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We Have Seen These Children

Today I’m going to join the rest of the world in talking about Joseph Kony, the Kony2012 movement, and Invisible Children Inc.

Here’s what went down from my vantage point.

On Tuesday morning my twitter stream exploded with links to “Kony2012”. Literally every third person I followed was tweeting or re-tweeting this link, usually with a short sentence something to the effect of “Take 30 minutes and watch this – it’s worth it”.

I didn’t watch it, as I rarely follow video links, but I kept seeing it.

On Tuesday evening the Kony2012 video started appearing on my tumblr feed and Facebook too, I finally decided to see what the hell was going on.

I had the same reaction that many of you probably did – I laughed at the elderly couple (who could be any of our grandparents, right?) saying “Why won’t it take a picture?”, I cried happy tears when I saw Gavin being born, and my heart broke into a thousand shards when I looked into Jacob’s face as he described the rebels killing his kid brother in front of him.

As the camera panned over that building crammed with skinny bodies, children night commuting so they wouldn’t be abducted by rebels and forced to kill, I felt a sickness wash over me, “I am disgusting” I thought. I was disgusted by my petty problems and white privilege and full fridge and five living breathing siblings.

This film was very well made, and carefully edited and paced to provoke exactly such a reaction. The response has been astounding. But, of course, it’s not all bracelets and posters.

Since the Kony2012 film has gone viral (when I first saw it being posted it had under 9,000 views, it has now topped 27 million) there has been an incredible wave of response, both positive and negative. I’ve been wavering from one side to the other – here’s my attempt to make sense of it all.

The situation itself is real, Joseph Kony himself is, unfortunately, real. Night commuting and child soldiers and Jacob, all of these are uncomfortably real. No one is denying that.

However the solution that’s being presented by Invisible Children Inc, and indeed the organization itself, is now under intense scrutiny.

There are accusations of gross simplification (the LRA is more than just one man, it takes more than a bracelet and a poster to stop a war criminal), perpetuation of the “white saviour” syndrome (look at this incredible blonde white man and his adorable blond son saving all the poor black people in Africa), mismanagement of charity funds (ideally a charity will allocate at least 90% of funds to direct service, Invisible Children spent around 38%), and a myriad of other complaints.

A Ugandan blogger has posted a response on YouTube. Naomi Klein is speaking out about the hypocrisy about chasing a war criminal around the jungles of Africa while so many live in impunity on our own continent.

The deeper I went, the more I read, the more the initial flood of hopeful emotion I felt after watching the video subsided into a dull throbbing cynicism. Of course it was too easy, of course it was too simple. How could something work when it involves explaining decades old civil conflict in terms a four year old could understand?

But here’s the rub.I work exclusively with teenagers, who (by gross generalization) are some of the most politically uninvolved individuals I have ever met. I don’t say this to trash them, I wasn’t either at that age.

But three of these teenagers have since approached us, asking us to help put something together to get involved in this movement. Almost every single one has seen the video and re-posted it on one of their many social media sites.

Yesterday as we served snack to a dozen teenaged boys, conversation around the table was about child soldiers and imperialism; activism and social change. There were debates about the merits of the Kony2012 movement, queries about why they chose to make the night of action on 4/20 (usually referred to as international weed smokers day) and which event would take priority in their lives. They spoke about what it would be like having to walk every night to sleep in a crowded building so they wouldn’t get abducted.

You have no idea how astounding that was, is. And I think that there is where the truth lies in all of this. This is the part of the video that no one is talking about, the part where the narrator solemnly intones that “the rules of the game have changed”.

When a video detailing the atrocities of a war criminal can spread as quickly as a video of a cat playing patty-cake, something is gained. Eyes were opened, these kids truly DID see what was happening in a world not their own, not playing out on MTV.

This is the new face of activism, this is how things will happen in their world. This next generation crowd sources everything from their opinions to their emotions. They look to others to see how to formulate their own actions.

They are hungry for reactions, everything they do requires a response. And when they see something like this generating such a buzz, such a positive reaction, they want to be in on it, they want to inform themselves, discuss, not get left behind.

This could be dangerous, because social activism isn’t a trend or a fad, it’s often a heartbreakingly long slog through the incredibly boring work of making petitions and breaking through red tape and lobbying for your cause – and in this way social media movements may be misleading because we’re only seeing this movement after it’;s been in place for ten years, but we’re seeing it, aren’t we.

We’re having the conversation, THEY, the kids, are having the conversation.

  • What does it take to correct injustice?
  • What role does the West play in emerging countries? What role SHOULD it play, if any?
  • Do NGO’s help or hurt?
  • What does evil look like?
  • At what point is awareness not enough?

I think in looking at this movement, like any (especially ones that ask for your money) the basic rule is to educate yourself. Find out where the money is going. Find out if the initiative is actually needed (much like TOM’s, donating millions of unwanted shoes which arguably disrupt local economies, when funding for medical supplies or food is far more desperately needed).

In this case, I have been encouraging our youth. I will work with them on whatever form of social activism they choose, because no, posting signs and wearing bracelets won’t stop a war criminal but it may inspire a spirit of involvement in the global community that can fuel the real work it takes to do so.

And I will be continuing the conversation, an open, fair, unbiased conversation that encourages them to get involved in other ways if they don’t want to align themselves with Invisible Children Inc. – things like writing to their Prime Minister (and while they’re at it, encouraging them to tell him that they don’t want more jails, what they REALLY want – and need- is funding for programs like ours that might keep them out of one).

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