Seven years ago, three friends asked me to help start a company called Invisible Children. My role was to direct a movement that would rally young people who were responding to a movie they had made about a violent Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony. While they returned to Uganda to gather video footage, I was to show our first documentary, The Rough Cut, to as many high school and college students as possible, and then create programs that would further educate these students on the war in the region.
But students did not want to stop there. They wanted to help stop Kony. Young people were sharing the film, and getting inspired — calling their representatives, lobbying Washington, and hosting fundraisers to contribute to our Ugandan scholarship program. Schools encouraged us to put on assembly programs, and teachers swooned over captivating content that aligned with high school state standards they were required to teach, such as social studies or world cultures. It was a teacher’s dream come true.
Recently, Invisible Children released its 10th film, Kony 2012, which soon became the most viral video in history. If by now you have heard of the phenomenon the video has created, you have also most likely heard a fair amount of its criticisms. Such critiques have come from every angle — from calling the film a harmful oversimplification of the conflict, to suggesting that Invisible Children misuses funds by spending too much on “awareness” while promoting neocolonialism.
Most of the critiques have been based on assumptions or misinformation about the organization, and has damaged the campaign, hampering the rich dialogue it was intended to create. Fearing they’d be accused of political incorrectness, students who finally felt excited and empowered to participate in humanitarian issues once again feel relegated back behind their desks.
Invisible Children’s long-term educational goals are much more ambitious than merely promoting “awareness” of the conflict in central Africa, and I fear the harsh, uninformed critique of Kony 2012 could undermine the tool it is intended to become. The overlooked part of our mission is the thoughtfully developed, and pedagogically sound, interactive experience designed to reintroduce a civically cynical generation back into democratic engagement.
Our video screenings are accompanied by a rigorously trained student advocate who delivers supplemental lesson material that uses the teachable moment created by the films, and then personally mentors aspiring advocates new to the cause. This “roadie” introduces students to the complex issues related to international human rights violations. In this instance particularly, the child soldiers used for this war makes the perpetrators also the victims. How can we stop more children from being abducted and violently indoctrinated as soldiers, without harming those who are perpetuating the war crimes? Should the US intervene at all, despite the absence of domestic consequence? Such challenging questions, and others of potentially more complexity, will be a part of the world these students inherit.
Last but not least, these peer advocates invite viewers toward action. For example, in 2009, the LRA Disarmament and Northern Ugandan Recovery Act was introduced to Congress, and the content of this bill addressed the most substantive needs of the region. Invisible Children’s action step was to ask supporters to lobby Washington — some traveling on their summer vacation, on their own dime, from thousands of miles away, to participate in what was the largest lobbying event for an African issue in US history. The bill passed successfully with 267 cosigners, which is unprecedented for such legislation, and imparted a democratic education those participants would never forget.
Invisible Children films are the new textbook of civic engagement. If a publisher invested money making an engaging civics textbook, no one would write it off as oversimplified or a misuse of funds. They would call it an effective textbook.
I am now a doctoral student in education at Boston University. In the most difficult decision of my life, I left my dream job to follow a conviction. I saw the teachable moments we created as vital to shaping responsible global citizens prepared to engage in complex issues of international justice. I felt it my responsibility to study what we’ve done in the hopes of replicating it. Now, I have even greater resolve to use this model as a way to teach students how to responsibly exist in the global community.
After the week when Kony 2012 flew across social networks, a professor told me about his 14-year-old son. He said his boy was disinterested in everything, but had come to him, impassioned, asking about what was going on at BU to stop Kony. Encouraging me to write this as an educator, the father pleaded, “Don’t let the critics take this from my son.”
Indeed, the harsh backlash is feeding cynicism, when we should instead be nurturing the learning and dialogue that is helping students toward a substantive understanding of global justice issues. Invisible Children intends to stay the course and continue with its long-term, education-focused efforts, despite the naysayers. In so doing, we hope to model how to struggle through difficult issues to reach informed conclusions. How else will we better prepare young people to be the solvers of these and other issues when it is their turn to lead?
On Thursday, Kony 2012; Part II is being released online for free. Keeping with our educational mission, the new video will go deeper into this nuanced issue, and of Invisible Children as an organization. The video will be accompanied by new steps students can take to get involved in the movement to stop Kony. With the effort we’ve put into this movement, it would be a shame if the hard work of many people who are dedicated to reviving democratic engagement in youth is undermined.
Margie Dillenburg, a doctoral student at the Boston University School of Education, served as movement director of Invisible Children the previous six years.
AP Photo/Stuart Price: Joseph Kony in 2006.