Sunday, March 18, 2012

Choosing compassion: Kony 2012 edition

Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children, was detained for public masturbation a few days ago. He and his organization had been in the spotlight because of Kony 2012, the Invisible Children advocacy campaign that yielded the fastest viral video we have known. Critical reaction to the campaign raised some poignant questions about storytelling and advocacy: How do we balance a compelling call for advocacy among those far away with respecting the wishes and priorities of those on the ground? How do we preserve Ugandans' dignity, integrity and agency over their lives in the process of telling their story? How do we transform a complex history into a call to action without oversimplifying, dramatizing or falling into the very stereotypes we seek to combat?

Many have argued that Invisible Children has failed in striking this balance, thus potentially creating a video that is inaccurate, disrespectful or out of sync with the wishes of Ugandans for their country and with their perceptions of the conflict. I have read these opinions with respect and am proud to be part of a community that analyzes the meaning of responsible charity, dissects advocacy strategies, and does not shy away from the difficult questions.

People often ask if working in conflict and post-conflict areas disillusions me and, at times, it does. What I find most disillusioning, however, is cynicism. Snark is not a companion I wish to welcome in a journey of service. I was, therefore, greatly disillusioned by the tone of the conversation about #kony2012. Among some, there was a sense of rejoice in the backlash of the Kony 2012 campaign. There is a sense of celebration of a take-down here and it feels thoroughly out of place. Since news of Jason Russell's breakdown circulated, the hashtag #horny2012 appeared on Twitter, along with other distasteful jokes and mockery about Kony 2012 and Jason Russell's public indecency. Organizations are run by humans: fallible humans whose errors will (rightfully) come at a high cost to them. I cannot help but want to meet these humans' leaps of faith - and even their missteps - with compassion. I refuse to put compassion in the "bucket of feelings" many colleagues of mine will automatically render irrelevant to the conversation. I refuse to treat extending compassion as blindness to critique.

I also refuse to point fingers at mistakes and missteps without necessarily providing counterpoints of models that get it right, of individuals and organizations who do it better. In that vein, I greatly appreciate Akhila Kolisetty's Feature Friday, in which she profiles projects that inspire, and the Pulitzer Center's storytelling initiatives, most recently in the theme of reproductive choice in Africa. This is not an exhausting list, or even a sufficient one, but it is a start of my own commitment to sharing stories and projects that give me hope. Constant critique causes action paralysis, as though the service-based part of me is petrified of moving for fear of causing more harm than good. This awareness that good intentions are not enough, that skills matter, that storytelling impacts those the story is about as much as those who hear it or tell it is necessary in these environments is necessary -- but I would never board the plane without drawing courage from role models and having faith that the combination of intentions, skills and compassion can make impact.

I refuse to dismiss storytelling at large. The story of a conflict, a people, and a place cannot only be told through hard data and expert opinion. I agree with many that relying on locals for the telling of these stories ensures accurate, honest storytelling that represents the voice of those portrayed. Yet, I find the notion that we can extract ourselves - the foreigners, the non-locals - from the stories misguided.  By being there, asking questions, bearing witness, we weave ourselves into the story. We form a perspective. Our own voice comes through every now and then; instead of lamenting that, I welcome another layer to the story, as long as we can remain aware of our own biases and can commit ourselves to making that layer honest and respectful.

And finally, accounting for emotions in a conversation need not be less credible than rational critique. Extending compassion to Jason Russell and Invisible Children does not make one an "Invisible Children apologist" or a mushy, feely person whose judgment is clouded by unicorns. I am thoroughly exhausted by hearing that "you will only survive as a conflict specialists if you maintain distance, block out feelings and develop thick skin." I would much rather serve guided by vulnerability: by discovering and embracing my own, by seeing it and welcoming it in others, rather than denying it, chasing it away or treating it as a sign of weakness. I am not choosing to extend compassion because I am naturally good; I am not picking vulnerability because I am naive or because it is a comfortable option. Rather, they are practices I am shyly, clumsily and slowly welcoming, in an attempt to recognize shared humanity. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The end of missing someone

A story of then and now, of farewells and reunions: Then -- a walk through Athens, the first almond blossoms, dashing subways, Melina Merkouri watching over us, Vespas in the sunshine, wine and seafood in the sun under the Parthenon.

Four days ago
"HAHAHAHAHAHA! Did you eat....... garlic?"

I did, but I did not expect my brother to smell it on me the second I walked into his apartment. Garlic was a fundamental part of the last ode to Athens: a walk with Niki, wine, octopus and melitzanosalata with a generous portion of garlic for lunch in the shadow of the Acropolis.

"Well, let me email Elijah and tell him to bring a nose clip to the airport!," he joked. And proceeded to actually email him. I laughed and Moira the dog backed away from me. [My brother will still tell you it was because of the stench.]

71 days away from my love and on the day of the reunion I had melitzanosalata. There comes a point of solitude when it is simply you: your breath, your garlicky exhales, your certainty that nobody will be bothered by them. There also comes a point in beautiful companionship, a point of certainty that nobody will be bothered by garlic.
Four nights ago 
Nobody prepared me for the foreignness of it. I had spent 71 days in impatient anticipation, ranging from ecstatic jumping-out-of-my-skin to absent. The latter is the defining characteristic of long-distance love: Some of you is always somewhere else, daydreaming, wishing, missing, longing. You live for what Jonathan Safran Foer describes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as "the end of missing someone": 
I like the impatience ,the stories that the mouth cannot tell fast enough, the ears that aren't big enough, the eyes that can't take in all the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone. 
Nobody tells you that the end of missing someone will come with a foreign beginning. Those first kisses are like picking lips out of a line-up with your eyes closed: You know you recognize them, but they do not have that comforting familiarity of meeting your own lips every day. So, you kiss again, and again, and again. First in relief, then in disbelief, then in determination to kiss until it is no longer remarkable. To kiss with the knowledge that nobody is getting on a plane for a while again, that those lips will be there in the morning.
A story of then and now, of farewells and reunions: Now -- the first strawberries of spring and a walk through the Jerusalem open-air market. A return to beloved bread and the pita stand. Fingers intertwined, distance extinguished, love rekindled.

Between four nights ago and now
I am not easily silenced. I have agonized over developing a voice, over keeping it strong and letting it crack too. Rarely do words not fall out of me. But, perhaps, my poetry is one of distance and of solitude, of liminal states and of longing. Because, you see, I have no words to describe the time between that kiss at airport arrivals and now. I cannot even keep a diary of the And Then We Brushed Our Teeth variety. 

I know we ate until there was food coming out of our noses. We ate not out of hunger, but out of a desire to revisit every place we have loved here, every place we have made a memory. And we have not even had the fruit crumble yet.
I know we inaugurated the Jerusalem Picnic Society. Members: me and him. And labneh, pita, hummus, and strawberries.
I know nothing is more important to me now than love. I want to live a life with that as the governing force: works of love, relationships of love, words of love. Love is how I respond to the conflict, the strife, the loneliness, the states of liminality. "They" say that love distracts, that it is not quantifiable, that it does not feed a tummy, win a prize or create a legacy. In my heart, love cannot be a distraction in a life in which it is the central theme... in a life in which love is how we live and what we live for. Love is it when you love the person who wants to be remembered for "having loved well and a lot in life." 

I still cannot write the story of these days. I simply want to live it. Love is robbing me of words and it is the most welcome thief. Let us have love. The words can wait.