perhaps we should? 

Bryanna:  I think people may not be familiar with the depth and breadth of the work we do and the resources and programs we have in delivering both across North America as well as overseas.  What I would love for people to know is the depth of resources and free service-learning resources that we provide to educators and youth that they can access at any time. As well as the fact that we’re in nine countries overseas. We’ve been doing our development work for almost 25 years. We’ve impacted over a million lives internationally through our development work. If you look at the total social value of our WE schools program through volunteering, pounds of food collected and dollars raised, it’s over 250 million dollars in social value across North America through all of these young people, which is phenomenal. 

The other thing I would say that people don’t know about us is that we’re pioneers in the social enterprise space in Canada. ME To WE was launched back in 2009 and was one of the first social enterprises in the Canadian landscape. It’s a certified B Corp and as an organization, it has really enabled us to help sustain the charitable side. Since 2009, ME to WE has donated $20 million in cash and cost offsetting in-kind donations to WE Charity. One of the things as we look ahead to the next 25 years and the sustainability we’re committed to as an organization is asking how can we help grow the social enterprise industry in Canada? That’s one of the things I would say as an organization that both sets us apart, but also is something that we really focused on in terms of how we can give back to Canada. We want to help in paving the way for the next iteration of social enterprises to be launched and hopefully thousands of jobs for young Canadians that are wanting to do good. 

James:  What’s on the calendar that people need to know about? What’s coming up? 

Bryanna: With our new office space in the heart of Gastown in partnership with the Face The Day foundation, we’re really excited to be able to invite our community partners and members to take part in some service campaigns. So we’re launching WE Scare Vancouver with a food drive that kicks off October 16th. Then there’s WE Day Vancouver on November 19th. Come join us at Rogers Arena and witness and take part in all of the incredible local and global actions that youth across BC have been doing this past year to make their communities a better place and come learn about more about what we do and how you can potentially get involved with your school or family.

James: We miss anything? 

Michelle: Long term, we’ll be doing more with the WE social entrepreneurship program and WE Wellbeing; internationally we’ll continue to develop WE college and our agricultural programming. There’s a lot of really exciting things to come. We’ve learned a lot in the past 25 years. We’re proud of everything we’ve accomplished, but as Bryanna has said, we’re constantly moving and we have big plans and so we’re excited to invite people to take part. If they have ideas, if they want to get involved, we’re launching the next 25 years and we’re not slowing down. 

You can find out more about the WE Movement by going to their website:

Bryanna Baker is the regional director for WE for Western Canada and the U.S. Michelle Vanderzon is WE Vancouver’s Special Projects and Family Engagement Manager. If you’ve been to WE Day Vancouver, you know they throw a mean party.

James Graham is Victory Square Technologies resident tall person.

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