Christian Burgos' 18-year-old sister Alexandria Imani arrived at a party in Chicago's Northwest Side to pick up her younger brother. She was struck by a stray bullet that shot through the apartment.
"The loud bangs, the screams. When I got to her, it was too late," Burgos recalls of the 2014 death of his sister, who dreamed of becoming a social worker.
In the weeks after the shooting, his family understood that they had to find a way to move beyond their grief and turn the tragedy into something purposeful.
A shy teen by nature, Burgos surprised his mother when he stepped forward to speak out. With support from a local organization, he shared his family's story of loss with officials on Capitol Hill and spoke at vigils for other victims of violence. He's since emerged as a role model for youth in his city, calling on them to take a pledge to stop the violence.
"We must come together, no matter what race, no matter what religion. We must unite as one."
For an American public still reeling from fractious election news cycles and gaping racial and socio-economic rifts in cities like Chicago, Baltimore and Los Angeles, "Divided America" is a familiar headline. But young people like Burgos are breaking political lines, challenging the deadlock of their elected leaders, and coming together in the service of a better world. To inspire his peers, Burgos' story is shared with thousands of young people at WE Day, a celebration of youth in action.
It started as a tiny children's charity, founded more than 20 years ago in my parents' living room. A group of kids from my seventh-grade class came over to draft a petition to stop child labor. At the time, it was so uncool in middle school to help charitable causes that we were almost shoved into lockers.
At school, on television, and over social media, youth see our society celebrate the strongest, the fastest, the most beautiful, but what about the most caring, the most committed to helping others?
Recalling our childhood experiences, my brother and I started working nine years ago to help the next generation understand the power they have to make a difference. We wanted to show them that they were not alone in their desire to make an impact, and that together they were an incredible force for change. We called the idea WE Day.
Our first venue had only two small trees as set design, and we'd borrowed them from a shop. We promoted the event on social media and through schools, and over 7,000 young people flooded in. They were hungry for a positive message--that even small actions can make a difference.
Today, more than ever, I see the urgency for this message. Where political rallies have done more to divide the country than build a platform for change, and where media outlets broadcast a new brand of pessimism, children are learning to choose "us" over "them," to fear the "other" they've never met, and to feel powerless against tide of problems.
What we teach our children is critically important--and there is no more important lesson than this: much more unites us than divides us.
I've seen WE Day grow from a makeshift pep rally into an authentic movement. It's fills stadiums in 14 cities, bringing together 200,000 youth leaders each year to celebrate their commitment to service. I've seen that young people collecting pennies in jars can raise millions for the causes they care about. I've watched kids trick or treating on Halloween, asking neighbors for canned goods for the food bank. Their small, earnest actions are creating a tidal wave of change.
These young people come from all backgrounds and from every neighborhood. Where service learning is often seen as the privilege of private school students and a padding for their resumes, the majority of the U.S. schools we work with are Title 1 eligible, where many children are from low-income families.
We want WE Day to be an equal playing field, so you don't buy a ticket you earn it through service. Students take action on the issues they care about through a free, yearlong service-learning program that teaches them to lead.
The program is strong in cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, and is making its way to Baltimore and St. Louis, Missouri, to communities where violence, racism and poverty are rife, and youth are often perceived as problems to be solved. It's time to change the narrative and elevate youth to be the problem-solvers.
Following the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of the past month--a spectacle that served to boost ratings and fire up the political bases--we take inspiration from young people like Burgos, who bring a message of unity above all.
Long after Election Day comes and goes, these are the leaders we must continue to rally around.
The WE Day broadcast aired on August 28th on ABC but in case you missed it you can watch it now on Hulu by clicking here.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.