"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In Defense of Jason Russell, Invisible Children, and the KONY 2012 Campaign


Over the last few days, the KONY 2012 campaign video has become one of the most watched and shared videos on YouTube. I watched this video and as you can read from my last blog post, I was blown away by the documentary itself, but also by the message and how it was delivered. I knew a little about this conflict and these issues, not much at all, but enough to recognize some of the issues and consequences. I can say without pause that the tiny amount I knew was more than most Americans. By a landslide.

I won’t go into my constant frustration with American media and just how “American” it is. Global news isn’t nearly as in depth or covered as it should be, and it is even hard to find the details if you are looking for them. It isn’t truly the media that is to blame, we are only given what we ask for as a nation. We want quick snippets of the latest news, and we want mostly to know about things that pertain to our little corner of the globe.
So, this young filmmaker and activist, Jason Russell, has the audacity to go out and make an incredibly well crafted 29 minute documentary highlighting an issue that is close to his heart, and that he has fought for, mostly in obscurity, for nine years. Within this film, he also has the audacity to come up with a clever idea, harnessing the power of social media to try and make a small dent in an issue that the masses in the US know little about. I am sure he hoped for the best when all was said and done and his video would be posted. I am also quite sure he never knew what was coming, both the good and the the bad.
The video took off, spreading virally from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter the way cute animal videos and news blunder footage usually spreads—videos of no real consequence. People were moved to share this video, and at 29 minutes, people were still watching every second of it, taking it in, getting outraged, wanting to learn more, to help.
Jason Russell, how dare you!
I don’t care if every detail isn’t 100% factually backed by all the organizations out there trying to help Uganda. I don’t care if he glossed over some things, or inflamed some moments for theatrical affect. In the end, this isn’t a video about Jason Russell or some hidden personal agenda. It is a man and an organization who thought- let’s make a difference in the world. That is a huge undertaking. Where do you start? Are you careful or brazen? How do you start? Who will hear you?
With an undertaking this huge, are you going to offend some people or make others angry? Evidently, yes. Very angry. I will probably get a nice little stack of hate mail (via my email inbox) for saying this, but I honestly think that some of the organizations doing good work for the same or similar causes are all worked up over this documentary out of a good bit of jealousy. These organizations struggle every day to get the message out, to have their work be seen. And maybe they HAVE done more and done it better than Jason Russell. But here HE is getting all of this attention. Social media is powerful. Right now, I think more than any other moment, social media has become such a powerful tool in so many ways. Jason Russell is a gifted filmmaker and found a way to harness that power better than a lot of other people and organizations.
What angers me more than anything is this. Will this campaign alone solve all the problems? No. But tens of MILLIONS of people are aware of an issue that they knew nothing about last week. The ONLY reason we are talking about these atrocities right now is this campaign. And that is good. The ONLY reason that anyone is listening to the other organizations that are upset about this campaign is because of this campaign. This awareness will cause people to seek answers and find ways to help. Whether it is through Invisible Children (the organization that Jason Russell highlights in his film) or not, people will try and find ways to help now. And honestly, at the base of this campaign is nothing but people wanting to make a difference in the world. Are the people behind it perfect? No. Is there room to criticize? Always, I guess. Yesterday, Jason posted this from his twitter account: Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
Jason Russell is a good man fighting a good fight. I believe that. While the internet and social media have power, it can be both good and bad. I have seen evidence of both in so many ways. I guess it is human nature to doubt and criticize, to want your voice to be heard above the fray. But, today, I hope that Jason Russell hears a few voices like mine that say, thank you. Thank you for raising awareness for dark places in the world that need a little light. Thank you for being one of those souls who does not sit back and just wish for peace and good things, but tries and keeps trying even when it all seems futile and hopeless.
I have said many, many times that my favorite quote in all the world is this one: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is also a quote from Gandhi. When I think of that quote, I think of all the things I wish I could do. I think of all the things I wish others would do. And now, a little part of me will always think of Jason Russell and what he is DOING to be that change in the world.
Read a recent NY Times article about Jason and the KONY 2012 campaign here.
If you haven't seen the KONY 2012 video yet, I encourage you to watch it here or in my previous blog post.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Invisible Children: Joseph Kony 2012



Every day, I see quite a few videos posted on my friend’s Facebook walls, and on twitter. I click on some of the humorous ones—especially when folks who share my sense of humor post them. Every now and then, a cute animal video will also snag my attention, and I pass some of those along, as many of my friends are also animal lovers.
But today, I saw a video shared by several people -the same video- and by people from all shades of my friendship spectrum. I clicked on it, and I was transfixed. First, by the pure and amazing skill of this filmmaker. The video in itself is an amazing piece of work, the kind of documentary that is so perfectly timed, edited, narrated, and sewn together that you dare not think of pressing pause.
So, there’s that. Then, the subject matter.

In Central Africa, a war is raging. To me, it is a war against innocence and the future of small children. But however you see it, and however you categorize it, it is indeed raging. Children are being kidnapped --stolen—and indoctrinated into an army against their will. The young girls are sold into sex slavery, the young boys are given weapons and a choice: kill or be killed.
You may know a little about this war. Some movies allude to it, books have been written, and every now and then, a nighttime news show covers the story in some small way. I know a lot about this war, I have read quite a bit previously, but this was one of those problems in the world where you think…how can I possibly make a difference? What could possibly stop this?
Joseph Kony’s Ugandan rebel group is responsible for tens of thousands of kidnappings, killings, and mutilations over the last 26 years. The atrocities cannot be totaled when you think of all of the lives affected, destroyed, and lost, and the ripples of after affects in generations to come.
It is bigger than we can imagine, more horrific than we can fathom.
And then, someone like this filmmaker, like this group that formed this nonprofit, comes together and decides that saying, “It’s too much, I can’t help,” is not an acceptable answer. They look at the vast, unending reach that the internet and social media have right now, in this moment. They form a plan, simplistic, yes, but also a little brilliant.
I am so inspired by this declaration, this stop-at-nothing movement that is blazing across computer screens at this very moment. The confidence they have in the world, the confidence in they are banking on in response...there really is no way for this to fail. Whatever criticisms come this organization’s way...they are reaching and affecting people that had never heard of this nightmare.

They are teaching us all to think bigger than our own world, and father away than we thought our whispers or shouts could carry. Bravo to them for that, and for everything else they will accomplish.
The world is watching.

And I can tell you one thing I know for sure, Joseph Kony wasn’t banking on that.


Watch and share the video above. Visit the Invisible Children website, Facebook page, and twitter account. Join the cause, make a difference.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What We Wish For


With the benefit and wisdom of hindsight, I can easily realize that in the past, when I have tried so hard to bend and shape the events in my life to create the outcome I wanted, it was pointless. What was going to be, would be. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but in some crazy pattern of circumstance, I have come to believe in fate. I think we have a matter of influence in what happens in our lives, but I do think that certain things are meant to be. Maybe that makes me unrealistic, or a dreamer, or crazy, but I have too many instances in my life that I can only believe clicked together by some force in the universe that I have little control of.

However, I don’t think fate always equals beautiful outcomes. As much as we are destined to see certain wonderful things happen, fate also has a hand in the ugly parts of life—diagnoses of disease, death, loss of friendships, family, and yes… dreams. However, in the same breath that I am expressing my belief in fate, I can’t always say that I believe everything happens for a reason. Yes, it may be fate that brings about a child’s diagnosis of cancer. But is there some bigger, cosmic meaning? No, it is just awful. This was fate dealing the hand of destiny, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and say, ah, yes, I understand now. Some things are just terrible and dreadful, it may be fate that it happened, but there is no beauty in it. Suffering can’t be explained away or softened by some force “working in mysterious ways”. Suffering and death aren’t mysterious in that sense, especially when you are the one in the middle of that experience.

Right now, I am wishing for so many things. I am wishing for my husband and I to be in a place we are dreaming of, starting a new adventure. I am wishing for financial pressure to be eased—even just a little bit. I am wishing for my nephew and his fiancĂ©e to find the peace, happiness and support they deserve. I am wishing for other members of my family to wake up and become better people. That last one is beyond the reach of fate, I am afraid. Though I wish for it, some things are impossible. Better that I know and accept that: Lesson #589 learned in years of therapy.

I wish that both my husband and I had extended families that were healthy and whole, and that we could cherish being a part of. Unfortunately, the stars haven’t aligned on this for either side of our family, and likely never will. It is not without our wishing or trying for that outcome. It is not without many nights of tears and frustration and so much pain on our end. It is also not without lies and painful rumors and comments that come back to us via all the wonderful ways we are connected to the world. It has taken some time, but we have learned that we can only control what we do, we know the truth and what is right, and we have to let the rest go. It is hard not to openly defend yourself to the world, to gossip, to hometown whispers. But, it doesn’t solve anything, or undo the words already spoken, or what many will continue to think and believe.

In a sense, some things we wish for are often unachievable even from the moment we murmur the words. We know this, and we still wish. I think there is some forgiveness in that process. Forgiveness of the universe that you know can’t give you what you need and want…but by putting it out there, somehow the hope is ever present, undying. The beauty of the hope outweighs the unattainable wish.

I am caught in a state of waiting for several wishes right now. These hopes of mine have an expiration date. It isn’t the unexpiring dream of a writing career that can outlast decades of birthday candles, and years of lost summers and sessions at the keyboard. There is always hope for that. The wishes of this moment are soon to be granted or denied…within days. I love and hate this time. Right now, the whole world is open and the possibility is there…the chance of the best outcome is still possible. In a few days, I can be crushed or elated, but right now, the there is still hope. As I watch the clock too closely, check my email and phone messages incessantly, and count the days left of possibility, I remind myself that what is supposed to happen, will happen. And with years of proof behind me as perhaps I have never had before, I have to trust in that. I can look back and see the times when I forced my hand, tried to reform the unyielding path of fate. Almost always, I took a much more painful path that led to the same place. That path was also always longer and fraught with added troubles that I might have avoided had I just let things progress as they were meant to. 

So, I wait. We wait. I have done my part, tried my best, given the pieces of myself that I can. I have done all I can do without trying to force or pressure something I know in my heart isn’t right. But knowing I have to wait and trust does not lessen my longing for all of these things to snap into place. It doesn’t diminish my yearning for things to be easier than this…to be able to snap my fingers and find us in the right place and the perfect time, with everything we need and want in place. 

And then, I remember when my wishes were so different. Not so long ago, only a few years ago, my wishes were so much more basic: To survive the depression I was battling, to find love, to see some kind of a light at the end of the tunnel I was constantly facing. Somehow, those things all happened. Those were huge wishes, far bigger than the ones I am waiting on now. 

But no matter how much wisdom I have gained from all of that experience, today I still feel like the little girl I was so many years ago…standing barefoot in my back yard in North Carolina in the heat of the southern summer, holding tight to a dandelion stem and closing my eyes, making a wish, and blowing the billowy seeds into the air, hoping somehow my wish would be granted.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Twitter: Where the Bullies Are


A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend contacted me through my twitter account. Could I help her monitor some activity on twitter?—a friend’s child was being bullied. Absolutely, I replied. Basically, neither of these mothers had any experience on twitter and didn’t have the first clue as to how to set up an account or to monitor others accounts and what the owners of those accounts were saying, or tweeting.

What I didn’t know is that even given my computer savvy, my five years of blogging, my knowledge of all social media platforms, I had no idea what twitter has turned into for the junior high and high school set. Sure, twitter is all about sharing the minutia of a teenager’s life with some acerbic spin, all in 140 characters or less. It’s about being quick witted and cool, and complaining about the same things we all did at that age—homework, dating, parents, teachers. But more than anything, and with an overwhelming majority, twitter is where bullying is rampant, and for the most part, these student’s twitter feeds are not monitored or policed by parents. At all.

And your kids are banking on that. 

All of these kids have slowly migrated over to twitter from Facebook. Many people don’t realize that Facebook began as a platform that only college students could join. Later it opened up to high school students, and then the flood gates opened when anyone, age 13 or above, was allowed to sign up. What happened then, with this open access, is that your mother and your aunt, and even your grandmother were on Facebook, killing the “cool” factor for most kids- especially the high school demographic. While this age group (high schoolers) still has Facebook accounts, and the ability to monitor who sees what, parents are much more savvy with Facebook, and are at least a little more aware of what’s being posted within their child’s inner circle.

Twitter, however, is a whole different animal. Most adults I know have a hard time understanding twitter, and I admittedly didn’t understand the fascination at first. For me, it is a chance to follow several of my favorite authors and editors, and is full of links to articles for advice on writing, getting published, and other things that help keep me on top of my burgeoning writing career. Twitter is also a great source for breaking news and keeping up with headlines. It is fast-paced, and it is easy to understand why it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But, believe me, the high school crowd knows that most of their parents aren’t paying attention. There is a freedom in posting on twitter, and an unrealistic view that no one is seeing their twitter updates except their small group of friends, and any other followers. The truth is, unless your twitter account is locked—or set to private—anyone can see your messages. Anyone.

What I discovered is that it seems all too easy and harmless for these kids to, say, set up a twitter account in someone’s name. Let’s say that a certain group of kids all dislikes someone named Sally Smith. So, they create an account: @sallysmith or @sally_smith. Done. Then, the tweeting begins. They can tweet messages about how many people she supposedly slept with at a party the night before, or other negative activity. It appears to be coming from her own account. Can you imagine at that age how humiliating this would be? Plus, people can re-tweet these updates, so this one account starts getting quoted by dozens of students all within the same school—and then maybe it keeps growing—and reaches students outside the walls of just the one high school. In a flash of a few keystrokes, rumors become fact, a reputation changes, a person’s life can be changed.

The sad fact is, as I began monitoring the students I was asked to, I found myself in a web of students and bullying that I wish I didn’t know existed. And I will say here that the kids that are doing this –at least the ones I know about—are honors kids, the top of their class—with middle class to wealthy families. I am sure there are other kids doing it---I just don’t think you can label a group or distinguish. It is rampant. It might not be the students you “expect”—the troublemakers or whatever group we somehow think of as bullies. You can’t say “not my child” until you know. Until you check. Until you read what they are writing, and who they are following.

What scares me is that the words they are typing, the messages they are sending, are more vile and hateful than I want to imagine anyone from that age group being capable of. The words I read stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t imagine what would prompt these kids to spread and encourage so much hate. I have seen a lot of things over the years, but the viciousness of these attacks has haunted me.

In the process of trying to help this one kid, I have discovered other accounts where it is obvious that the owner has set up a fake account in someone’s name. It is pretty apparent once you are accustomed to viewing it. What is sad is that the victim of the bullying often knows about the account(s), but feels helpless. Some of the language and material are so vile, that I am sure they are ashamed or afraid to show their parents. So, in a sense, they remain helpless and bullied, and watch as these rumors spread and others cheer on the attacks.

I was in the middle of all of this when the latest high school shooting occurred in Ohio. I don’t know the circumstances around that incident, but it made me think of one young man in particular that I knew was being bullied. I could see and understand how young people get pushed and hurt so much that the pain overwhelms any other sense or reason.

I don’t have children, but since I have learned about all of this bullying on twitter, I have been unable to wrestle myself away from it. I have reported accounts to the security team at Twitter, and action is being taken. In appropriate cases, I have had someone local contact the police departments in their areas on their behalf. One thing I know, Twitter and law enforcement take all of these issues VERY seriously.

I have to believe that these kids don’t realize the ramifications of what they are doing. They are young, foolish…like we all were. They think this is all a joke, and that a few of their friends find them terribly witty. They don’t realize the unbelievable wrath of pain they are unleashing. At least I hope they don’t.

I have put several messages on Facebook asking all of my friends to PLEASE check their kids’ twitter accounts, and if you are reading this, I am begging you to do the same. If you don’t know how, find someone who can. If I can help, I will.

A few tips:

  • First, ask your child if he/she has a twitter account. I believe in granting kids this age some freedom/privacy, but I encourage you to tell them you will be doing a routine check of their account here and there for their own safety. Also, please tell your child that if they are being bullied, no matter what people are saying about them, no matter how vile or explicit the words are, to come to you—to not be ashamed or afraid. Get that out in the open now.
  • Go to www.twitter.com and sign up for an account. It is super easy. You don’t have to use it for anything except to monitor or check in on your child/children’s feeds.
  • Once you have an account, do a broad search for your child’s name from time to time. You can often find out if they have an account, or if others are tweeting about them in this way. It is a good way to monitor activity.
  • The important thing is to watch what your child’s friends and followers are tweeting. Look at who your child is following. Check those feeds, too.
  • Report bullying. If you know the child’s parents, call them, report it to them, and sadly, if they don’t act, report it to the school. The schools are becoming much more savvy and much more vigilant. But, more reports and more awareness from the parents will only continue to aid in stopping this wave of cyberbullying. The school will usually involve law enforcement if direct or physical threats are being made against another student.

I believe strongly that it takes a village to raise a child. And right now, that village extends out into the Neverland that is the internet. There is such a mix and tradeoff of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, inspirational and frightening things that happen and are created because of the itnernet’s reach. It is overwhelming for a skilled adult, and I think can drown a child in all the opportunity and anonymousness. 

I know we can’t make it stop tomorrow, and I know I can’t catch every bully, but if I do my part and you do yours, in one small corner of the world, we can make things a little better, one child at a time.

Other Resources:

Stop Bullying Now: website -- twitter feed

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