Is it possible to enjoy activism?
I went in to my interview with JD Stier and Garrett Moore of Stand With Congo feeling like, after the year we’ve had globally, that it simply wasn’t possible. That activism was something we did because we knew it was the right thing to do; that if we didn’t make our voices heard, we were giving up our power. And while that is true, with so many issues vying for our time and attention, it can quickly become overwhelming. We get tired, we get burnt out, we stop enjoying the act of speaking out for what we care about.
“I’ve been a professional activist for 15 years, and it comes with ups and downs,” says JD Stier, Stand With Congo’s Campaign Director. “On a year like we’ve just endured globally, with so much division and hate in our politics, if we are going to survive as a society, people need to be active, they need to speak up, they need to vote.”
So how, then, do we get the energy to do so? How do we make it a priority in our lives? Let’s start at the beginning of Stand With Congo.
Behind-the-scenes: Advocacy Prep
In 2016, It Was All a Dream
When we first chatted with JD and Garrett back in 2016, they were about to embark on their first campus tour to screen their documentary When Elephants Fight. Stand With Congo itself was formed with the goal of raising global awareness about injustices happening in Congo in order to improve the state of peace in the nation and worldwide.
“We embarked on a 50-campus tour in 2016, but we ended up reaching over 100 campuses,” JD said. “By the end of the year, we had reached all 7 continents. We just couldn’t get the film to screen in Antarctica because of a download issue, but we tried!” he laughed.
When a political climate is divisive, it moves people to act. Humans have an inherent desire to learn, organize and build community. Stand With Congo entered into the global consciousness as an organization on the forefront of making positive change, and that resonated. “What was most pleasantly surprising was the diversity of people wanting to get involved and how positively they responded,” said Campaign Manager Garrett Moore. “The partners and advocates that came out of this are inspiring.”
Activists writing letters to US Senators
A Year to Remember
Fast forward to 2017, and Stand With Congo is now an inclusive social movement hub uniting activists, civil society leaders, techies, private sector innovators, and other global citizens with the Congo peace movement.
“2017 was about growing our community,” said JD. “Our goal is to organize a global, diverse community with a collective voice that reaches the world stage in order to impact policy in Congo.”
That goal is quickly becoming a reality. This past year, the Stand With Congo team and their Lead Organizers (a group of about one dozen highly engaged activists within the movement) gathered together to speak to the United States Senate and House of Representatives about the political crisis in Congo, and how even limited U.S. engagement could be powerful for peace. “We organized in-district meetings spanning the U.S. Congressional August recess, so that when Senators left D.C. our organizers were there to meet them in their home office,” JD said. “We delivered a message of unity, of diversity, and of global solidarity. We welcomed our elected U.S. leaders to join us in the fight for peace and respect for human rights in the Congo.”
These efforts resulted in Stand With Congo being invited to meet directly with members of both houses of Congress in Washington, D.C. in October. This first-ever D.C. delegation was able to deliver the message that the Congo is, in fact, a local issue. “We’ve heard feedback from partners in Washington D.C. that this display of community organizing has created substantial momentum on U.S. engagement for peace in the Congo that wasn’t there before,” JD said.
Stand With Congo activists with Indiana’s US Senator Todd Young
Getting Organized Online
Like many movements, Stand With Congo had to get online in order to get that momentum rolling. They’ve been working with Rebel.com since the beginning to help build a strong online presence. “Rebel has been by our side since the start, providing support and guidance along the way,” says Garrett. “They are one of our original partners, and continue to promote us every step of the way. We wouldn’t want to work with anyone else. I encourage any non-profit or social movement to use Rebel if they are looking for real support.”
It’s not just their website that is making a difference. Stand With Congo has leveraged social media as a central organizing strategy for activists, and it’s working. “A third of our following on social media comes from inside Congo,” says Garrett. “For a global effort like ours, to have 33% of the audience within the Congo is an achievement. But we’ve also attracted people from 74 countries and counting who are engaged with us online.”
“A strategic blend of offline and online organizing brings our community together,” JD explains. “We have meetings every week to bring a hybrid approach to how we think about working in tandem. This approach is key to successful organizing.”
The boys of BVES Bukavu stand for peace in the Great Lakes Region of Africa
More to Screen in 2018
Spring of 2018 is a big one for Stand With Congo, as they are set to launch their second documentary tour, featuring a new film that looks at what’s next for Congo. “This film is about the struggle, the hope, and the movement inside Congo that inspires us,” said JD. “This world view, this reality, is what we want more people to experience.”
The documentary has been directed and produced by Congolese filmmakers, and includes writers from all over Africa. It gives viewers the opportunity to meet young entrepreneurs that are designing scalable solutions at the local level, and to learn more about members of the Congolese diaspora from around the world who are reclaiming the Congolese narrative. As JD puts it, they are changing the way the world thinks of the Congo from “Congo is a place of death and despair” to “Congo is a place with great promise”.
In addition to releasing their new film and touring around the world, the Stand With Congo team will expand their work with activists from across the globe, including providing advocacy training to teach people how to speak to policymakers in their home locale.
Documentary film screening in Monash, South Africa
Igniting the Passion for Activism
All of this work and incredible growth has shown that a group of committed and passionate activists can make a difference. But to have success in a movement means you must get out of your comfort zone.
“I have been reminded so often this year how significant it is that we spend time on things we are passionate about and how we engage respectfully with other people,” said Garrett. “To be willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations is the only way we’re going to make progress and change. It’s been critical to our success.”
With a 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of bad news. Where do you start to help? And, more importantly, how do you start to help? “We want to remain cognizant of people’s life pressures and commitments,” said JD. “We created a ladder of engagement, from someone who has a few seconds to a few minutes, to someone who wants to give many hours per week or month to Congo advocacy. We make it easy for people to take a step when they are ready to do so, in that moment.”
Post-advocacy meeting high
Are You an Activist?
The conversation with JD and Garrett had inspired me, but I was still concerned about how to be an activist without losing myself in anger and despair. Hearing these two committed and passionate activists speak, however, made me feel a renewed sense of hope that being an activist for issues you care about can be enjoyable.
“For people who are beginning to identify as an activist, who feel the call to act - this can be as simple as signing a petition or going to a protest every now and then - you can be enjoying the movement around the world and in your communities,” said JD. “We form bonds as sisters and brothers around the world united with common values. Owning our agency and committing ourselves to taking actions on our values.”
JD and Garrett are passionate about Congo, but what are you passionate about? Their intention for this movement goes beyond their name. In fact, they want their activism to inspire you to start your own movement, whether it’s Stand With Tigers, Stand With Forests, or whatever it is that you feel strongly about. “There are a million issues that are affecting people, and it’s going to take all of us to get it solved. They will be solved by everyday people,” said JD. “We’re just two dudes showing up every day, working hard, and listening.”
“I believe in the power of people,” said Garrett. “What I share with my friends and community is that you should find your passion. Become a leader in your own community. Start speaking out for the issues that matter to you. Don’t be afraid to take a step and take an action. Create small pockets of people coming together to build a movement.”
People coming together to change the world? Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.