A week ago last Monday, my daughter brought her laptop to the dinner table and insisted, “We have to watch this.” This never happens in our house. We don’t watch TV at dinner, nor does my very independent 16-year-old tend to share. But her urgency was palpable, so we let her click on a YouTube video of — perhaps you’ve guessed by now — “Kony 2012,” the now-viral 30-minute advocacy film created by a nonprofit called Invisible Children, which wants to make the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony famous so he will be tracked down and arrested for kidnapping boys and turning them into child soldiers.
When I checked early this week, just eight days after I first heard of Kony and Invisible Children, nearly 76 million people had watched the film. When the screening finished in our house, my daughter announced that she wanted to get involved. So what did she do? She picked up her cell phone and Tweeted two words to her hundred or so friends (aka “followers”): “Kony 2012.”
OK, so if you’ve read or heard any of the reports on the Kony campaign, you probably know by now that Kony’s a really bad guy, and also that while this campaign is laudable, it also has some weaknesses (it’s not entirely accurate, for one), but also that it is, if nothing else, an unbelievable breakthrough into capturing the energy of social media. Nothing else has come close to inspiring young people’s social consciences, at least in the United States. They now care about something going on in Africa — not just their own backyards — and they want to mobilize.
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My first thought? Mission accomplished; Kony’s famous now. But there’s so much more to be done in Africa, a continent with too many places fraught with poverty and horrific violence against civilians. So how can I get my daughter — our kids — to really learn about Africa from people whose experience and facts are closer to home and perhaps more reliable.
I called Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder of Jewish World Watch (JWW), who over the past eight years has given over her life to advocating for victims of violence in Sudan and the Congo, in particular, hearing directly from, and speaking on behalf of, women who risk being raped just by going out to collect firewood so they can prepare meals for their families. JWW’s Solar Cooker project, for example, has allowed thousands of women in refugee camps to stay safe by cooking with a locally made, very simple cardboard stove that literally saves lives.
Kamenir-Reznik and others from JWW have made multiple trips to Africa to visit with women in the camps. With child soldiers and their rescuers. With tribal leaders and victims of violence. The JWW mission: “Combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world.” Since the organization’s founding, inspired by a High Holy Days sermon at Valley Beth Shalom by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, JWW has educated the Southern California community about the crises in the Sudan and Congo, inspired thousands to give money for the Solar Cooker project, including creating many very young student activists. It has also engaged in campaigns to pass targeted divestment legislation in Los Angeles and the state of California, among other activities.
JWW is beginning a new project, Kamenir-Reznik told me, which kicked off late last month with a trip to Washington, D.C., by 35 Los Angeles delegates, mostly women, for a campaign dubbed “Hear Her Voice.” This campaign again advocates for the most vulnerable, this time in the once self-sustaining region of the Nuba Mountains, located in Northern Sudan. The region’s ethnically and religiously diverse people have been repeatedly bombed and cut off from food by their government in Khartoum, tortured and driven into “peace camps,” on condition of converting to the government’s ideological Islam. “Our idea is,” Kamenir-Reznik said, “hear our voice, hear their voice.”
The situation is dire, and while the leaders whom JWW met with are aware and sympathetic — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congresswoman and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as Los Angeles representatives, including Howard Berman, Brad Sherman and Henry Waxman, among others — JWW believes that the best those leaders can do is to put the Nuba people on the top of President Barack Obama’s list of crises, as well as draw support from the State Department. The problem is that intervention, Kamenir-Reznik admitted — even to bring in food by aid workers will likely require some military action at a time when the United States is trying to pull back from its intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone thinking about taking action in Syria and, possibly, Iran.
JWW is also creating a campaign to require accountability for the minerals used in all cell phones, because many of those materials come from the violence-laden Congo.
“We want to create something like the energy star on your freezer,” Kamenir-Reznik said, “a Good Housekeeping seal that would certify that no women were raped in the making of this cell phone.”
The goal is to raise awareness, to get attention so legislators will feel compelled to act.
What they need is a Kony video.
“Forget about Kony, get Bashir, he’s the president of a country!” Kamenir-Reznik said, referring to Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, the president of the Sudan, who has been accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Jewish World Watch, like probably every other nonprofit, is now parsing the “Kony 2012” video to see what they can learn from it. To figure out “how can we simplify our issues and make a singular point,” Kamenir-Reznik said.
“I’d love to figure out how to capture that viral new-media market,” she said.
Jewish World Watch hopes to reach legislators by capturing the imaginations of kids like my daughter, who really do want to become engaged. Who, given more direction at a local level, might be encouraged to do more than Tweet. It’s a dream, but if Invisible Children can make an African enemy so real, maybe JWW can help kids get something real done.