When I was twelve my classmates and I started raising money for communities in the developing world. We were an enthusiastic group of kids, and we raised more money than any other school in Australia. I was awarded the chance to go to the Philippines to learn more.
We were taken to a community in the outskirts of Manila. It was there I became friends with a boy named Sonny Boy, who lived on what was literally a pile of steaming garbage. Smokey Mountain, was what they called it, but don't let the romance of the name fool you. It was nothing more than a rancid landfill that kids like Sonny Boy spent hours every day rummaging through to find something — anything — of value. That night I spent with Sonny Boy and his family changed my life forever.
When it came time to go to sleep, we lay down on a concrete slab half the size of my bedroom at home….myself, Sonny Boy, and the rest of his family, seven of us in a long line, with the smell of garbage and cockroaches crawling around us.
Why should anyone have to live like this when I had so much? Why should Sonny Boy’s ability to live out his dreams be determined by where he was born? ... this is what Warren Buffett calls the Ovarian Lottery.
I just didn’t get it. I needed to understand why.
Over the next few years I worked on community development projects, trying to help build schools, train teachers and tackle HIV/AIDS, but I came to see that community development should be driven by communities themselves, and that although charity is necessary, it is not sufficient.
We needed to confront these challenges on a global scale, and in a systemic way, and the best thing I could do was try and mobilize a large group of citizens to insist that our leaders engage in that systemic change.
A few years later, I joined with a group of college friends to bring the Make Poverty History campaign to Australia. We had this dream of staging a small concert with local Aussie artists … it suddenly exploded when Bono, The Edge and Pearl Jam agreed to headline the show.
To our amazement, the Australian government heard our collective voices. They agreed to double investment in global health and development, an additional $6.2 Billion. It felt like an incredible validation. By rallying people to put pressure on our leaders, we helped persuade them to do the unthinkable, and act to fix a problem miles outside our borders. But it didn’t last. There was a change in government, and 6 years later the new money disappeared.
It was clear that one-off spikes are not enough. We needed a sustainable movement - not one susceptible to the fluctuating moods of politicians or the hint of an economic downturn. And it needed to happen everywhere, otherwise any government has a built in excuse that it couldn't possibly carry the burden of global action alone.
These are... global problems. They can, ultimately, only be solved by global citizens demanding global solutions from their leaders.
We needed to turn the short-term excitement of people who supported the Make Poverty History campaign into long-term passion. It needed to be part of their identity.
So in 2012, we co-founded an organization that had exactly that as its goal. And there was only one name for it: Global Citizen.
But this is not about any one organization. It’s about individuals taking action. And research data tells us that of the total population who care about global issues, only 18% have done anything about them. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s often that they don’t know how to. Or because they believe they can have no effect.
So we had to somehow recruit and activate millions of people in dozens of countries to demand that their leaders begin acting on behalf of all of humanity, and we quickly discovered something really thrilling. That when you make global citizenship your mission you suddenly find yourself with extraordinary allies. Extreme poverty isn’t the only problem that is fundamentally global. So are human rights, climate change, gender equality, even conflict. We found ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are passionate about tackling these inter-related issues.
So how did we build this movement and go about recruiting and rallying global citizens?
We used the universal language: Music.
We launched the Global Citizen Festival right in the heart of New York City, in Central Park and enlisted some of the world’s biggest artists to participate. And we made sure these festivals coincided with the UN General Assembly so that the leaders who need to hear our voices couldn’t escape them.
But there was a twist. You couldn’t buy a ticket. You had to earn it.
You had to take action on behalf of a global cause, and only when you’ve done that, could you qualify for a ticket. Activism is the currency.
I have no interest in global citizenship as just a feel-good thing. For me, citizenship means you have to act. And so that’s what we required. And amazingly it worked. Last year more than 155,000 people in the NY area earned enough points to qualify to attend. Globally people have signed up in over 150 countries, and last year more than 100,000 new global citizens signed up each and every week.
With the support of amazing partners like Comcast NBCUniversal and MSNBC we are able to run an amazing Festival. Citizens continue to sign up around the world. We’ve scored big policy wins.
But have we achieved our mission? No! We have such a long way to go.
This is the amazing opportunity I see…
The concept of global citizenship (self-evident in its logic, but until now impractical in many ways) has coincided with this particular moment in history in which we are privileged to live. We as Global Citizens now have a unique chance to achieve large-scale positive change around the world.
In the months and years to come, Global Citizens will hold world leaders accountable to ensure the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development, are tracked and implemented.
Global Citizens will support the world’s leading NGOs to help end diseases like polio, and malaria.
Global Citizens will join this movement in every corner of the world, increasing the frequency, quality and impact of our actions.
Our dreams are within reach. Imagine an army of millions, growing into tens of millions – connected, informed, engaged and unwilling to take NO for an answer.
I invite you learn more about our movement by logging on to globalcitizen.org, and tune in to MSNBC at 3 p.m. this Saturday to watch this year’s amazing show headlined by Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Demi Lovato, Major Lazer, and Metallica. The 2016 Festival will also include special guest performances by Usher, Chris Martin, Eddie Vedder, Ellie Goulding, Yandel, and Yusuf / Cat Stevens, and is hosted by Chelsea Handler, Deborra-Lee and Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra, and Salma Hayek Pinault.
See you Saturday!