by Alex Naser-Hall
Job descriptions, like commercialized medicine, should have side-effect warnings. Sleeplessness, caffeine addiction, globally dispersed friendships, pounds of stress physically manifesting on your shoulders, lack of appetite, over-eating. If working at Invisible Children was a drug, it would be very difficult to get the FDA to approve us.
Invisible Children (IC), the people behind that KONY 2012 business from last year that raised global consciousness and fundamentally changed the way the world reacts to international crises, has been my home for about two and a half years now. Since the founding of the organization in 2004, it has been home to over eight hundred earnestly odd yet lovable individuals.
It was in high school when I first heard about Invisible Children – and honestly, it was when I first heard about Invisible Children that I actually started caring about the world at large. Imagine a male version of Angela Chase without a Jordan Catalano to distract her, and you have my life in high school in Louisville, Kentucky. An angst-ridden, My So-Called Life-ish existence was quite shaken by my first encounter with the IC volunteers called Roadies who came to my school auditorium.
My English teacher Dr. Watson, also the adviser of our Social Justice Club, announced one day that an organization called Invisible Children was going to be coming to show a documentary about this conflict in central Africa and that we would be collecting books for schools in northern Uganda. Both of my parents taught at my high school, so I had to stay after classes for a while anyway waiting on a ride home (as I am entirely petrified of driving I have never had a license or my own ride – I carry my passport everywhere as my ID). Thankfully, I did stay that day to have my first interaction with people who work for IC.
Twice a year, upwards of eighty full-time volunteers, Roadies, take four months off from their “normal lives” to travel across the country giving free presentations of IC documentaries about the ongoing 27-year conflict in central Africa, led by the now famous Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They travel with representatives from Uganda who can speak directly about the conflict, how it has affected their lives, and how it’s currently affecting the lives of those in areas where the LRA is active.
Two years later, I joined the crew of Roadies in the fall of 2010 and stayed on through the spring of 2011, traveling throughout New England and the southwest of the United States with my teams of Americans, Ugandans, and Canadians.
Before and after the tours, all of the Roadies live in an infamous/famous house in a suburb of San Diego – all of us. It’s the most quality sensory overload I’ve ever experienced. It’s a strange utopia where you don’t know who to befriend first because everyone is as equally remarkable as the next person.
A girl named Hannah Jones from Plymouth, England, who found out about Invisible Children during its brief stint in London. A guy named Bryce Mittelstadt who was “the Invisible Children kid” at his high school in Casper, Wyoming. A woman named Natalie Semotiuk who was an aspiring comedienne from Edmonton. My roommates came from literally all across the map, and they were united by a cause and an idea that the youth have the power to effect long-lasting change. It’s unreal, and something I never thought could exist when I was a high schooler.
There was no facility we wouldn’t screen our films – we spoke in a cafetorium (it’s exactly what you suspect it is) of high school freshmen in the middle of Texas, a crowded room of intellectuals at NYU, a room of friends at an exotic game reserve attached to the Austin Disposal System compound, and many other places I never envisioned myself going.
It was one of these presentations that I attended that afternoon in Louisville as a senior in 2008, and let’s just say it was impactful. I had never heard about anything in Uganda, let alone this conflict. The Roadies spoke with such conviction and knowledge about what was happening, and they gave immediate, tangible ways that high school students could help – and that was to collect books for schools in northern Uganda that IC supports. The books are re-sold by a company to raise money for rehabilitation projects at the recovering schools.
So I did. We set, as a club, the goal of collecting 10,000 books. Jokes. I doubted we could even get to 5,000. People don’t truly care about things happening in central Africa; it was a passing fad that my peers and teachers would quickly replace in their memories. Alas, that was far from the case.
I watched my school community come together. Everyone began bringing books into their homerooms to support one of IC’s partner schools. First ten, then a hundred. We reached our goal of 5,000 books within three weeks. People I didn’t even know began approaching me about grade schools who wanted to start collecting books for the drive. We were gifted an entire library of a Xaverian Brother who passed away – 1,000 books we ended up being able to donate from his personal collection.
The fundraiser continued on for another month, and people brought the generosity out and then some. Somehow (a miracle?), we finished the drive with over 30,000 books. The baseball coach Mr. Jefferson let us use the batting cage to store them all.
I didn’t know what to do with my Claire-Danes-character-mind. To see a high school I thought was so apathetic and selfish challenge itself to reach a goal that wasn’t on a field or a Scantron blew my mind. While I would never admit it back then, I can say now that the way my classmates responded fundamentally changed my perspective on the ability people have to create change. A group of high school teens and some too-awesome teachers helped us collect a large amount of books to further literacy initiatives in a post-conflict part of a country of a continent that most of us would never even venture to.
I was unaware at the time, but while I was leading the charge in Louisville, Bryce was organizing his campaigns in Caspar, and Hannah was trying to explain to her peers why getting on Oprah was such a big deal in America, and Natalie was convincing her comedy troupe to hold a benefit night for IC. We were all united by these efforts, but we didn’t know it yet.
It’s a special quality about IC’s work in North America – it unlocks the potential that the youth holds. And when I became a Roadie in 2010, I saw that “unlocking” happen on tour as a Roadie countless times. I saw theaters full of students who woke up to the fact that when someone tells them they cannot accomplish something because of their age, it’s a lie spoken by someone too paralyzed by fear of failure to attempt to do so themselves.
That’s why Invisible Children works. It’s an invitational narrative.
And I definitely whole-heartedly accepted that invite as a senior in high school, in the form of a trip to Uganda. The book drive my school participated in was part of a competition that awarded the top ten schools the opportunity to send one of their students to northern Uganda with a crew from Invisible Children. After a selection process and some very kind words from my club-mates and teachers, I was chosen to accompany the other trip winners on a two-week trip that started in Washington, DC.
Meeting strangers at an airport is really odd, if you’ve never done it. Meeting 16 strangers you’re going to go to Uganda with at the airport is extremely odd, if you’ve never done that. We all convened in the capitol to participate in an IC lobbying event meant to propel the passing of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. (It passed.)
IC has hosted three lobbying events in Washington, DC, aimed at getting a commitment from our political leaders to make ending the atrocities of the LRA a priority. It’s a difficult thing to do, really, as there is no interest in the American agenda in getting involved with the Joseph Kony situation; as an organization, we argue, however, that getting involved in stopping heinous atrocities is a human interest. It’s been nice to see that idea catch on.
Quick acquaintances were made with my travel buddies as we all crammed into a hotel in a remote part of the District (historically and presently, IC likes to save money). Our chaperones for the journey were Movement Director Zach Barrows and Director of Idea Development Jedidiah Jenkins. Zach is a Boston version of Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights, and Jedidiah is some strange Gandalf meets Ira Glass meets Carmen Sandiego (minus the thievery.) My experience with these two men was the first interaction I had with the staff of Invisible Children, and it was an intense experience.
Because of the huge conference they were hosting, Zach was constantly on his phone attempting to divert all crises and Jed was away doing whatever magical things he does with our supporters and staff and celebrity contingency. The meal schedule was erratic, a casualty of their focus – something I would come to learn later comes with working at IC. Their dedication and tireless work should have been some severe foreshadowing of my future life at IC, but I didn’t see it at the time.
That unwavering focus is not just present on event day. We stay at the office all night finalizing flyer designs, and to re-write a blog for the 37th time, and to drive five hours in the middle of the night so we can make it to that small middle school documentary screening in the morning.
To stay sane, we have to have a bit of whimsy. Human Resource Director Tiffany Keesey heads up numerous committees – Fun Committee, Health Committee, Professional Development Committee – to ensure we look up from our work at least once a week. We will occasionally cut off work at four for a Four O’Clock Friday and convene at a local bar (where we will proceed to sneakily still respond to e-mails under the tables). During the Olympics, inspired by the television show, we will hold an Office Olympics.
But when it’s time to work, we get it. It’s not about us, and that’s what makes this work okay. It’s not even really a sacrifice – it’s a choice to be a part of a story bigger than what can fit in our journals. It’s a choice that overrides anything personal – stress, sleep, malaria, carpal tunnel, hives, hair loss, ulcers, or dengue fever. The cause always comes first, and we honor that.
I saw why we honor that on the remainder of my trip with Zach and Jedidiah back after DC in the summer of 2009. The two weeks we spent in Gulu, Uganda, shifted my entire focus. It was an experience that I wish anyone `who doubts the legitimacy of our work could experience. We saw all of the programs IC has on the ground in Uganda and met just a fraction of people who benefit from those supporter-funded initiatives,
We visited the facility where women who were former sex slaves now earn a living as seamstresses. Our chaperones explained to us that these women now are able to provide for their children and send them to local schools.
It was the most real, eye-opening two-week chunk of my life, and I got to share it with fellow young global optimists – marking another IC-sparked life-revelation. I was beginning to notice a trend of earth-shattering moments of infinity that all stemmed from this nonprofit I collected books for.
I explored those feelings further as I went to college in Chicago to study music business. The sense of purpose I felt because of the trip to Uganda was so strong and so wasted on my time attempting to jumpstart a career in a field I didn’t know if I even believed in anymore. (I believe in it again.)
Two tours later, an internship in the Communication Department, and a brief position in New York City during the height of KONY 2012 all led me to my current job – a split between the Artist Relations Department and the Communications Department, mainly focusing on social content for musician relationships and assisting our staff writers with culture coverage.
It’s very odd to think back to who I was before I saw the Invisible Children film because my life has been defined not by the company I work for, but the cause behind it and the people I support it with. I wasn’t aware in 2009 that I would be close friends with Gandalf/Jedidiah or that I would be hitting up Zach Barrows every time a new Kanye West track dropped.
I, as everyone, was invited into the Invisible Children story, and eventually the walls of the company that have become too familiar. (For a week during a fundraising campaign, I literally slept at the office.) It’s become part of me. I will leave IC eventually, though – this work pace is not the most sustainable. I will have to enter the “real world” at some point. As I do, though, I will forever be changed by my time and relationships here.
And when the day comes that Joseph Kony is captured and brought to justice for his crimes, whether that be six months from now or before this is even published, we will have played a part in making that happen. It’s a pride that we don’t often speak about at work so as not to jinx anything, but it will be felt around the world by everyone who made the decision to choose to join a community of people pushing forward toward justice for the most vulnerable.