They came from all over the country for a day of motivational speeches, dance routines and group hugs. But this wasn’t a business convention. Instead the 12,000 delegates at the SSE Arena in Wembley were pupils from 1,200 UK schools who were skipping lessons in the name of youth empowerment.
A Canadian-born phenomenon, We Day is hosted in 14 cities around the world with the aim of inspiring young people to take action on charitable and political causes.
Since 2007, the platform has raised over £32 million across the UK and North America and is one of the world’s largest charitable causes on Facebook.
We Day may have more than 3.7 million Facebook ‘likes’ and over one million Twitter followers, but access to the hyper energy concert cum World Peace pep talk is limited and students are selected by their teachers for having done something good.
That may be in the form of charity work, We Day sponsored student campaigns or, as one teacher tells me, a damn good essay.
Last year’s event boasted an all-star line-up which included Orlando Bloom, Prince Harry and Malala Yousafzai. This year’s audience witnessed speeches from actor Martin Sheen, Princess Beatrice and Nelson Mandela’s grandson Kweku Mandela, along with a series of perky young entrepreneurs and young musicians such as Conor Maynard. Even Mr Sheen seemed disappointed with the line-up. “Did you see Malala last year?” he asked me backstage, “I was hoping she’d come again”.
Inside the stadium, the atmosphere is a caught between that of a Justin Beiber concert and a fidgety school assembly. Stage hosts regurgitate cliché phrases such as “each and every one of you is a gift to share with the world”. Princess Beatrice gives a talk on the importance of friendship. “On the count of three, I want everyone to whisper their dreams out loud,” cries one motivational speaker.The crowds are obliging but there is degree of toe-curling involved and I’m confident that many of these children’s whispers are of a desire for lunch.
But there is hope. A group of 10-11 year old students from St Saviour’s Primary School, south London, tell me about their favourite part of the day: “The music”, says one, “a day off school” says another. . Then a small voice pipes up: “I liked the three girls who are going to end world hunger”.
JJ from Year 6 was taking about a group of three high school girls from Cork who were interviewed on stage. The teenagers worked with their teacher to cultivate a fast growing wheat grain, which has won awards internationally and could be used to provide food for thousands.
“Young people need days like this to understand that they do have the capability and the opportunities to go out there and affect change,” said Kweku Mandela ”.