Friday, April 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Kony2012 Participants

Dear Invisible Children supporter,

I hope you will hear us out.  I want to start off by saying that we are not blindly criticizing your efforts and we know that you love and care about the Ugandan people just like we do.  The human connection can be a wonderful thing, but only if we are willing to listen- and I mean really listen.  In fact, that’s why we are writing to you, we hope that it is because you care so much, you would be willing to think through some of this and thoughtfully reconsider plastering the face and name of a vicious warlord throughout our city.

I’m sorry you’ve had to spend so much time defending criticisms that just aren’t true- We know that you are aware that the conflict moved out of Uganda in 2006 and that Kony has moved into Central Africa.  We know that you understand that this conflict is complex.  We know that you favor a peaceful resolution over the use of military- we know that you see this as an option of last resort.  We know that Invisible Children does work on the ground- we are familiar with the Schools for Schools program, the LRA Crisis Tracker, etc.  So if you’re still with us, that is not what we will be addressing in this letter.

We believe that you mean well, and truly want to see Joseph Kony brought to justice and the LRA disarmed.  We believe that this event is full of young people who desire peace and restoration in a region that has experienced the terror of this rebel group for more than 26 years.  But maybe our place is partnering, not paving the way- If we are going to help, listening is critical, and abandoning our entitlement to solving Africa's problems and telling Africa's story is key.

The central and most important issue with the approach to Kony 2012 and Cover the Night- How the people the film is about feel.  If you think otherwise, you should probably reconsider your advocacy for this issue all together. No seriously.

The reactions to screenings of the film in Northern Uganda were extremely negative for the most part.  Many Ugandans are deeply troubled by the campaign- among many strong emotions and reactions; a common theme seems to be that Ugandans feel exploited by Kony 2012. Exploited?  Man, when we tell someone else’s story, if they feel exploited we should probably reconsider the way we are telling it.

Our stand against Cover the Night, therefore, is not in light of our own personal opinions or qualms with Invisible Children- It is in honor of Ugandan friends, who are more like family.  Because we feel it is most important that their voices are heard.  While we may feel so deeply connected to the pain and suffering so many have experienced as a result of Kony and his rebel army, our entitlement to the commodification of a warlord's name is a result of it becoming "our cause" instead of realizing it is their cause and has been since before we were born. It seems we have decided that we don't really care if this is approach upsets Ugandans; we're getting the job done right- or are we?

I beg you to reconsider.  I beg you to try and realize the insensitivity of plastering the face and name of Kony in public spaces.  His name is one, that for many, is still hard to speak.  It carries with it pain and terrible memories of living in fear.   A survivor of LRA attacks responds to Kony 2012:  "If people in those countries care about us, they will not wear t-shirts with pictures of Joseph Kony for any reason.  That would celebrate our suffering".  So maybe the way we are going about this is not okay.  Maybe there is another, more effective and appropriate way of coming alongside Ugandans, Congolese, Sudanese, and others of this region to show our support in bringing Kony to justice.

With the start of the campaign coming 6 months after U.S. troops had been deployed and literally no concrete evidence that the U.S. troops will be pulled out if you fail to plaster Joseph Kony’s face and name throughout your respective city- One must question the timing and purpose of this event and campaign in general.  The troops were already working with the UPDF and now other military forces in the region.  Hanging up signs, watching a video, and wearing a t-shirt will unfortunately not aid in Kony’s capture- so if some of these actions are viewed as insensitive and exploitative, maybe they should not be a part of our advocacy.

What we suggest instead- Think before you do

Knowledge and critical thinking are wonderful things.  So is acknowledging our ignorance about this conflict- it allows us to place the focus and attention on efforts being made by Africans to bring peace to the region.  To listen and hear how they believe this should be done, and to respond accordingly.  It is very clear that the approach Invisible Children has taken largely fails to do this.  So, we are going to provide a few resources to get you started. 

Both sites have compiled research, writings, videos, etc. on the problems with Kony 2012 and a way forward.  Acknowledging that opening up respectful dialogue between all parties is key in appropriate and effective activism.

This is not to discourage you from being involved, just asking that you reconsider the approach.

Kelsey Nielsen

Monday, April 9, 2012

Let's Talk About STMs

A while back the internet blog world exploded with talk about the effectiveness of short terms mission's trips (STMs). For spring break this year I went on a short term service trip through my university to inner city Philadelphia. I will shamefully admit I mostly did it for the credit and I was nervous about how my new found thoughts on short term trips would play out. As part of our follow up assignment I wrote a fictional letter from a community member to our group that I hope highlights some of my thoughts on short term trips.

Dear volunteers,
I can tell you are here because you want to help. I can see that this is not a fun spring break trip for you- no one is forcing you to be here or rewarding you if you do well. I can tell you care. There is something to be said for knowing that people care enough to get on a bus and drive three hours to be with us for a week. It tells us that we are noticed and that our community and all its challenges are not being ignored by the rest of America. But I do have to stop and wonder whether you care about us or whether you care about the idea of us. Did you get on that bus for this week to help poor inner city kids or did you get on that bus to meet new people and learn and grow from them? Are you here for the individual or the collective group? Are you leaving your stereotypes and preconceived notions at the door or hauling them along with you as you serve?
The truth is, while admirable; your work here is not going to change anything. Sometimes we are left wondering whether these trips are about us at all. Are we merely tools in a journey for you to find yourself, earn a credit, and feel good about how you spent your spring break? The kids you tutored you just left behind. The trash you picked up is already back on the streets. The walkway you built could have been done by community members who actually knew what they were doing and needed jobs. I do not mean to sound ungrateful, because we truly did enjoy visiting with you and could tell you genuinely desired to serve us, but I did sense a bit of naïve about the effect of your service. In trips such as these there seems to be a lack of evaluation of the long term effects and sometimes I cannot help wondering whether the money spent to bring you all here could have been put to better use.
I guess I am left with the hope that meeting us and working with and for us did bring about lasting change in you. Perhaps you will tutor children in your own neighborhood now, perhaps your mind was opened and you feel you better understand others in similar circumstances now. Maybe one day you will grow up to do inner-city work full time. As a member of this community, I would be glad to have been a part of helping you grow in these ways. I hope you were able to learn from us and that you let yourself come away from the idea that you were only there to serve and teach us. True learning and community is only built when the serving goes both ways.
That is where the beauty in this arrangement is found. When we are able to put aside the idea that you are rich and I am poor, you are educated and I am not, you are white and I am black, you are suburbian and I am urban. When we take all those differences and still find a safe place to find what we have in common. When both you and I have our eyes opened to the fact that we are really not that different after all. You might learn that I graduated school with straight As and I might learn that you grew up as a minority in your community. With those revelations we accomplish what would never have been accomplished before, we break down stereotypes and preconceived ideas and we form an unlikely, although brief, community. That is the ultimate, and my hope is that is what we can accomplish through these trips and experiences. 
Community Member

Let us know your thoughts! How do we do STMs well? How do we avoid the dreaded "savior mentality"? Have you been on a STM trip? Do you find them beneficial?