"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


invisible children responds

Last week's guest post from Dustyn Winder and Erin Bernstein on Invisible Children provoked quite a dialogue on what makes for effective advocacy and humanitarian aid. What follows is a response to that post from Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children:

We at Invisible Children are appreciative of this blog and the criticism made about the organization. It fuels us to listen more and do a better job moving forward. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

When I spoke to Dustyn and Erin (hi guys) on the phone a few months ago, I expressed my sincere appreciation for their voices and told them I would continue to take their criticisms into account while moving forward. We are already strategizing ways to include ideas like the ones they’ve suggested into out future campaigns.

I have also personally asked if either of them would like to come to Lobby Days, without paying $60 fees (the total of which will not meet the overall budget of the event) and accompany others and myself in our efforts to help end this war. Furthermore, I have invited them to see the powerful work Invisible Children is doing in northern Uganda. I understand they are both busy and traveling but I would love to sit down someday with them and others to brainstorm more ways Invisible Children can be a better brand and company.

I just want to be as transparent as possible as I clear up a few misunderstandings:

1. The Rough Cut was filmed in 2003 and premiered in June 2004, not in 2006. The Global Night Commute was in April 2006 and on that very same night, my own mother called as she was night commuting with the children in Gulu, Uganda. Also, it should be said that the film Hotel Rwanda is still relevant and important to tell 15 years after the genocide.

2. Invisible Children doesn’t fit inside the standard non-profit box, and I think that is where some individuals get confused – and the confusion often turns into frustration. The only thing consistent about us is our unpredictability. We do not consider ourselves solely a non-profit, a humanitarian organization, a mission’s ministry, an advertising firm, or an educational outlet- if any of these at all. We are a hybrid of many things simply because we believe that the current cultural and global paradigm that exists is broken, and we are purposefully breaking stereotypes and rules in order to engage in meaningful dialogue (like this one) as we find a new way forward – with good, powerful, transformative life change being the central focus – and end goal. We are very aware of and purposeful about our aggressive messaging and acknowledge that we are not going to be able to please everyone all the time. However, it should be noted that we always get local input from those we trust in Uganda – both employees and local leadership - when launching any new media or advocacy messaging.

3. The Norbert Mao muckraking is not only unfair and untrue- it simply won’t work. Mao and Invisible Children, along with Archbishop Odama, Bishop Ochola, Betty Bigombe, and the Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, are long-standing friends over several years. We’ve worked together in the past and continue to do so, personally and professionally. Of all the things written in this blog post, this one is the most hurtful and upsetting. You can criticize Invisible Children and myself all you want, but please don’t spread untruths about phone conversations. “Norbert Mao is a politician” is what I said, and it is true. He is a politician – an incredibly wise, generous and inspiring politician. Your interpretation, “Mao’s word cannot be trusted” is offensive. More than that, it is harmful. I don’t believe it is your intention to drive a wedge between Invisible Children and the leaders we rely on in Uganda, but at times it feels like that.

4. To clear up any misunderstanding as to our involvement in policy change, I will simply state the facts: we at Invisible Children have met with members of Parliament in Britain, The Pentagon Staff, The White House Staff, the President of Uganda, and members of the Lords Resistance Army numerous times. We desire this war to end, justice brought to Kony, and healing brought to the innocent people more than I can express in words. It has been our utter obsession since the day we met members of this beautiful community six years ago. We, like many others, consider Northern Uganda our second home, and the community our family. All the celebrities, hipster-antics, pop-flashy-media tools we use are an attempt to captivate a youth culture saturated by meaningless distractions. The end goal is of course to see our friends and their friends experience freedom.

I will leave you with one of my favorite excerpts from the genius author/designer Dave Eggers, taken from an interview conducted for YSKOV(Sacrement):

“What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who's up and who's down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a lot work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but that is what matters.”

The Journey is the Destination.

From the bottom of my heart, I look forward to meeting you in person someday soon.

Much Love

I know Dustyn will have a response to Russell's comments, so I'll stay out of this one for now. Comments are welcome, but please continue to keep the debate civil, everyone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should we take it that you regret the 'I heart the LRA' T-shirts then? And did the maxim 'we always get local input from those we trust in Uganda' apply to them? I ask this as I have discussed the stunt with numerous Ugandans here in Kampala and the North and have failed to find anyone supportive.

Monday, June 15, 2009 4:46:00 AM

Blogger Scarlett Lion said...

I think the bit about Nobert Mao is patronizing. To imply that he's not a politician is to ignore the facts. He may be wise and generous, but he's still a politician. To imply that those things cannot coexist is to limit the possibilities open to Mao as a Ugandan politician. He's savvy and he knows that. Jason ignoring that is more like, "Oh, look at the cute black man running for office! He'd never say anything he didn't mean!"

Given how many American politicians IC says they've met with, surely they are familiar with political rhetoric. Would they be shocked if that nice guy at the Pentagon also wasn't 100 percent straightforward?

Expecting anything else of an African politician is both insulting and naive.

Monday, June 15, 2009 7:07:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

With you on that, Scarlett Lion. In my experience, politicians are pretty much the same no matter where you go: they tell you what they think you want to hear.

Monday, June 15, 2009 9:51:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Scarlett Lion: Agreed, but to discount the opinion of a popular politician in northern Uganda--and someone who has a bit more insight than young Americans--is also patronizing. Sure, politicians are politicians, but to go back after Mao raised his concern and convince him of the idea is also condescending.

Monday, June 15, 2009 11:08:00 PM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Absolutely to all comments thusfar.

I have a response. I'll see if TiA will post it, and if not, I'll be sure to comment it next chance I get.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:14:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

And to say "Norbert Mao is a politician" speaks for itself. Jason said that after hearing Mao's negative response. Tiny voices, huh?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:29:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

Jason, point #2 is not a good one. This isn't about "pleasing everyone." This is about portraying accurately the people on whose behalf you are advocating.

You say that IC is purposely "breaking stereotypes and rules in order to engage in meaningful dialogue (like this one) as we find a new way forward." But where is this new way forward? Where is this change after so often being criticized?

Also, one thing that really struck me is that you don't consider Invisible Children solely an educational outlet, among other things. I understand that's not your "sole" role, but IC is very clearly intended to be an educational outlet for the majority of its advocacy projects in the U.S.

This is evident in t-shirt slogans, new films, mass rallying campaigns, and, most recently, lobby days. The scary thing is that these are intended to educate, but those who are doing the educating (mostly high school and college students) are not nearly as educated as they should be in order to educate others and advocate on behalf of northern Uganda and the surrounding region.

This is a matter of accuracy and cultural sensitivity.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 2:23:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the war does end soon and the people of Uganda give Invisible Children credit for its involvement in ending this war, what will you say then? Will you still be frustrated with how Invisible Children went about creating this movement? Will you be happy with your role in all of it as skeptics to something so difficult to judge from the outside? I agree with Jason, criticism is key in helping shape a company and make sure it continues to improve, but this doesn't seem like constructive dialogue but bitterness.

As for the I Heart the LRA shirts, the idea was simple. 90% of the LRA is abducted children. Kids who do not want to be fighting in the first place. Those are the children that Invisible Children loves. They ARE the Invisible Children. Its not a shirt to walk around Uganda with, but a shirt to get people in the US/Western countries to understand the issue at hand. It's not just an army, its innocent children.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 10:30:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, June 18, 2009 1:56:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, June 18, 2009 1:57:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, June 18, 2009 2:00:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

Okay, I have had trouble posting this, so hopefully it works this time.


Anonymous (#3), this is constructive dialogue. There is no bitterness in any of this. We are not threats. We are colleagues offering advice--advice that many people before us (Ugandans, Americans, scholars, etc.) have offered to Invisible Children. Unfortunately, this advice has rarely yielded change.

If you agree with Jason that criticism is key in shaping an organization to see improvement, then you agree with us. This is all we're asking for. We are not attacking IC. We are offering advice.

I'd prefer not to respond to your very first question because I do not feel it is relevant. Please do not call us skeptics. I have been to schools in northern Uganda sponsored by IC's Schools for Schools. I've been to its Gulu office twice.

We have already written that we see the legitimacy in IC's development projects, and we recognize and appreciate the organization's ability to get so many young people passionate about northern Uganda and the surrounding region. We recognize the legitimacy and the goodness of Bobby, Laren, and Jason. But that doesn't mean that their approaches to advocacy, especially on the U.S. side, are always right.

And as far as your argument on the shirt goes, I've had this conversation dozens of times. Yes, the idea was simple and noble and profound. It was admirable in that they were getting people to rally behind the innocent children who make up the LRA.

But you wouldn't wear a shirt that says, "I heart concentration camps. 90% of concentration camps is made up of persecuted Jews," would you? The shirts glorify the oppressor when trying to create solidarity with the oppressed.

And sure, the shirt wasn't intended to be worn in Uganda, but who can guarantee that? Uganda is a conservative country, where it is disrespectful and culturally insensitive to wear shorts, holey jeans, or tank-tops, but foreigners still do so. The point is, if you wouldn't wear the shirt in Uganda, you shouldn't wear it in the States.

Thursday, June 18, 2009 2:02:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Thanks, Erin. I was getting ready to post a diatribal (that new word comes free of charge) reply to Anonymous (interesting name), but you said it all perfectly. I just wonder how offering suggestions isn't constructive. Oh well, people will be skeptics. ;)

Thursday, June 18, 2009 8:01:00 AM

Blogger Penny said...

My own concerns about rockstar advocacy and Invisible Children's role in Africa and here in the US led me to write an article about it.

If anyone's still paying attention, here it is: Why good intentions aren't enough, and how some orgs are doing more harm than good.


Thursday, September 24, 2009 3:15:00 PM


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