Students Aim to Change the World

Little by little, ordinary people can make a big difference


Derek Alton

Margaret Mead’s statement, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” is often quoted, but political science graduate Derek Alton lives and breathes it.

The former local affairs commissioner for the University of Guelph’s Central Student Association (CSA) recently joined forces with friends Philip Baker, a U of G graduate, and Ben Hayes, a third-year landscape architecture student, to launch an organization called We Change the World.

“From a conversation with a professor on a bus, I came away with an idea that I just couldn’t help sharing with friends and their response was overwhelmingly positive,” says Alton. “The core concept was influenced by a fourth-year project I’d done on social change, focusing on the end of apartheid and the end of the Soviet Union. Although history often refers to the titans of an age or leaders of a movement, social change is actually brought about by a lot of unnamed people doing little things. I thought there must be plenty of everyday heroes busy doing simple things behind the scenes that make a positive difference in the Guelph community, and it would be nice to recognize and encourage them.

“We Change the World is an organization with a multimedia component to allow those individuals in the Guelph area to share their simple, yet creative, ideas with others so that their actions, and therefore their impact, can be multiplied.”

We Change the World’s online portal allows individuals to submit one-minute videos highlighting an innovative act that creates greater health, happiness, equality, sustainability or peace in their community.

“One example is a video showing the way in which a cup of tea shared can encourage quality relationships,” says Alton.“I’m sure lots of people do unpretentious things that help others in some way, and if they were able to reach out and communicate their idea, even more people could do the same and it would make an enormous impact.”

Alton says that empowering everyday people to make positive changes, however modest, in their lives is key and We Change the World offers people tools to tell their stories and promote good ideas.

“We Change the World aims to help people realize that they can make a difference by starting small and influencing others. It can be a simple action that anyone can duplicate; it doesn’t have to be original. Somebody I know started giving out free hugs on campus during exam time. It was something so easy to do and made people feel so good that it spread fast. It just made sense.”

Alton has been active in the Guelph community for several years now. He participated in a number of different programs on and off campus, including 12 semesters with the peer helper program, where he worked with Off Campus Living and, later, Leadership Education and Development. He dabbled in student governance, sitting on Senate for a year and has been involved in many initiatives on campus, including Climate Day: Fill the Hill, an event on Parliament Hill, where several thousand people gathered to demand government action on climate change as part of the International Day of Climate Action in 2009.

In 2010, he spearheaded the relaunch of U of G’s Bracelet of Hope campaign with fellow students Meghan Olson, Brittany Skelton and Christina Thomson. U of G began selling the red and white bracelets in 2006 as part of a larger community effort to raise funds for an AIDS clinic in Lesotho, and to reduce poverty and support AIDS orphans in Kwa Zulu-Natal, where the bracelets are made by women at a craft co-operative. “The bracelets are a symbol of commitment to improving conditions for people around the world,” says Alton.

At the third annual TEDxGuelphU in February this year, Alton spoke about what stops people from changing the world.

“I boiled it down to three common barriers: we believe the problems are too big for an ordinary person to tackle; we believe creating change takes too much time and effort; and, finally, most people just don’t talk about how to change the world at home, at school or at work. The third barrier is actually diminishing, but that’s a recent shift.”

Alton says that the opportunity to speak at TEDxGuelphU and receiving the Gordon Nixon Leadership Award this spring helped him and his collaborators consolidate their ideas and expand on them. He credits a team of enthusiastic friends and supporters for We Change the World’s achievements thus far.

“Rosanna Beattie, who is the University’s current Interhall Council president, put hours of work into developing our proposal for the Gordon Nixon Award, and Brittany Skelton, who is now the volunteer coordinator for the CSA Food Bank and chair of the Student Volunteer Connection Board, also is a key person behind the scenes of We Change the World. Each of the initiatives I’ve been involved in has had an amazing team that did the heavy lifting.

“Something that starts in your own backyard might very well change the world someday. From humble beginnings, great things can grow.”