Design · Culture · Spirituality

My perspective on Invisible Children and Kony2012

I feel like it’s a good thing for me to offer a bit of a response to all the recent conversation around Invisible Children and their Kony2012 online efforts (if you are not familiar with any of it, start at this post from Rachel Held Evans collecting resources on both “sides”). I feel this way because I think I might have something of a different perspective than many of the others that have been shared, both in support of and against the video. I’ve been a supporter of, and friend of folks at and connected with, the organization for the last several years, and yet I’m an advocate of nonviolence and deeply aware of issues of post-colonialism.

This is important to note, I think, because it has led me to specific conversations and projects with folks involved in the broader movement, and because most of the folks I’ve seen responding to all of this are either not specifically committed to nonviolence, and/or they don’t have specific relationships within the movement. Because the video is so geared toward being viral rather than comprehensive, people’s responses are understandably not all that comprehensive either.

Let me elaborate a little bit. It was 2008 when my wife and I were first fortunate to meet roadies from Invisible Children at the church we were involved with. We didn’t have many folks (even for our small community) in attendance the night they came, and because they had heard so much about our community they came just wanting to talk, rather than give a screening.1 It was a fascinating evening I won’t forget, and after that a few of us we were able to take the roadies out to dinner.

I had known about the organization before this, but this was the first time it made a deep impact on me. I was just beginning to dream about ways that my skills and passions for web design could feed into, and be fed by, my skills and passions for ministry and activism and so on instead of just being separate things. The revelation that that was what these people were doing – the filmmakers specifically, of course, as they had been students at USC – but others who we met that night, as well. Artists and graphic designers and so on were finding ways to contribute those things in new ways.

In 2009 Invisible Children hosted The Rescue in 100 cities, an attempt to get folks to come, hang out together outside, write letters to representatives, make art, and get attention from media folks. I was able to help out a bit in Atlanta’s event, and through that I unexpectedly got to meet John Lewis, and hear his passionate words on how, yes, we should help keep children from fighting, but there should also be no wars for them to fight. But of course through all the planning and such I also got to meet other wonderful folks, hear their hearts, and be inspired by them.

In 2010, we were able to host some different roadies, and take them to dinner a few times. Two of them were Ugandans traveling around the country to tell their stories, both affected by the LRA’s violence in different ways, and both involved with Invisible Children in their country. We talked more about each other’s dreams, we heard their stories and heard about the issues in the Ugandan government, and so on.

Let me branch out a little bit from there. We’ve also been fortunate to meet/host in our apartment, Skype, or otherwise talk with lovely folks from Falling Whistles, Ember Arts, and others of the fascinating organizations that have been birthed out of or otherwise aligned with Invisible Children. I’ve also been fortunate to talk with many others from these organizations on Twitter alone.

I say all this to try to give a bit of context. I don’t live in Southern California (where many of these folks are based). I’ve never been to Africa. I don’t consider myself an activist. I’m a white, American male who tweets, reads, thinks, talks, designs, codes, buys stuff, and gives what time and money I have to things that I think fit with the heart of God for changing the world, and when I do those things I try to get to know the folks involved as much as I can. This means my perspective is indeed limited, just like everyone else’s, and thus I’m thankful for some of the other responses. I can’t (and don’t have the right to) speak to all of the issues people have raised, but I do feel like I can speak to some of them.

And here’s the thing. In the last four/five years of building these relationships and attending these events and watching these documentaries and whatever else, I’ve never heard a person say he or she wanted Joseph Kony killed. I’ve heard them talk about reconciliation, peace, justice, and share the stories of Ugandans who have learned about all of these things through the darkest of journeys.

I’ve seen them make shirts that said “We Love the LRA,” and have conversations about what that actually means. I’ve had conversations with folks wondering how to bring the principles of nonviolence shown to us by Gandhi and King into the lives of people who are not in any direct danger (read: Americans), but want to advocate for folks who are (whether Ugandans, Congolese, or others who they’ve grown to love).

On a deeper level, I’ve seen them go far beyond the issues of LRA-specific violence (which many of the critics don’t seem to realize). I’ve seen them talk about issues of colonialism and the specific role of Westerners in creating current and past situations in Uganda and the Congo, especially.2 Some of them have talked about the White Man’s Burden, and their experiences with other organizations that “forgot about people.” Many of them have talked directly and often about coming alongside the folks of Uganda and the Congo, working together for mutual liberation, and they’ve really sought ways to do that. This has happened in their African programs, as well as the American ones and the ones that bring people in between the places.

None of my experiences (or those of anyone else) imply that there are not issues with Invisible Children, the Kony2012 campaign, and the organizations in their spheres of influence. I don’t doubt that there are issues (there always are, of course), but I don’t think the negative issues are necessarily the same ones that people have been talking about since the video was released. I don’t believe their issues are issues of resisting nonviolence. In this video and everywhere else, they consistently say that they don’t want Kony killed; they want him captured and sent to the ICC – this is on top of all the conversations they regularly have about nonviolence, peace, and broad definitions of justice. I also don’t believe they are issues of the white savior complex. No one there implies that the Ugandans are the sad ones being saved by the rich white people’s good ideas, and they all know that these issues (which are decades old, and often have roots in issues that are much older) might not be there at all without rich white people anyway.

Because of this, part of me thinks that the video has hurt the impressions that the intellectuals, development folks, and others who have never talked about Invisible Children before might otherwise have of the organization. It’s true that there isn’t much a full spectrum of history and such in the video (they admit this), and it’s true that the video doesn’t talk as much about many of the most beautiful parts of the organization’s existence, other than getting the attention of the United States government to try to capture Kony. One could certainly argue that this is a bad thing. But on the flip side, 70 million people have watched the video in less than five days, and a nearly unprecedented mainstream conversation about justice in Africa is taking place. Some of these people who have watched the video will go deeper, and once such an awareness starts it can change a person’s life. From my perspective, I can’t say that’s a bad thing.

  1. This was Revolution Atlanta, an alternative community with a solid group of 20 or so, but an influence much bigger than that. []
  2. The LRA, for example, is not involved in the ongoing violence that creates materials for the electronics we buy. Thus, Invisible Children has not dealt directly with it. But Falling Whistles, an organization aligned quite closely, is dedicated entirely to peace in that situation and does not deal directly with the LRA. []
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About the Designer

Jonathan Stegall is a web designer and emergent / emerging follower of Jesus currently living in Atlanta, seeking to abide in the creative tension between theology, spirituality, design, and justice.

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