We’ve long admired Chelsea Clinton for her tireless focus on improving global health and nutrition, especially that of women and children. Equal parts optimist and pragmatist, she’s taken on everything from the deadly consequences of diarrhea to the inefficiencies of the food system - without missing a beat. Now she is tackling her most important role yet: inspiring young people to change our world. We were thrilled to have her join Lauren in this month’s Table Talk, discussing issues facing children today, her new book, and her hope for the next generation. As Chelsea would say, it's our world! Let's get going.
In It’s Your World, you talk about how the issues you gravitated toward as a child, and still today, are those that affect children even more than adults. What are some of the issues that are impacting children around the world right now?
The issues I include are important because they disproportionally affect kids or because I’ve heard kids say that they are their biggest concerns, or both. Poverty, homelessness, food insecurity/hunger, access to education, gender equality, epidemics, non-communicable diseases, climate change, and endangered species are all in It’s Your World and all are things I’ve heard kids talk about, ask questions about – and as importantly, are areas where kids are doing amazing work to tackle those challenges in their own communities or around the world.
Those problems can feel really overwhelming. Most of us would say that we want to do something, but have no idea where to start. That’s the foundation for your book. If you had to sum up your response to this feeling in a few sentences, what would you say?
I think we all can do something – stand up to bullies, help our friends when they need it, recycle. We can donate our energy and our time, online and offline alike, to what we care about. Whatever we care about, whatever makes us frustrated or angry or feels wrong, those are the starting points to engaging in making a difference in our schools, work places, communities and world. I think someone is never too young to start tackling issues she or he feels are important. I hope It’s Your World helps kids – and people – of all ages feel informed about what some of the major challenges are and then inspired with practical ways to make a difference, starting now. When I was a kid, reading a book called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth had such a huge impact on me because it explained big issues like climate change and pollution – and treated me seriously as someone who deserved to know about them and not ‘just a kid.’ It also empowered me, as a little girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, with practical suggestions of small things that I could do help up to make a big impact – things such as recycling paper from old homework or newspapers and cutting up the plastic rings around soda cans so that marine wildlife wouldn’t choke on them and die. My hope for It’s Your World is that it will impact even one young person in the way 50 Simple Things impacted me as a kid.
I also firmly believe that just because we may not be able to solve a big problem today doesn’t mean we still can’t make a meaningful difference (on our way to solving the big problems). Here’s just one example of what I mean. A few years ago, at six years old, a boy named Alex from Southern California realized that at the end of building Lego sets, he often had leftover pieces. He also realized around the same time that not everyone his age had a home. Alex decided he wanted to solve homelessness when he grew – and he decided in the meanwhile, to make a difference in any way he could. So, he collected his own and other kid’s leftover Lego bricks to make complete sets that he then donated to children in homeless shelters because he believed every child has a right to play and a right to imagine. He then started a website called Brickshare to get donations of leftover Legos from across the country. Now many years later, Alex has helped distribute thousands of Lego sets across Southern California. I think that’s pretty amazing. Alex didn’t get discouraged, and he decided to make a difference today while also thinking about how to solve the big challenge in the future.
We loved reading about all the kids you’ve met on your travels around the world, and here in America, whom you’ve seen change the world in their own ways. Do you have a kid hero?
It’s funny you used the word “kid hero” because that’s what I informally called all the kids I got to highlight in the book!
I already mentioned Alex but there are so many inspiring stories I was excited to feature in the book. Another story in the book is about a girl named Haile. When she was seven, her father was diagnosed with diabetes. Haile knew if her dad ate a healthier diet, lost weight and exercised, he could control his diabetes. She wanted to be part of that solution so she told her parents she wanted to become the family chef. While initially skeptical, they said ok and Haile started cooking for her family – healthy, delicious meals. Her dad loved her food and he started exercising – and got a lot healthier. Then Haile started helping her friends become family chefs focused on healthy food too. And then, Hyatt Hotels hired her to reshape their kids meals at their hotels across the country. I think that’s pretty amazing – Haile started off helping her family get healthier and now has helped thousands of families across the country get healthier through her work with her friends, her online cookbook and her work with Hyatt.
Another girl named Katie Stagliano tackled hunger specifically, and starting when she was only in third grade. Now 17, Katie founded Katie’s Krops, a nonprofit that helps kids start and maintain vegetable gardens at schools, community centers, homeless shelters, in their backyards or anywhere the kids have access to land, and then donates the harvest to homeless shelters and food banks to help people who don’t have enough to eat, have access to nutritious, fresh fruits and vegetables. It was her dream to end hunger and so what started with growing and donating one 40-pound cabbage in third grade has turned into 100 Katie's Krops gardens growing across the United States in 2016, all run by kids, ages 9 to 16. You often don’t know where you’re going to wind up – you just have to start and Haile and Katie are both testament to that.
In fact, one of the most fun parts about writing this book was being able to learn about young people who are already making a difference in the world, many of whom I include in the book. One of the hardest parts in writing the book was deciding which areas to focus on and then which inspiring stories and organizations I had space to include!
So much of your inspiration for finding the causes that mattered most to you came from traveling around the world with your parents. For parents reading this post who might not be able to travel with their children, how can they inspire awareness and a sense of global community in their family from where they are?
One of the things I've always been struck by when talking to kids is how curious they are about the world around them, how much more engaged they are in the world than adults often think they are, and how much kids really do want to be treated seriously – and often are already thinking about these things. I’m often asked by adults “what should kids care about?” and my answer always is: “Ask them!”
I think that reading - not only It’s Your World, but also newspapers and other books that tackle issues kids may and likely do care about - and learning about issues is a crucial first step. It’s also incumbent on adults – namely, parents and teachers – to talk to kids about what is important to each of us and explain why, as well as listen to and answer kids’ questions about what is happening or what our views are on what’s happening at their schools, in our communities, in our country and around the world.
Part of my goal is to show kids how interconnected the issues It’s Your World tackles are to one another and how even seemingly distant or complicated issues have a real impact on all of us and on their futures, wherever we live. By extension, I hope kids learn that they can make a difference on issues they’re drawn too even if at first glance they may seem remote or overwhelming.
Thankfully, there are teachers and parents like you who are having those conversations (or will, when James is older) – even, or especially, difficult ones – about hard issues and their often painful origins. My hope is that it’s not just a book to read, but also a tool for parents and children, and teachers and their students to discuss and eventually take action on issues they decide individually or together are important.
At FEED, we’re in business to end hunger, and our customers are the activists who power that engine. In your book, you talk about how hunger affects many other areas of life, including physical and mental development. How are the physical effects of hunger and the reality of poverty intertwined?
You’re absolutely right that so many problems are interconnected, and that is certainly true for food insecurity.
In fact, access to nutritious food and clean, safe drinking water is something I raise a lot in the book because it is so fundamental to improving health as well as fighting poverty and inequality. We know that hunger causes stunting - inhibiting kids’ mental and physical development, which lowers their ability to perform well in school, in work and in life. And without access to safe, clean drinking water kids and their families are more likely to get sick and die and their families – usually their mothers – have to spend too much time and effort simply finding clean water, as opposed to using that time to spend with their children, to spend at work or to spend starting their own businesses.
We also know that food insecurity is exacerbated by climate change. Places with extreme climates and weather events such as hurricanes or draughts are likely to have higher instances of poverty and hunger, in part because it’s harder to grow a diversity of healthy crops reliably. And that’s just one example but I hope it helps make clear how connected food insecurity is to poverty, climate change, gender equality and more.
By meeting a need as basic as food and nutrition, how does that touch other areas of a person’s life?
It is estimated that 165 million children under five are malnourished and suffering from stunting because they’re either not getting enough or the right kinds of food to eat. That is a tragedy for those children and their families and a lost opportunity for our world. We will never know what many of those kids would have dreamed of or done, imagined or invented. Children who are stunted are more likely to grow up with health challenges and to remain poor their whole lives, all because their parents couldn’t find or afford enough healthy, nutritious food.
In the United States, about one in five kids is food insecure – at risk of being hungry, or actually hungry. In the wealthiest country the world has ever seen, that is morally unacceptable, for those kids, their families and our society. We have painful research findings showing that kids who don’t get enough healthy food have a harder time learning in school and are much more likely to get sick – they’re more likely to miss school days and to not be able to learn every day they are in school. We’ve also seen that kids who are hungry or have to worry about hunger are more likely to be angry and frustrated. Hunger affects kids today and in the future in this country too – that’s not right and it’s not smart – think about all the lost potential. Where you’re born and where you live should not determine whether you have access to affordable healthy food. Everyone should have the chance to learn, grow up and live.
Our customers are especially concerned with shopping consciously – making sure the brands we support don’t use unfair or unsafe labor practices and are not harming the environment – but often it’s hard to know how or where to confirm a brand’s ethical practices. What is your strategy for shopping consciously?
I think this is a part of being informed. Luckily, it’s becoming easier to find this information because more and more people are understanding the power they have when they choose what brands to buy, and they are pushing more companies to be transparent about what goes into the products they make and who is making those products, here in the U.S. and around the world. FEED is clearly a strong leader in this space and a vital example to other companies.
If consumers can afford to make choices, I think its important to buy from companies with a clear commitment and track record of sustainable production, that have a clear record of not using slave labor or child labor, that have family-friendly policies to support working parents succeeding at work while being the parents they want to be and so much more. Much of this information is available on companies’ websites – and if it’s not, ask either directly or through a change.org petition or whatever feels most comfortable and right to you. As one example of how consumers can use our power, buying “local” not only means there is less pollution emitted in getting the food to you, but also helps create and support jobs in your own community. While not an option for every family, if you’re interested in buying local, there’s Locavore, a free app available on iTunes and Android, to help determine what food is local and what isn’t.
We love how you bring the issues of poverty and inequality close to home. Those words often evoke a sense of far away places, but in realty, poverty is all too prevalent here in America. What are some misconceptions people have about poverty in the U.S.?
At the most basic level, I think many don’t realize just how big of a challenge poverty in America is today in the 21st century. In the book, I try to break down the myths that still too often exist about poverty and provide facts because I think it helps highlight where the challenges are – and the opportunities to make a positive difference. In 2013, 45.3 million Americans, including approximately 14.7 million kids, officially lived in poverty. While it is true that poverty falls hardest on African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans – poverty in America looks like America. Poverty knows no boundaries of race or gender, education level or geography. The same is true for food insecurity and homelessness. Shockingly, we don’t know exactly how many people are homeless in America on any given night (except the one night a year when the government organizes an effort to count). To really communicate the severity of the problem for the kids reading the book, I share that some studies estimate that as many as one out of every thirty American kids are homeless for at least one night a year, and for many, it’s not just one night. In other words, if a kid has twenty-five kids in their class, on average, almost one kid in every class at some point in a year is homeless. Homelessness, hunger and poverty are not far away issues. We can all help make our family and friends more aware of the challenges far too many Americans face and what we need to solve those challenges – more affordable housing, more affordable food, more good jobs. We can also work to make a difference in people’s lives today while pushing our political leaders, business leaders and civic leaders to tackle the big challenges. We can start or participate in food or clothing drives at school or at our religious institutions, we can support our local food banks and homeless shelters – or we can start collecting Legos like Alex. We can all do something, and I would argue we all must do something, about poverty, hunger and homelessness in America.
You talk about the challenges women and girls face around the world (and here in America), and at the same time shine a light on women who are using their voices to challenge norms and create positive change. Is there one woman in particular who has inspired you use your voice?
I’m going to take a bit of liberty here and talk about two women who’ve inspired me.
My grandmother was a huge influence on me and even though she passed away a few years ago, I think about her every day. She, and my mother, are two of my central role models. My grandmother’s mantra was ‘life is not about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what happens to you,’ and she firmly believed that our future depends on the choices we make today. I believe that and work to make my grandmother proud every day.
Thinking about non-family members, Wangari Maathai is someone who has long inspired me. She started fighting deforestation in Kenya with one tree (literally, one tree) and created a movement that took hold across Africa inspiring Kenyans to plant 30 million trees and people in Africa and around the world to plant millions more. She even inspired a young kid I write about – Felix from Germany – to start a tree-planting program with the goal of planting 1 trillion trees by 2020! Sometimes it’s not just using your voice but also taking action that can inspire others, and I think Wangari is a perfect example of that.
What is your hope for the generation you write to in It’s Your World?
My hope really lies with the title for the entire book – it’s their world! By that I mean, it’s the planet they’ll be living on much longer than those of us who are older and it’s the world my children and yours will grow up in. I hope that kids today will keep doing what they can to make the world healthier, safer, more equitable and more sustainable. I am an optimist – partly because I don’t find cynicism very useful, and partly because through writing It’s Your World I learned about so many amazing young people making a real positive impact around the world. I have no doubt even more young people will join their work, or start their own, to build a better world