At 25, Nejeed Kassam is well on his way to become one of Canada’s leading voices. He is the founder and director of the High on Life campaign and the editor of the book titled “High on Life: Stories of Hope, Change, and Leadership.” He also created two international NGOs: End Poverty Now and Networks for Change. It is my pleasure to interview him today.
Cendrine Marrouat: Hello Nejeed, thank you for answering my questions. How has your book, “High on Life: Stories of Hope, Change, and Leadership,” been received since its release in August 2010?
Nejeed Kassam: Cendrine, it is a pleasure and an honour to be doing this interview. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule!
In August 2010, I had the opportunity to share with Canada and the world some amazing stories. 17 stories about young leaders from around the world (4 continents, 9 countries). Stories about hope and about change. Stories about young, amazing, and inspiring people and everyday people, making a difference in their community.
“High on Life” was an opportunity to open a window into the lives, struggles, beliefs, and successes of these amazing people, and the beginning of an awesome conversation. It was an honour to bring all of these people together and act as the surrogate storyteller.
The book has been received amazingly well. I have so much feedback about how it has changed people, how it has inspired people. Many of the readers have shared their own stories and how the book contributed to their journeys and their narratives.
That being said, for all its reception, we are a little disappointed with the book’s sales. Honestly, I don’t believe that our sales numbers have been high enough.
At the end of the day, the more people that read “High on Life,” the more we can grow this conversation and change the world. Further, the publication is 100% non-profit, with all proceeds being donated! Myself and everyone else who worked on the team are not being paid. So, in that way, all book sales are making a difference!
CM: What triggered your desire to create “High on Life”?
NK: Cendrine, that’s a tough question, and one that I get asked a lot. In 2008, I had the honour to be a Canadian delegate at the Clinton Global Initiative for University students in New Orleans. It was a unique gathering of hundreds of amazing and inspiring young people from every corner of the globe. We had lectures, seminar groups, hands-on work (helping to clean up the devastation from Hurricane Katrina), and so much more. I was there, feeling the energy and enthusiasm of so many awesome people.
During the conference, I was lucky enough to chat with President Clinton himself! And yes, he is as charming as you’d imagine. But the truth is, it wasn’t the President that made me remember the conference, it was the stories that I heard, the voices and wisdom of so many young people, people who were my age, but who were also changing the world. Their narratives, their energy, is what made the conference memorable.
I remember, as I was leaving, I was so happy and in a state of activist ecstasy. But I remember feeling almost hollowed, at how lucky I was. I was one of such a small number of people who could come to conferences like this; I was one of such a small number of people who could hear these young people’s stories. I needed to find a vehicle to share these stories.
“High on Life” became that vehicle, or at least part of it.
CM: How did you choose the stories you would include in the book?
NK: This was a very difficult process. We received submissions from around 20 different countries. There are so many young and amazing people out there, and we were honoured to receive their stories. We had an editorial board that went through the stacks of stories and we finally came to a consensus. It took a long time.
CM: Your book and “Conversations for Change,” your latest documentary, are part of the Conversations for Change Campaign (formally the High on Life campaign), a group of initiatives that aims at changing the lives of Canadians. Would you tell us a little more about it?
NK: Yes! I’d love to! The Conversations for Change campaign (formally the High on Life campaign) is a series of initiatives that work to, well, start the conversation about social change in Canada and across the world. Making a difference doesn’t require you to be a Prime Minister, or CEO, or Executive. Change starts with one step, and then another, and another. Sadly, despite the enormous opportunities that exist already to engage in social change, not enough of us, especially young people, are doing it. Conversations for Change, both the film and campaign as a whole, work hard to reverse this trend.
We believe that if we can show people that it isn’t out of anyone’s reach to change the world, then maybe they will start to engage themselves. Our initiatives work to demystify change-making. To provide a window into the lives of young leaders, and from this window, to gain knowledge, share experiences, and imbibe wisdom. Through all of this, we are working towards one goal: to help start the conversation, or rather conversations, about changing the world.
The campaign is alive both in Canada and across the world.
Take the documentary, for example. “Conversations for Change” is a feature-length documentary about youth social change in Canada. It is a conversation with the best and brightest of young Canadian changemakers that seek to answer the question: Why do we do what we do? What motivates Canadian youth to stand up and make a difference, in their lives, in their communities and around the world? And how do they do so successfully?
Conversations for Change shows that youth have the power to make our world a better place, and to stand up for what they believe in.
Too often we see youth discouraged by their seeming inability to do something, anything, to change their surroundings and their circumstances. By profiling young Canadians who have made a difference – in art, media, technology, social justice, politics and more – we can show other Canadians and other youth across the world that making a difference, and following their dreams, is not impossible. All it takes is perseverance, passion and a little creativity.
The film is available 100% free online, as we want as many people as possible to view it. Visit www.conversationsforchange.ca to watch it!
The campaign as a whole is using multiple mediums, all of them accessible, to try to start this conversation. We have started with a book and documentary, but are expanding. We are currently working on a CD, the planning of an Art Exhibition, and the development of a School Outreach Program.
These initiatives, and all those that are coming in the future, will all serve the same function. To help young people believe that they can change the world. And to give them a place to start (and share) their journeys.
CM: As the creator and CEO of two NGOs, what are the main challenges that you encounter?
NK: This question could take hours and hours to answer. I would say there are three main challenges: It’s too big, am I legitimate? And money.
One major challenge that I have encountered has been the feeling that the world is so big, there are so many problems, and I am just one person. Where do I start? The answer, I have found, to this question, is right here. And when? Right now. Often the most difficult step to take is the first one. There are so many amazing people out there, so many incredible resources (Conversations for Change being just one). I believe that you can make a difference. You just need to start.
Legitimacy, especially for young people, is something that must be earned. In doing the work that I’ve done, at the level that I have, I have found that getting older people to trust you can be very difficult. But, as the book and documentary show, there is so much being done by young people, we just need to prove ourselves. But that ability is in all of us, and sceptics can’t argue with results!!!
Finally, money. I don’t have a charming response or piece of wisdom for this one. In a world that is dominated by financial matters, with governments cutting funds to non-profits and arts initiatives, with people facing economic challenges, and with a recession, getting money for initiatives, be they new or on-going, is a challenge. And it will be a continued challenge in the future.
CM: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
NK: Read the book, watch the documentary. Participate in the conversation. It is not my footsteps that people should be following-in. It’s the footsteps of all the amazing young people that are part of this conversation.
But beyond that, all I say is believe. Believe you can, and you will.
CM: What would you like to achieve through your work?
NK: Everyone who works in this field wants to change the world, and I am no exception. But that’s a big task that starts with each of us. For me, changing the world is getting everyone to believe that they can. I work at the infrastructure level, now. I am a facilitator for change, and I want to facilitate young people’s engagement in changing the world. If I succeed in what I’m doing, we all succeed, even just a little. That is what I want to achieve.
CM: How can people get in touch with you?
NK: I am actually a very easy person to get a hold of. I love hearing from people, no matter their age, nationality, or qualification.
CM: Any last words?
NK: Cendrine, thank you so much for this interview. I feel truly blessed about having been given this opportunity. Thank you very much.
Further, I want to make it clear, be it the book or the documentary or the campaign, I am only one small piece of amazing teams. Our staff are the ones who should be given credit for all the awesome work being done.
Finally, there are a bunch of links that I think would interest your readers.
- Conversations for Change: campaign website:www.conversationsforchange.ca
- Conversations for Change: Full film on Vimeo:http://vimeo.com/25051169
- The High on Life Book: You can purchase the book at: www.amazon.ca/High-Life-Stories-Change-Leadership/dp/0981049028/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311320387&sr=8-1
- Networks for Change (one of the organizations that I work for): www.networksforchange.org
- End Poverty Now (the poverty-alleviation organization that I used to work for, based out of Montreal, Quebec): www.endpovertynow.ca