Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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My Children Are Working On It 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, August 12 / 13

Zack Gross

I recently had the opportunity to reflect on the first times that I entered Manitoba classrooms as a guest speaker on global issues.  It was back in the days of the “Miles for Millions” marches, the Manitoba Association for World Development (MAWD) fundraisers that brought tens of thousands of youth out to cover 35-mile walks in both Winnipeg and Brandon, back in the late 60s. 

We went out to schools to promote the Marches, but also to talk to kids about how the dollars they raised would enable schools to be built and books, desks and pencils to be bought in poor “Third World” communities.  Ultimately, we hoped that poor students would have closer to the same opportunities that Manitoba youth have to learn and earn a living.  In those days, I was just a little older than many of the students that I spoke to.

Now, almost 45 years later, I am still going into classrooms and continue to bring the message that we should care about global and local poverty issues, that we should examine our lifestyle and see how a less-consumer oriented one can alleviate environmental damage to our planet, and that we should act generously (but also effectively) to help those in need. 

Manitobans are known for their generosity – that hasn’t changed.  They are also known for their practicality, their frugality and their independent thought.

What is exciting is about today’s Manitoba schools is the recognition that, along with the essentials of the 3 R’s, we need to inform and support our students so that they can tackle the many economic and social challenges that our society, and those around the world, will face during their lifetime.  This commitment by the educational system, as I experience it, will allow our youth to become more participatory citizens, whether they choose to farm, enter the business world, become professionals or work at a trade.

Award-winning School Division leaders such as Evergreen’s Paul Cuthbert and Interlake’s Christine Penner have attested to the way that social and environmental concern not only has an impact “out there,” but also brings a sense of community and better academic results to their schools.  In recent years, teachers and students from Erickson and Souris, Gimli and Beausejour, among others, have been celebrated for their contributions to global citizenship (time, energy and ideas).

Gimli has become a Fair Trade “certified” town, largely on the strength of its youth wanting to tackle issues of environmental degradation and child labour associated with the cocoa and sugar trade, and the production of coffee, clothing and sports balls.  As well, a number of local initiatives related to the task of cleaning up Lake Winnipeg have a strong youth connection, thanks to a biology class and student club at the high school.   The municipal council and business community tell me that they recognize that an engaged youth are good citizens.

Fair trade isn’t anti-business.  In fact, the private sector has shown itself to be ahead in seeing that this once-niche market “has legs” and will become the mainstream, and understanding that young consumers are looking for more social and environmental responsibility.  There isn’t a grocery or convenience store, a gas station or restaurant that doesn’t offer something fair trade, organic or both.

Environmental stewardship isn’t anti-business.  There is a great need for all stakeholders in our society, including our “leaders of tomorrow” to participate in the discussion of what our planet can handle so that our economic development is sustainable.  In a “My Ideal Gimli” exercise I did with local youth, students drew on flipcharts what they thought the town should look like.  Their vision was of independent businesses, green spaces, and a place that equally welcomed everyone.

There’s a story I like to tell.  In the days of feared nuclear holocaust, in the 80s and 90s, the concern was raised that our children were severely stressed by the shadow of “final war” hanging over them.  A study was done in the US to better understand how students were coping with this perceived feeling of insecurity.  The students who were least stressed by fears of nuclear war were the children of people actively concerned about the peace process.  They generally said:  I feel hopeful because my parents are (or “our family is”) working on this. 

I am asked now, as a longtime activist, if I am hopeful or fearful about our future.  After all, the world is facing tremendous challenges in the coming decades.  And I give my answer back, a mirror-image of what those youth said decades ago.  I am hopefully, because my children (and the new, younger generation) are working on it.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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