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It's Not Black or White: The Teachable Moments in #KONY2012

KONY2012 is compelling video aimed at identifying Joseph Kony as a murderous guerilla army leader and child trafficker in order to bring him to justice. Social media has made it the most viral video of all time, as either because of it or as a result of it, American students took hold of the issue. But another factor propelled the video to media superstardom: that of controversy. The filmmaker was accused of manipulating facts to make his point, and oversimplifying complex issues. Others argued the "so what?" factor: does a viral video really change anything? Homa Sabet Tavangar, author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World shares some poignant words about the KONY2012 controversy, and particularly how youth can better understand the world while navigating complexity and differing perspectives.

Like so many parents of a child with a Facebook account, I learned about Joseph Kony within hours of Invisible Children's KONY2012 Internet film release from my indignant teenage daughter who promptly changed her profile picture in support of the campaign. These days that's about the cause equivalent of going "Facebook official" in a romantic relationship, proclaiming your commitment to the world.

The next day I gave a talk to faculty and staff at a school in New York City. In the context of educating global citizens with competencies for the 21st Century, I brought up the power of teaching with social media to integrate their digital lives with their school learning, and mentioned the viral example of #KONY2012, fresh in my mind. The middle school dean's hand shot up. He shared that he had just been contacted by three students who wanted to discuss how their school would respond to the campaign to stop this warlord.

Thanks to millions of young people like these, the 29-minute documentary about a conflict and region in the world most of its teen viewers had never heard of, became the most viral video ever made.

As the video points out, when we know, we can care. If we don't know about the situation, how can we care? But knowledge also brings with it responsibility. And skewed information targeting the emotions of kids who yearn to make a difference in the world can be dangerous. Invisible Children's approach in KONY2012 is far from perfect, and criticisms citing the hubris of the campaign, messy financials, strategic short-sightedness, geographic misrepresentation, and oversimplification have spurred a vigorous global debate as well as important clarification from Invisible Children's leaders.

As we see, the issues aren't so simple, like black and white. And empowerment doesn't flow simply from white to black. Our children feel outrage over violence and injustice, regardless the skin color of the victims, perpetrators, negotiators, donors, or activists. Through action they can learn that compassion is distinct from pity.

As this story unfolds, we see pushback to the criticisms growing, as reflected in Nicholas Kristof's New York Times eloquent Op-Ed. Filmmaking has become an interactive experience, and so has viewing and reading. Audiences can curate diverse perspectives on the story, and then create their own responses which also are dynamic. This turns into an empowered, creative, iterative learning process ideal for today's youth, the "digital natives." The adults in their lives—teachers, parents, Lady Gaga or Rainn Wilson's Twitterfeed—can help guide, even if imperfectly. Every criticism of the film opens a door to recognizing perspectives, investigating the world, communicating ideas and taking action: together these build the Global Competence identified by the Asia Society's education research. This is what 21st Century education starts to look like.

So, whether you celebrate or bemoan the viral #KONY2012, ask questions to spur powerful learning around global competencies:


  1. Recognize Perspectives: What is the local Ugandan, or broader African perspective? Thoughtful insights and approaches have been developed from the people who have been living with this crisis, such as this former child soldier's response here. Watch this video response from a Ugandan blogger, Rosebell Kagumire here. Al Jazeera English has a Kony Debate page, which includes "Uganda Speaks" spotlighting local opinions. Afripop has compiled a list of responses by Africans, and there's one on Boing Boing, too.

    Step back and consider: What assumptions do you make about the people shown in the video? For example, the children in Uganda aren't simply victims. They are also complex, intelligent, creative, resilient, empathic, intelligent survivors. One subtle point I appreciated in the KONY2012 film was the reference to their "friends." Jacob in Uganda is known to the filmmaker Jason's young son in California as their friend. A young American woman speaking passionately to a packed audience of peers describes "I have friends who have been living in this conflict their entire life." Again, they are her friends. If we see these children as our friends, not merely as a mass of victims, how would our response differ?

  2. Communicate Ideas: Why haven't we paid attention to those voices earlier? Why did we notice the KONY2012 video the day it posted, but not know about a decades-long conflict? What lessons do you take away for the next time you want to make a persuasive point? Stay informed through media originating from Africa or elsewhere; subscribe to blogs that update the story. Participate in conversations virtually and face-to-face.
  3. Investigate the World: The war that started in Northern Uganda has spilled over to neighboring countries. Which ones? Why? This analysis from the International Crisis Group offers a bigger picture.
  4. Take Action: Find your best avenue for involvement, and don't confine this to donating money. What social impact organizations' work are you most comfortable with? Search Charity Navigator to learn about diverse non-profits and how they manage finances and transparency. Then, keep talking about it. Share your ideas on your own blog, in comments on other sites, on film or through an organization you can get involved with. When young people (from anywhere) stay engaged with meaningful causes, the course of their lives shifts for the better. But if this video stirs emotion that gets distracted with the next viral video of a dancing cat, the haters win.

Within 48 hours my daughter removed the KONY2012 image as her profile picture. I'm glad she's gained a deeper sense of the complexity of the issue, but sad if she's disillusioned. Something had been ignited in her to take a stand for injustice, and that spark needs to be fed, not crushed. Policymakers need to know the strategic complexities, but youth can be idealistic. I'm grateful for the documentary as well as the debate, and hope we keep talking, exploring, tweeting and sharing about these issues that really matter.

Do you think the #StopKony campaign helps or hurts Central Africa? What are your take-aways and teachable moments?

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