Advancing Philanthropy

AFPICON 2019: Life Stories I — ICON 2019 Opening Keynote Speaker Spencer West

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spencer west speaking to an audience

Doctors told Spencer West’s parents he would never live a normal life. At ICON 2019, hear about his truly extraordinary life of mission and service, inspiring millions of people to follow his lead.

Who is “Spencer West” in your eyes?

I’m someone who cares deeply about the world and where it’s going and how we all play a hand in moving it in a positive direction. I’m a friend, son, grandson, and uncle—all of those things on top of motivational speaker and author.

What role are you most proud of?

Finding a balance of having a job, but a job that makes an impact at the same time, and then using that platform to model that we have the ability to do that.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: “Making a difference on the things you care about.”
Climbing Kilimanjaro: “Making a difference on the things you care about.”

What is it about that balance that you find so difficult?

I grew up in a time when I was told by society and the education system that the goal of life is to grow up, get a good education, get a really good-paying job, [and] have the nuclear family. That money and things are what will bring you happiness. When I started to have some of those things—specifically, I had a decent-paying job—it didn’t fulfill that happiness part.

Why were you inspired to move up to Canada and work for WE of all the causes?

A friend of mine had been partnering with them, and he invited me to travel with them to Kenya to see the work that they were doing. He knew that I was struggling career-wise and life-wise. He said, “Maybe this will help.” When I went to Kenya, I was really enamored by what WE was doing. I’d heard about development work before, but I’d never seen a development model that was not only sustainable but where community members were breaking the cycle of poverty themselves. Then when I came back from my trip, I learned about the organization and how they were also doing that with young people. Now, millions of youth all across the world are taught to free themselves from this idea that they are powerless to make change, and [they learn] that they are very powerful.

Spencer West’s message is focused on lifting up millions of  young people.
Spencer West’s message is focused on lifting up millions of
young people.

I noticed that you had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Did the Kenya trip spark that interest?

That came much later. I had been working for WE for a while and traveling and speaking at schools, at these big events we have called WE Day. We have 16,000 youth in stadiums, and we’re celebrating them. I was telling them, “You need to make a difference on the things you care about.” But I hadn’t actually done anything physically noteworthy. I thought, I can’t keep telling youth to do that when I’ve never done it myself. So I did exactly what we tell youth to do. I created an action plan, and I followed through with it. That’s actually what Kilimanjaro was.

How long did that take you to prepare for, out of curiosity?

Probably about a year and a half of getting “What is our goal? How do we want to achieve it? What is our monetary goal? What project do we want to support?” And then spending an entire year campaigning everywhere we went and talking about what we did. Then physically climbing the mountain at the end of all of that, which was about an eight-and-a-half days’ journey to the top and back down again.

It’s interesting. Everyone loves to hear the story about this person overcoming odds, but how do we get people to actually take the next step and turn that inspiration to action? What’s your approach to getting people to do that and applying that in your own life?

“I do my best to be the most authentic I know how to be.”
“I do my best to be the most authentic I know how to be.”

Individuals have to find the thing that matters most to them. I can talk about the things that matter to me, but what I hope is that other people start to recognize the things that matter to them because those are the things that they’ll want to act on. So often it can be easy for us to say things like, “Oh, we’re inspiring the next generation of youth.” It’s such an easy cop-out for us as adults to use that. I’m like, no, no. We are not off the hook either.

I’m guessing you must hear some amazing stories from young people and others that you talk to. Is that something that keeps you motivated?

Absolutely. I use this example a lot, but I’m just so enamored by it. There’s a young woman here in Canada who has a mental disability but heard about my story and wanted to do something herself. She was really passionate about protecting ocean wildlife, and specifically dolphins. She loves to swim, and so she basically, in her local pool, swam the length it would take to go from Vancouver to Toronto, west coast to east coast, and then raised a bunch of money on the side for all those days that she swam to then donate to a charity that helps protect dolphins. That’s the kind of stuff that I’m enamored by. Yes, that’s amazing. That’s what I want people to do. I don’t want the praise. The praise to me is you coming back and saying, “This is what I did.”

One of the things at our conference is to be inspired, to be reinvigorated, to keep going in the face of a lot of noise, a lot of challenges, a lot of obstacles. What keeps you inspired over and over again?

It’s when we take the time to really listen to some of these other stories about how people have done it. And having this idea of a support system—I think that’s really important. Those are the sorts of things that keep me going, remembering that sometimes we need a break, but not to break forever, and that eventually you have to get back up and keep trying. When I was first born, I was told I would never walk or be a functioning member of society, and I could have just believed that and let that come to fruition, but my parents refused to believe it, which then instilled in me the ability to not believe it. You just have to keep trying. There isn’t a magic formula or something. It morphs and changes all the time. Sometimes, it’s a story. Sometimes, it’s a song. Sometimes, it’s my support system of people that keep me going. Sometimes, it’s me being angry at the state of the world. It’s just such a combination of things. I don’t think there’s one magic answer for that question.

How do you suggest people talk to people with differences? How do you bring up your situation? I’m sure people look at you and they are probably in awe, but they also don’t even know how to start a conversation with you. How do you suggest we break down some of those barriers?

I think the first is having the courage to ask the question, but more importantly, it’s having the understanding to listen. Because I think so often, if we’re talking about folks with disability, well, one thing that happens to me a lot is people either make assumptions or want to ask someone else how to deal with me. I say, “I have a physical disability. I can see. I can hear, and I can still talk, so talk to me.” I travel with my friend, Jake, and every time we go to the airport—not every time, but oftentimes—they’ll turn to Jake and say, “What kind of assistance does your friend need?”

When you’re right there?

Yeah. I think it’s this idea of not being afraid of asking the person directly and being OK with making a mistake. You might ask something that is incorrect, and that person will correct you, but that’s the whole journey of learning.

What is next for you, for Spencer West, as you think about tomorrow or six months from now?

Ultimately, my overall goal is to just continue to do work that has an impact in some way, however that looks. Right now, for me, I’ve started a YouTube channel. I’m very late to the game of entering the YouTube space but doing a couple of vlogs per week, so people can get a glimpse into what my life looks like sort of on a daily basis, the work that I do, but then also the things that I’m passionate about and things that I want to learn and then help other people learn as well. It’s navigating this YouTube space and using that as a platform, because I’m 37 and I can only travel 200 days out of the year for so much longer before at some point I’d like to have a partner and a family and all those things. I’m trying to find a way to balance those with still having an impact, so I’m trying to use YouTube as that space for now.

Has it always been comfortable for you to live … what’s that term … “living out loud online”?

It’s funny that you say that because it’s been a bit of an interesting journey. Some of it I find difficult, but some of it I’ve been forced to do my whole life. From the time that my legs were removed, people have asked me inappropriate questions my whole life. So I’ve had to live my life out loud without a choice. And so now with YouTube, it’s this interesting juxtaposition of, OK, you might as well just go all the way then and do our best to give people a real glimpse into what I do, both as a speaker and both as just Spencer and not the speaker. Yeah, I think it’s been a good thing because I think, regardless of anybody’s politics, I think authenticity right now in our world is really important. And so, I do my best to be the most authentic that I know how to be.

Do you feel like people are responding to that too, that sense of authenticity, when you’re out there talking with people, whether it’s during your time or afterwards when they come up and talk to you? Does that seem to be resonating with lots of, maybe lots of, young people?

Yeah, yeah, I mean, it does because I think when we look at young people in particular, their BS detectors are amazing. I don’t think I would have been able to have the career that I’ve had had I been inauthentic. Because the youth would have said, “No, we’re not going to listen to this guy.”

“Not listen to this guy at all.” Right.

“He’s telling  us garbage.”

I was thinking about that, and particularly your work for WE, and our members as fundraisers. I know you do a lot of speaking. I wonder—has that expanded into actual fundraising for you?

Yeah, I mean, two of the campaigns that I did through WE, which were my own campaigns, were monetary asks. Kilimanjaro—we raised over a half a million dollars for clean water.

Yeah, no, no worries.

Part of our charity side of things is an international development model where we’re hoping that people will donate to help build schools and fund clean water projects and alternative income and those sorts of things. So yes, there’s been a lot of fundraising and asking for money both for causes I care about and then me speaking at causes. Just recently, we spoke at a dinner that was fundraising money for dementia in a specific community to support two homes for senior citizens that are living with dementia.

What do you think about fundraising?

Just to be candid, I don’t think fundraising is ever easy, regardless of who you are or what your platform is. I think it’s always going to be a little daunting, but I think the thing that I’ve learned is that if you are authentic and are clear about why you’re doing it and where specifically that donation is going, and supporting, it makes it a bit easier for people to want to get involved. Specifically, the why.

I’ll give you an example. When we were going to do Kilimanjaro, I knew that I was going to need help fundraising because I’d never done anything on this magnitude before. I reached out to a colleague who does this professionally and said, “I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro, and I want to raise this amount of money.” He said, “You’ve lost your mind. I don’t support you in that at all. I think this is crazy, and I think you’re going to hurt yourself.” We went back and really crafted out why we were doing what we were doing. I sent that back to him, and he said, “How can I say no to this?”

I think that what we’re learning is there has to be that clear intention of why and transparency as to where this money is going.

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