Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children, was detained for public masturbation a few days ago. He and his organization had been in the spotlight because of Kony 2012, the Invisible Children advocacy campaign that yielded the fastest viral video we have known. Critical reaction to the campaign raised some poignant questions about storytelling and advocacy: How do we balance a compelling call for advocacy among those far away with respecting the wishes and priorities of those on the ground? How do we preserve Ugandans’ dignity, integrity and agency over their lives in the process of telling their story? How do we transform a complex history into a call to action without oversimplifying, dramatizing or falling into the very stereotypes we seek to combat?
Many have argued that Invisible Children has failed in striking this balance, thus potentially creating a video that is inaccurate, disrespectful or out of sync with the wishes of Ugandans for their country and with their perceptions of the conflict. I have read these opinions with respect and am proud to be part of a community that analyzes the meaning of responsible charity, dissects advocacy strategies, and does not shy away from the difficult questions.
People often ask if working in conflict and post-conflict areas disillusions me and, at times, it does. What I find most disillusioning, however, is cynicism. Snark is not a companion I wish to welcome in a journey of service. I was, therefore, greatly disillusioned by the tone of the conversation about #kony2012. Among some, there was a sense of rejoice in the backlash of the Kony 2012 campaign. There is a sense of celebration of a take-down here and it feels thoroughly out of place. Since news of Jason Russell’s breakdown circulated, the hashtag #horny2012 appeared on Twitter, along with other distasteful jokes and mockery about Kony 2012 and Jason Russell’s public indecency. Organizations are run by humans: fallible humans whose errors will (rightfully) come at a high cost to them. I cannot help but want to meet these humans’ leaps of faith – and even their missteps – with compassion. I refuse to put compassion in the “bucket of feelings” many colleagues of mine will automatically render irrelevant to the conversation. I refuse to treat extending compassion as blindness to critique.
I also refuse to point fingers at mistakes and missteps without necessarily providing counterpoints of models that get it right, of individuals and organizations who do it better. In that vein, I greatly appreciate Akhila Kolisetty’s Feature Friday, in which she profiles projects that inspire, and the Pulitzer Center’s storytelling initiatives, most recently in the theme of reproductive choice in Africa. This is not an exhausting list, or even a sufficient one, but it is a start of my own commitment to sharing stories and projects that give me hope. Constant critique causes action paralysis, as though the service-based part of me is petrified of moving for fear of causing more harm than good. This awareness that good intentions are not enough, that skills matter, that storytelling impacts those the story is about as much as those who hear it or tell it is necessary in these environments is necessary — but I would never board the plane without drawing courage from role models and having faith that the combination of intentions, skills and compassion can make impact.
I refuse to dismiss storytelling at large. The story of a conflict, a people, and a place cannot only be told through hard data and expert opinion. I agree with many that relying on locals for the telling of these stories ensures accurate, honest storytelling that represents the voice of those portrayed. Yet, I find the notion that we can extract ourselves – the foreigners, the non-locals – from the stories misguided. By being there, asking questions, bearing witness, we weave ourselves into the story. We form a perspective. Our own voice comes through every now and then; instead of lamenting that, I welcome another layer to the story, as long as we can remain aware of our own biases and can commit ourselves to making that layer honest and respectful.
And finally, accounting for emotions in a conversation need not be less credible than rational critique. Extending compassion to Jason Russell and Invisible Children does not make one an “Invisible Children apologist” or a mushy, feely person whose judgment is clouded by unicorns. I am thoroughly exhausted by hearing that “you will only survive as a conflict specialists if you maintain distance, block out feelings and develop thick skin.” I would much rather serve guided by vulnerability: by discovering and embracing my own, by seeing it and welcoming it in others, rather than denying it, chasing it away or treating it as a sign of weakness. I am not choosing to extend compassion because I am naturally good; I am not picking vulnerability because I am naive or because it is a comfortable option. Rather, they are practices I am shyly, clumsily and slowly welcoming, in an attempt to recognize shared humanity.