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Their silence speaks volumes

Students quiet for full day to highlight social causes

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Teacher Chantal Johnson writes 'silence' on her hand with participating students at Blumenort School.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Teacher Chantal Johnson writes 'silence' on her hand with participating students at Blumenort School. Photo Store

Grade 5 teacher Chantal Johnson is used to hearing a lot of chatter when students arrive at Blumenort School. But on April 18 last year, the hallways were quieter than usual.

On that day, many of the school's 400 students participated in We Are Silent, a day to draw awareness to issues faced by children around the world.

"When you have 400 kids coming in, it's quite loud. Last year, it struck me how quiet everything was," Johnson said. "It was interesting to see kids who are rambunctious and outgoing be silent for a day. It was cool to see they understood the reason they were doing it."

The school in Blumenort, located 60 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, will join 7,000 schools across North America and England -- including more than 25 other schools in southern Manitoba -- when they participate in the annual event again this Thursday.

Originally called Vow of Silence, the initiative was created by Free the Children in an effort to get youth involved in global issues.

Free the Children is the charity and youth movement founded by Craig Kielburger and run by him and brother Marc Kielburger. It promotes We Day youth empowerment events around the globe. About 16,000 students packed the MTS Centre last Oct. 30 for Manitoba's third We Day, which included musical performances by Shawn Desman and Maria Aragon, and inspiring talks by Martin Sheen and former president of Mexico Vincente Fox.

Free the Children officially launched We Are Silent 2014 last week, when it premièred a star-studded video on its website. The video features celebrities such as Clive Owen, Edward Norton and Seth Rogen telling the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education youth activist who survived a gunshot to the head during an assassination attempt in 2012.

Free the Children is using this year's We Are Silent campaign to draw attention to the millions of girls around the world who are denied the right to education. But participating schools can choose what issue they want to go silent for, Craig Kielburger said.

Students are encouraged to post to social media about why they are going silent, and Free the Children provides resources for teachers to talk with their classes about how the day of silence went, as well as to talk about the issues the students have chosen to promote.

"We live in a world where many don't have a voice for many reasons," Kielburger said. "It's a unique campaign because it allows individuals to choose what they're silent for.

"For a young person not to speak, that's a big deal, and we really want to make that silence heard."

At Blumenort School, different students have silenced themselves for different issues. This will be Madi Prystenski's third year participating, and she will stay silent to reinforce the need for equality for all people.

"I think it's really important that everyone is equal -- that no one is better than anyone else and we all get a fair chance at life," the 15-year-old Grade 9 student said.

Staying silent for a day is difficult, Prystenski added, and at Blumenort School, students who participate also add the challenge of not using social media for the day. Her first experience participating in 2012 was interesting.

"I'm a pretty talkative person," she said. "It was pretty difficult... but I learned how many people don't have a voice or can't speak up for themselves."

That's a lesson Kielburger hopes students take away from We Are Silent on Thursday. While some schools organize fundraisers to coincide with the event, the money is not necessarily as important as what students experience.

"The outcome that really gets me excited, even more than dollars raised, is I hope a greater thoughtfulness and a greater awareness of participants about what it means to be marginalized in our world," Kielburger said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 B1

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