By Lisa Shannon
I have a confession. As often as my story is framed as “one person makes a difference,” the phrase always makes me cringe…at least a little. Primarily because mine has been the story of so many people showing up for Congo, whether through a $10 donation, attending a house party, posting on Facebook, writing a letter to our government, putting in 30 hours of volunteer work every week, on top of job and family, or even launching their own non-profits.
Second, I have grown to consider the question “Can one person make a difference?” well, silly. Uh…the entire history of humanity is nothing but the cause and effect of personal actions! Welcome to planet Earth, baby! By virtue of breathing, we change the world. With every choice to love or dismiss others, to be kind or mean, we change the world. With every choice to consume, and what to consume, we change the world.
The question is, can you play your small yet catalytic role? What I have witnessed, at every turn, is a resounding yes. By showing up in small ways, you have an impact – on the lives women directly aided, in pressure on our government, the impression on your friends, family, and especially on the children around you who watch you act, and watch it matter. There is no question that by virtue of showing up in small ways for people on the other side of the planet – women we’ve never met – we change the world. Often, we cannot begin to imagine the real-life reverberations of these acts; we will certainly never be able to measure them.
Many policy experts cringe at what they term “oversimplified” messaging. In my nine years in advertising, and 15 years in storytelling, I have frankly never seen this line work: “It’s a totally complicated problem, well, ‘situation’ that’s kinda bad but kinda better, well, mostly bad, you’ll never be able to make a dent in your lifetime, I mean, you don’t matter and you won’t matter, but please, spend all your free time and money trying. Thanks!” Though experts often hide behind this kind of hedging, in my experience, it’s often oversimplified in its own way, ignoring hard facts about world history, social movements like those to “abolish slavery” and “ban apartheid”, and the impact regular people can and do have every day, to the point it becomes an issue of intellectual integrity in its own right. But hey, if someone knows how to mobilize the masses on that line, game on.
Yet, the unbelievably grandiose idea that we are going to try to “end the violence in Congo” is tricky. In this results-oriented world, maybe we start with a basic question: Reviewing history, what happens when we act to “end violence”? What happens when we fail to act? What happens when we act…and fail?
It’s a valid question with a maddening answer: We might fail. We hope violence will end in Congo in our lifetime (because that’s what the hope is), and yet we know it may not. That doesn’t mean the actions we take now don’t matter. They do. They will help steer Congo and our government in the right direction, today, next year, and 100 years from now. That’s the nature of social change.
How do I know this? Because my activist path has been paved with wildly ambitious (and admittedly naïve) goals and I’ve seen the results.
The year I started Run for Congo Women, I wanted to raise $10,000, enough to sponsor 30 women through Women for Women International. I had never done any fundraising, speaking, organizing, or much running! We raised $28,000 and sponsored 80 women.
When other amazing women like Tracy Ronzio and Robin Potawsky contacted me wanting to do their own run, I decided the logical next goal should be 1 million. Didn’t get there the first year. Or the second. Or the third. Or fourth. Or fifth. But today, our fundraising totals are more than 11 million.
When we learned the tech lobby was working behind closed doors to strip the conflict minerals legislation, a bunch of moms and Facebookers went up against some of the biggest lobbies in our country – jewelry, manufacturing, retail, and the tech industry. We won.
We’ve also reliably fallen short of our goals. At Outcry for Congo, we aimed for 10,000 Facebook posts. We got 2000—but 650,000 post views.
At the run in Congo, Generose could only run a third of a mile. No, she didn’t “finish”…but she did end up in the New York Times, Runners World magazine, and ABC World News Tonight with the message, “If I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”
Somehow, these wildly ambitious goals seem to come to be, or at least lead to something wildly positive….if we try. If we show up. If we take it as far as we can, like Generose. If we ask questions, then show up better. We may not always reach the goal, but we do consistently have an impact that’s far bigger than we could have imagined.
So, all this got me thinking. If this has worked so far, why not ask for what we really want? And what have our Congolese sisters begged for, every time I’ve asked them what they’d like to say to the U.S. government? End the violence. We need peace.
Okay, it is the most grandiose, wildly ambitious goal imaginable. But what might happen if we try? Not for our egos, as the sideline critics and haters will inevitably assume, but to work for what our sisters in Congo have asked us to?
I don’t know what will happen. But we owe it to our sisters in Congo to try. So we push the U.S. government toward a solid strategy with measurable outcomes. A Congo Plan. Now! Beginning with a Special Envoy.
Accomplishing this means stepping up. It means risking feeling stupid, silly, exposed. Leaving your comfort zone. I promise, people will try to shout you down. They will accuse you of ego and grandiosity. Or they’ll stand over your shoulder, commanding you get on your knees and prostrate at the lotus feet of The Way Things Are. Or maybe they will lean in close and whisper, “Who do you think you are?”
We launched our website Friday, and sure enough, this happened to me over the weekend. It doesn’t matter your profile, it hurts, especially when it comes from people you respect. I remembered the advice given by a fellow Oprah Power List-er, and went to that “F-you, Mother F-ers” place inside. It felt good. It helped for about 10 minutes.
But sometimes, that just isn’t enough. For those moments, remember this: There is nothing new about people reminding us – especially us girls – we’re nobody, and that we’d better climb back under that rock where we belong. The words will come. Be ready for them. But it doesn’t change this hard fact: It is your birthright to affect the world in which you live, just as it is yours to breathe. Wish the nay-sayers well, or better, lean in close, and hum a line Miss Celie’s Blues from movement godmother Alice Walker’s The Color Purple:
Oh, sister, have I got news for you: I’m somethin.
I hope you think that you’re somethin, too.