When film students Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole traveled to Uganda in 2003, they hoped to find adventure and a good story. Instead, they found a long-ignored tragedy: they learned of innocent children abducted from their homes and forced to join an army of child soldiers. They met a young boy whose story would touch their hearts. And they found the roots of what would become a powerful non-profit with the goal to end a war, banish apathy, and transform lives: Invisible Children.
Africa's Longest Running
For decades, rebel militia leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) waged war against the Ugandan government. The LRA, declared a terrorist group by the U.S. in 2001, built their army by abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers. The children who managed to avoid abduction came to be called “night commuters.” The night commuters would flee at night from their home villages, attempting to find safety in nearby towns.
When Jason, Bobby and Laren met Jacob, a young night commuter, they knew they had to bring his story to the world. As soon as they returned to the U.S., they created a documentary called Invisible Children: Rough Cut. In 2004, they started showing screenings of Rough Cut at local colleges. The results were instantaneous, says Alex Collins—artist liaison, tour coordinator, and spokesperson for Invisible Children (IC). “It was insanely impactful. Students immediately wanted to know what they could do to help.”
The Birth of
Invisible Children, Inc.
Rough Cut made its way across the country on a grassroots level, showing in high schools, libraries, and anywhere with a screen. Determined to properly manage donations and distribution, Invisible Children, Inc. became a 501 (c)(3) non-profit in 2005. Collins explains that the focus of IC is not to evangelize; 90 percent of Ugandans are already Protestant Christians. “I consider what we are doing the core of the Gospel. We have a belief that God created a world that doesn’t look like what it does in Uganda.”
By focusing on practical and sustainable long-term development, IC has achieved remarkable results in a short amount of time. “We asked the Ugandans what they needed first. The answer was education.” Currently, IC has financed education for over 850 students who would never have been able to afford it otherwise. Their “Schools for Schools” program, which encourages U.S. schools to sponsor Ugandan schools, has raised $8 million to date. It also has a poignant demographic. “A lot of inner city schools responded the most. It’s incredible to see U.S. schools that have no money raising money for others.”
IC has also been active in bringing viable economics to regions and villages through programs such as the Bracelet Campaign, where traditional bracelets made by displaced Ugandans living in relocation camps are sold in the U.S. They also offer a savings and loan initiative for villages. Collins says that extraordinary results have been achieved by providing just the simplest resources and tools. “The jewelry campaign is unbelievably successful, and you should see some of the businesses they have created.”
A mentoring program is also active amongst the 110-member Ugandan IC staff. “The mentors wear many hats for these kids: they act as psychologists, ministers, rehabilitators—they are incredible.”
Making a Difference
Though the LRA is no longer active in northern Uganda, its armies in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan continue to threaten the region. Joseph Kony has repeatedly walked away from peace negotiations, but IC’s commitment to end the war is ongoing. They recently worked alongside senators and Washington insiders to draft the “LRA Disarmament and Northern Ugandan Recovery Act.” IC co-founder Jason Russell and CEO Ben Keesey were present in the Oval Office when President Obama signed it into law in 2010. By June 2011, the U.S. Defense Budget had allocated $35 million to help stop the LRA.
IC has utilized savvy marketing and media techniques to promote the cause. Their efforts have attracted the attention of a large group of celebrity supporters, including Kristen Bell, Rachel Bilson, Fall Out Boy, and Mumford and Sons. Collins says, “We are so thankful to those who have used their celebrity status to act on behalf of those neglected in East Africa.”
Aside from bringing about change in Uganda, IC also seeks to enable a new generation to take action. During their newest initiative, “The Fourth Estate,” 650 of their biggest supporters from around the U.S.—ages fourteen to seventeen—will travel to San Diego. During their four days there, they will learn how to become “better activists.” Each student will be given the opportunity to “hone their skills” in any of IC’s departments, including art, film, missions, and business. “We are presenting a very large perspective of activism and personalizing it for them. It’s like giving them a tool belt to take back home.” Collins offers ways for other people around the country to help: “If you are still in university, start a ‘Schools for Schools’ club. If you are out of college, arrange to host one of our films at a local church or coffee shop. Really, it starts with doing what you do well, and incorporating that into raising awareness and funds for our programs.”
BE WHO YOU WERE MADE TO BE. FIND OUT WHAT YOU'RE GOOD AT AND DO THAT, DO IT FOR SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOURSELF.
Meanwhile, Jason “Radical” Russell, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in Cinema Production, continues to fight for those who need it most. He offers these thoughts to anyone who wants to act for positive change in the world: “Be who you were made to be. Find out what you're good at and do that, do it for something bigger than yourself. Are you a painter? Then paint something for a cause and sell it, and give the money away. Are you good at details and logistics? Find an internship and help organize events, operations, etc. Whatever you like doing, do that for something bigger than yourself. If more people lived that way, we'd be in a lot better shape as a human race.”
Karen Jones is a freelance lifestyles journalist. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Parade, Reader’s Digest, Super Lawyers, and more.