Friday, July 25, 2014

San Diego Initiation

Our group in San Diego
I woke early in the little boutique hotel, Hotel Vyvant, at the top of the hill, nearly under the expressway-- a sweet little place with thick, scarred bannistered stairs leading to lettered rooms. I got "R," which I decided to privately call the Rob Room in honor of my husband left home with our two, young children.

Still on East Coast time, I woke around 5:00 a.m., then decided I should walk as much as possible in the time leading up to the jet packaging we'd be subject in our journey to the Pearl of Africa. I discover that the hotel is located truly at the perimeter of Little Italy, which is mostly quiet at this time, about 6:00 a.m.

I walk down to the seaboard and admire an impossibly complicated array of lines festooned on an antique tall ship that has a golden Athena holding a torch at the bow. See the tops of two submarines trimmed with seaweed fringes waving just below the water's surface, the exposed part of the vessel, a thick patina of black paint and small windows. I see the world's oldest steel hulled ship that's plowed big sea crossings since the 1800s. The paint is thick. The exterior reminding me of the thick edges of feet uncomfortable wearing shoes.

Walking back through the streets of the village, a homeless woman carrying dozens of stuffed bags shouts to the second story of a single story building to a lover only she can see: "You never loved me."

Back at the hotel, a couple of hours still to spare, I take a hot shower, shave my legs, floss my teeth, and sit in a bleach scented terrycloth robe and watch an episode of Dexter on Netflix.

In the lobby, a bright, cheerful place, two women older than me and a family from Hawaii sit enjoying locally made granola, Greek yogurt, and coffee that indeed tastes as good as it smells. The two women, Mary and Lisa, are traveling friends, both teachers. The couple from Hawaii traveling with their aloof teenage boy are both docs, one a geriatric specialist from a VA hospital. We talk about the current media attention on VA, young people inspired to global activism, and the challenges of managing middle school students. Mary talks of her husband Steve who used to work in judicial justice probation program who always reminded people that kids are all really "just kids."

Though I have a cool taxi app that I want to experiment with, I decide instead to get the front desk clerk, a bright faced, flower-shirted 20-something, to print me a Google walking map so I can try to prepare for the many hours of sitting on planes.

The walk is just over two miles, through downtown San Diego, past a law library with the tagline, "making law public." I imagine the Righteous consulting with busy librarians to find precedent for an array of injustices that need resolution. I picture Invisible Children inner circle member Jedidiah Jenkins studying at a long table inside for his bar exam.

The New Children's Museum, San Diego
I admire a painting garden at a children's museum, a place where children can paint a small windmill and a tractor. So many small hands have stroked brushes across the rubber and metal that the equipment seems melting, a hot farm-themed mess, thickly frosted cakes dripping slowly into the rubberized surface beneath them.

I pass a convention center, quiet except for a large group of camp kids who crowd the sidewalk on their way to some landmark, I imagine the seaweed laced submarine or perhaps the tall ship receiving their little sneakered feet. I pass Padre Park into an area of town bustling with shelter residents and street people, starting the day, waking, greeting each other on sidewalks that smell undeniably like urine.

My suitcase tires are visibly wearing away as I roll them on the rough walk from the hotel. By this point they are now only the much smaller interior part of the wheel which I hope is much stronger and can endure the long trip. I imagine myself as an animated figure walking to the IC office, bits of my tire falling apart along the way, my suitcase tipping over to one tire as I drag it across trolley tracks and curbs. I am minutes away from the office, the beehive of what has been such an iconic organization for me since 2005.

I feel giddy, like someone surely made a mistake by inviting me, a feeling that comes like cookie-stealing imp into my psyche at intervals along the trip. A broad shouldered, somewhat disheveled man on the sidewalk watches me coming and asks "where you going?" To which I proudly proclaim "I am going to Africa." The words sound fake coming out of my mouth, an opening to an annoying song from a musical about a misguided girl in an urban landscape out imagining adventures for herself.

The IC office is an unassuming brick building a couple of blocks away. I go in the front door unsure if this is where I am to be. I head up a flight of stairs and see a large African mask leaning against a landing. This must be the place.

A messy pile of suitcases rests at the top of the stairs. I am welcomed by smiling face behind a desk who seems to already know who I am. This could be the Matrix, I conclude. I am dreaming or they think I someone else.

In a small fishbowl meeting room, young people gather in small huddles talking excitedly. Inside, I discover the mix is both ZeroLRA trip winners, IC staffers, and interns happily getting acquainted.

One of the first people I talk to is Julian, who works as a "Central Africa" intern. Julian, whose nationality is French-American, came to Invisible via Washington, DC where he worked as a lobbyist. He learned of IC when a large group of activists came for an event called Move DC, a rally designed to bring legislative attention to the LRA crisis held in 2009. Over time, the rally resulted in several key pieces of legislation that provide US support for Ugandan forces working to eradicate the LRA. More details about the legislative impact of IC's lobbying efforts are detailed on the group's website here.

Julian's job now is monitoring the LRA's movement north of Uganda to the border lands of Sudan, the Central African Republic, and DR Congo where the group has retreated. Some speculate that the Sudanese government may be providing support or at least coverage from capture. A 2012 BBC report offers more details in this article, "Ugandan army says Sudanese backing Joseph Kony's army."

Because communications are often made in French, Julian's fluency has been invaluable. He tells me they have a pretty good idea of exactly where Kony is now, a region right above the "R" on a map that CEO Ben Keesey shows us later in a debriefing. 

Another intern, Evan, talks about his work as an engagement intern for IC, working to connect student groups and individual supporters in unified approaches to fundraising. His enthusiasm for meeting the group is palpable. Later that night, he stays up late in the IC staff house playing improv games with some of the members of our group, unable to sleep.

We get a tour of the office, an exposed-beam, brick-walled great room, painted white adorned with enlarged images of Africans in bright clothing, grinning widely or working on various IC initiatives such as Mend, a women's work co-op that makes sturdy, drab colored messenger bags and clutches, adorned with leather patches that tell the story of each bag maker.

As one might imagine, there are large Apple monitors and cool tchotchke-laden mantels and desktops in every partitioned space. Some outer edged offices have large, modern couches, well-worn from any of what must be dozens of daily gatherings of interns and employees. In one office an old golden retriever passively accepts ear rubs and doggie coos.

We have a thick day, fully scheduled after the bagel meet and greet. Once basic introductions are concluded, we head out to a local waterside park where we gather in a circle for a game of Two Truths and a Lie where each player must offer two interesting truths about personal life experiences and one fictional "lie." We share a smattering of odd facts with each other about senior pranks gone bad, unusual living situations, and embarrassing moments.

After this fun get-to-know-you, we pile back into the red vans to return to the office where Jason Russell will greet us and offer some advice for our trip. I am sitting next to Raychel, a just-graduated high school student from Ohio who looks at me wide-eyed when Jason enters the room. I am sympathetic. Inside I feel like a groupie backstage at a rock concert. It's hard to stay cool. I tell her I am feeling the same way, not quite nauseated, but blood jumping like it does when the dinosaur gets close in Jurassic Park and the water begins to ripple. But everyone else looks so calm, Raychel observes.

I recall a quote I read in a piece by Rob Lowe about sending his eldest son off to college, a piece of advice he offers his nervous son as he drops him off. "Don't compare your insides to other people's outsides." In fact, I find out later we were all regulating our responses, containing what could have easily been a scene like something from the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles were introduced.

Russell works his way around the room greeting everyone personally, shaking our hands, and embracing us. In his hands are rolled up printouts of bios we were asked to submit prior to our trip. When he comes to me he hugs me and asks of all the interesting life experiences I have had, what's the most memorable.

"This is the moment. Right now," I tell him. 

After Russell's warm greeting and a sneak preview of video in progress, we meet Ben Keesey, Invisible Children's CEO, another person whose life has taken form in the context of this global imperative. Ben is red-eyed and placid, fresh off a plane from the East Coast where he's been in what he terms a "high security" meeting with government advisors and military officials about the LRA and the work of Invisible Children. "Don't post this on Facebook," he admonishes.

For the next hour, he tells us about the changes in Kony's strategies, how he's taken to lying low, advised his army not to launch any large-scale atrocities because of the danger of attracting attention in the face of an active international search for the LRA. "He's not stupid," Keesey tells us. "He's not a madman."

Quite recently, a top-level official was caught when the group he was traveling with decided to split into two, a large and a small group in an attempt to thwart the trackers on their trail. Knowing the ruse, the trackers made the decision to follow the smaller group which turned out to be the magic door. The officer was caught easily when his small group of five was out-numbered by the larger group of missionaries on his trail.

He was caught without incident of violence.

Perhaps the work Keesey seems most proud of, however, is the work to embolden soldiers to defect and return to their communities where often their families wait eagerly for their return. He shows us pictures a recent defector, a floppy hatted, young man with a lovely lop-sided smile. Video clips show him being embraced by what looks like a long-lost sibling who races to greet him as he returns home after nearly ten years in captivity as a child solider.

"He works for us now," Ben smiles. This newly returned former soldier is one of the weekly voices broadcast through radio towers to captive fighters ensconced in the jungle. It turns out that one of the most powerful catalysts for young soldiers is being convinced that they won't face prosecution for the crimes they were forced to commit under Joseph Kony.

A Invisible Children strategy to encourage defection is the printing and distribution via airdrop of flyers depicting former soldiers who have successfully defected. The hope is that seeing familiar faces on flyers might counteract some of the lies the LRA tells its soldiers about defectors being executed. Since the initiative began, nearly 1.5 million flyers have been dropped. Keesey tells us that they've recently learned that their flyers need to be smaller, more easily concealed by defector hopefuls from their violent commanders. The organization uses feedback like this regularly in its redesigns.

Another recent defection victory is a man who once held a middle management position in Kony's army. Since the war began, the man had fathered five children, offspring he hoped would not have to grow up in the army, on the run, perpetrators of war crimes. When interviewed about his defection, a process that helps to gather intelligence and insight about IC strategy effectiveness, the man told his interviewers that he thought he might not himself escape prosecution but that he had decided the lives of his children were worth the risk.

"He works for us now too," Keesey literally giggles as he tells us.

This strategy of fighting war with peace and compassion is not a new concept. Ghandi preached peaceful non-violence as a means of affecting change. Martin Luther King also talked about peaceful and intelligent resolution to conflict. Invisible Children has likewise taken this position: the belief that good can prevail, that hard work pays off, and that ultimately perseverance, grit, and yes, love can trump terror.

Keesey concludes with his advice about our trip. Be nice to each other, he reminds us. Be ready to roll with changes in the schedule. If you are told it's time to go, get on the bus quickly. Journal. Find time to process. You will be deeply impacted by this experience. It will be emotional. You'll come home from this experience and you'll want to punch anyone who doubts you. Don't do that, he grins. And finally, drink it in. Even you are not inclined to participate in a tribal dance with a bunch of strangers, get over yourself and just do it. You will thank yourself. You need to do it all.

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