Ugandan Women Respond to Kony 2012

Kony 2012 Banner

Today I showed our Ugandan partners ‘Kony 2012′. For any who don’t know, ‘Kony 2012′ is a 30-minute film by Invisible Children that became the most viral video of all time, getting over 100 million views in about one week. It aims to rally US support to stop Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that terrorized Uganda for two decades, and continues to terrorize three central African countries.

I wanted them to see the film because it impacts them more than it does me, and so their thoughts on the subject are valuable and can help guide my own.

During the 30-minute runtime their eyes were glued to the screen of my laptop. I have never seen them so attentive. At times they would whisper recognitions and explanations to each other. When Kony or LRA victims were shown they would often sound the unique tsk-tsk-tsk of Acholi displeasure.

When the film ended I asked them for their thoughts.

It was clear that the wounds of two decades of violence are still very tender. Women immediately started sharing stories of their own families – children lost to abductions, siblings lost to violence.

And this led to their first reaction to the film and its plan: it comes twenty years too late for Uganda. You can imagine the sting. America, the world’s great super power, finally awakens to your two decades of terror and loss, only after those decades are over, only after you have started the long, slow, painful work of healing and rebuilding. And finally now they want to stop Kony.

But beyond that reaction they saw that stopping Kony will save hundreds of thousands Congolese, Central African Republicers, and South Sudanese from the sort of pain that they and their families have been through.

The Ugandan government failed to stop Kony, they said. Indeed, it seemed unconcerned with stopping him. The local peace processes failed to bring an end to the violence. The only hope, they believe, is American support and military action. And at least one of them would rather Kony be killed on the spot than given the dignity of a trial.

But whether captured or killed, if Kony was stopped in 2012, they all agreed that there would be a deep collective sense of relief in northern Uganda. They still fear him. They are scared to this day that he and his terrorizing forces will return to Uganda. If Kony is stopped, they told me, all of northern Uganda will celebrate.

Reshape the Earth at Your Feet

This is a special collaboration between Ember co-founder James A. Pearson and our good friend Cody Small at Caava Design. James wrote the following words for our friends at Invisible Children. Cody was kind enough to incorporate them into the beautiful design below.

Have you ever walked up to the ocean, right where the waves are reaching up the sand, and just planted your feet? When a wave rushes back down the shore you can feel it trying to sweep you away. It tugs at your calves. It cuts grooves in the sand around your feet.

That wave is like history, and your life is a choice: either let yourself be swept away or take a stand. Being swept away is easy and fun, but eventually you will just disappear. Taking a stand is hard, but you will reshape the earth at your feet.

Reshape the Earth at Your Feet
Click the picture for the full-size, printable version.

Hope is Beautiful

Ember Arts - Hope is Beautiful

Hope is beautiful. Hope is courageous. Hope is what compels all of us to Dream.

We made this image for you. Use the click-thru link to download the full-size image.  Be reminded to be hopeful and courageous in your efforts to follow your dreams. Our dreams make the world a beautiful place.

Ember Featured by Darling Magazine

The good people at Darling Magazine published an article on Ember this weekend. Below is an excerpt. Read the rest on the Darling site.

When you hear “African refugee woman living in extreme poverty,” you probably don’t picture a woman who has big dreams for herself and her family. I certainly didn’t.

But for the last four years I’ve worked closely with a small group of Ugandan women who lived that story. My company Ember Arts partners with 28 Ugandan women to create beautiful handmade jewelry. All of these women fled their homes to save themselves and their families from a civil war. And all of them survived a depth of poverty that I didn’t even know existed until I left the US.

I’ve learned that not only do they have big dreams, they get after them.

Ugandan women working in the Acholi Quarters rock quarry.
Before partnering with Ember, the Ugandan women we partner with crushed rocks into gravel for $1 per day in this rock quarry.

When I first met the women who would become our partners I saw my relationship to them as a sort of math problem. Their needs exceeded their resources. If I could help them balance that equation, all would be well.

But then we started to become friends. I heard their stories. I got to know their kids. I started to hear their hopes and dreams for the future.

Agnes wanted to finish her education, Jackie wanted to start her own salon, Esther wanted to build a house in the same village that she once fled at the ends of rebel bayonets. All of them wanted to send their kids to good schools and see them achieve the sort of success that would transform their families and communities.

This was more than just math.

Read the rest over at Darling Magazine.

Visionary vs. Vision


[photo from michael_tischer]

Not everyone is a visionary, but everyone has vision.

A visionary, in the usual sense, envisions something huge and impactful, something that is an astounding leap from anything that came before it. Making that vision real takes enormous focus and dedication, and often enormous sacrifices in other parts of life. I’m struck by a passage in “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book about visionary doctor Paul Farmer, that highlights his shortcomings as a husband and father. His wholehearted pursuit of a beautiful vision left him with little time for family.

Not everyone is going to have the capacity or desire to be a visionary. But everyone has vision.

Having vision on the usual scale looks a lot like setting goals. In fact, it looks exactly like that. You envision something you want to accomplish, and you set about doing it. Even something as simple as making dinner benefits from our vision.

The great challenge of having vision is achieving clarity. Seeing the details of something that has not yet happened is difficult. But I’ve learned that it’s an important challenge to attempt. Clarity of vision will enliven many parts of your life, from tonight’s dinner to the impact you’d like to have on the world.

In smaller tasks, like dinner, clarity is often achieved by creative and emotional labor, envisioning something a certain way and then committing yourself to that vision. But in larger goals, like your life’s impact, clarity is harder to come by.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to seek clarity in the larger picture is by trying things. Choose a pursuit that promotes your deeper values and dive into it wholeheartedly.

For the most part you’ll find that you were right, that this pursuit satisfies and enlivens you in many ways. But inevitably there will be parts of it that rankle you, little friction points where you can feel that this is not the end point of your journey. So learn from those, and then try your next, better idea.

Ironically, when we lack clarity, trying things doesn’t feel like an option. After all, we’re not clear on what things we want to try. But in my experience doing things is the best way to figure out what it is you want to do.

Over time, by process of elimination and refinement, you’re vision will become clearer, you will be more satisfied with your life, and your impact on the world will grow and become more personal. This process is the work of a lifetime. And I can hardly think of a better way to live.


Everything is a Hack


photo from Alex on flickr

When I was younger the world looked like a network of incontrovertible systems: the Education System, the Banking System, the Motor Vehicles System, the Restaurant System, even the Movie Rental System. It seemed like all you had to do was work these systems properly, and you would be rewarded with a happy and successful life.

So after graduating from college I expected that, having completed the Education System, I would quickly be plugged into some other lucrative System, like the Banking one.

But it didn’t happen. And even more disconcertingly, the closer I looked at these systems the less they looked like big, incontrovertible systems at all, and the more they looked like a bunch of people just figuring things out, hacking things together until they worked.

The systems, I realized, weren’t systems at all. They were just particularly successful hacks that many people came to rely on.

Everything is a hack. When this first dawned on me it made the world seem terribly complex and fragile. But then I saw the great opportunity of it. These systems aren’t incontrovertible laws of society, they’re just our best ideas so far, our most successful hacks.

So if I can come up with such a hack, I can build into the world the sorts of systems I’d like to see. We are not bound by the systems of today, but rather the world relies upon us to come up with the hacks that will create a better tomorrow.

[Cross-posted on Charles Lee's Blog]

Seven Billion Dreamers

Somewhere in the world today a baby is born and unknowingly pushes the population ticker to 7,000,000,000.

Seven billion people. Seven billion dreamers.

It is humanity’s unique blessing to envision things that never were and by our work to make them real. We are a species of dreamers.

And whether we are born in American suburbs or Ugandan villages we dream of the same things. We dream of finding love, finding a calling, finding success. We dream of good lives for our families. We dream of a world where more people, where all people, have the liberty and resources to pursue their dreams.

Our dreams unite us.

The Evolution of Good Ideas


artwork from Barabeke on flickr

Evolution works because it’s not afraid of its children dying. It’s constantly trying new ideas and new combinations of ideas, and a lot of them are really bad. For example, I have asthma and bad eyesight. Thanks evolution.

But evolution doesn’t care. And because its willing to throw so many failed ideas out into the world for testing, it comes up with a lot of good ones as well. Like the brain. Like those little hairs in your ears that keep you from falling over. Like the nuchal ligament on the base of your skull that keeps your head from flopping around when you run (just learned about that today).

Our own idea-making is an evolutionary process as well. But most of the time we hamstring it by holding back most of our ideas, waiting until we find one we’re almost certain will succeed. We’re afraid of our children dying, and maybe even more afraid of how it will reflect on us if they do.

But 2 billion years of R&D tells us that, when it comes to ideas, the more you try, the better. So release a few more into the world for testing. See what happens.

Powerless, Senseless Kindness

Our friends over at Plywood were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote about one of the quotes that inspired the Ember Arts ethos. Here’s an excerpt:

Life is not given special treatment on our planet. Life struggles. The elements wear down life far more quickly than they do a stone.

But against what often seem terrible odds, life persists. Mothers have babies and teach them to be good. Babies grow and try to make a difference. People find each other and commit to love each other for life. Communities gather to encourage and support and build safety nets for one another. People care for each other.

Somewhere deep in this human thing is a drive to care, a realization that alone before this universe we will perish, but together, somehow, we will persist.

To read the rest, go here.

Soccer, Noise, and Steve Jobs

Yesterday I sat in a crowded bar with about 200 Ugandans (and a handful of Kenyans) and watched a big soccer match between Uganda and Kenya on television. The experience of being there with all those people was great, but my experience of the game itself was awful. I could barely follow the action.

There were vuvzelas and whistles blowing, a busted television, horrible ads splashed across the action, and the TV cameras were so lo-res that you could hardly see the ball.

The two teams were playing only a few miles away, but between them and me were so many layers of noise that I missed much of what was happening on the field. (I don’t mean noise in the auditory sense (though that was definitely part of it), but in the signal-vs-noise sense, noise meaning anything that degrades the information being sent.)

It made me wonder, how many layers of noise come between me and Ember’s customers?

It won’t surprise you that I thought about Steve Jobs, about how he controlled the noise between himself and Apple’s customers. He was a legendary perfectionist and notorious micro-manager, ensuring that his vision came through in Apple’s products. And he built an online and physical retail empire, giving customers direct, noiseless access to that vision.

He even responded with legendary regularity to customer emails. Jobs built a company that stripped noise out wherever possible so that he could broadcast his message loud and clear. I’d like to transmit the Ember message with as much clarity.