The invisible genius of KONY 2012

May 15 2012: Annabel Smith, a teacher and community educator, discusses the Kony 2012 campaign. Arguing that, despite the many flaws of both the campaign and organisation, it has given us a reason to be proud of our young people..

Friends in schools all over the world reported children who had never before shown any interest in the news or politics asking about the video.
After several weeks on the critics’ bandwagon I’ve suddenly realised the invisible genius of the Kony 2012 campaign: it’s given us a reason to be proud of our young people again. Did you notice?

Our kids – the ones we constantly criticise for being plugged in or on the phone, not pulling their trousers up and not listening – just stood up in their millions and said they want to help African children they’ve never met. Did I hear a cheer?

Ok, the organisation that facilitated this revolution is flawed, and so is their message. They took a highly complicated situation, simplified it, added regrettable emotional schmalz and rocked it up, insulting everyone in the process. But can we just for a moment let that pass? This film has been watched by over 100 million people, and while we don’t know the exact numbers, we do know that a huge proportion were young. Millions of children have watched, and talked about, a half-hour documentary on an obscure, barely-reported war in a country few adults could find on the map. What does this tell us? That our kids don’t just care about their peers in other countries – they care passionately. That our kids want to be good people. That it’s time we helped them.

In 1994 800,000 Rwandan people were hacked and burned to death in 100 days. When the Head of Human Rights Watch in the US called the State Department to ask why the US government wasn’t doing more, she was told: “You have to make more noise.”

But how can we make more noise about things we don’t know are happening? We rely almost completely on two sets of institutions to tell us everything: schools and the media. Neither is serving the public well just now. Despite the best efforts of many hero teachers and heads of school, education is shaped by cookie-cutter thinking and a remorseless need for data, while media empires, driven by ratings and sales, fill our screens and news stands with celebrity pap or foreign reports that just don’t seem real.

Both let young people down.

Our kids don’t just care about their peers in other countries – they care passionately.
How did we do when KONY 2012 came out? Did our columnists and media leaders provide clear analysis and helpful insight? Did our teachers stop teaching to the test for long enough to have a proper conversation and get beyond a cake sale? In a few, wonderful cases yes, but in the vast majority, no. And why should they? It’s hardly a winner with exam boards or media ratings. So everyone fell back on Google, the BBC, whatever was trending on Twitter; on the Culture-makers and Policy-makers who didn’t know what to say. I bet most households’ resident dinner-table expert was under the age of 18.

Why don’t we, just for once, listen to those young people?

Ten years ago I started writing and teaching courses on global issues. The reaction of my first class of 17/18 year-olds shocked me – they were really angry. Why had they never been told this before? (They were still reeling from the news that President Bush was not attending the Earth Summit, then taking place in Johannesburg.) Just as they were entering adult life, voting and paying taxes, they were told how much they didn’t know. Nobody likes feeling stupid. So we rolled our sleeves up and got started: poverty, global public health, complex emergencies, international institutions.

Then we took it one step further and found the people in our neighbourhood who were the experts: refugee and immigrant communities, local government housing officials, those on low incomes. There’s no better classroom than the community, and no more powerful resource than people telling their own stories. Every year I ask my classes whether I should run the class again. Every year they say yes; courses like this should be compulsory. Everyone should know that the top five arms dealers in the world are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Everyone should know that more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of poverty. Apparently it surprises our media moguls and curriculum planners that young people care about these things.

We can’t teach everything – the world is a big place, after all. Writing curriculum and planning courses isn’t about covering all the facts, it’s about developing skills and habits of mind that allow young people to understand events and situations for which they haven’t been specifically prepared. So if they had a sense of the issues on the African continent, or of the workings of the ICC, or of how civil wars tend to focus on resources not borders, then they would be better equipped to see that whilst Kony should definitely be behind bars, Invisible Children’s approach is reckless and irresponsible.

But let’s not forget that Invisible Children are experts, on both social media and our kids. So rather than demonising Jason Russell and his team, why don’t we try to learn from them. Here are some things they did right:

  • Make the invisible children visible by telling their stories.
  • Shrink the distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ by bringing people together
  • Empower and challenge young people all over the world to act
  • Trust young people to care

Friends in schools all over the world reported children who had never before shown any interest in the news or politics asking about the video. If this is what Invisible Children mean by ‘changing the conversation of our culture’ then I for one am right behind them. At a time of deep budget cuts and growing social polarisation I can’t think of better news than an outstanding display of compassion and determination by our young people. Let’s see them, hear them, and cheer.

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