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Activism 101 

Local youth making moves to make the world a better place.

If you happen to see several hundred people with camping gear making the long trek from Mission Plaza to Santa Rosa Park, don’t be alarmed. They’re not transients and they don’t want your money; they just want your attention. They’re taking part in an event called “Global Night Commute� (GNC), and their parade and subsequent camp-out is their way of paying respect to children struggling to avoid persecution in Northern Uganda.
This movement began in response to a documentary-style film about these children created by three young and unlikely activists in southern California. Invisible Children focuses on the internal warfare that tangles Ugandan politics and the abduction of thousands of children used to fuel a militia called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). At the end of the movie, the filmmakers ask their (hopefully) shocked and appalled viewers to make a collective call to action by organizing their own, localized GNC. The response to the film has been huge and these GNC’s have taken root in seven countries and in over 130 US cities. This year, we can add SLO to that list.
SLO’s own first GNC organizers were four individuals who each had been deeply moved by the film’s brutal contents: Ben Calvert, Lauren Ponder, Linnea Fritch and Jono Kinkade of Cuesta’s Grassroots organization. Most of them had never done anything like this before, so this quickly became a crash course in activism. Following the directions handed to them by the filmmakers (who are also caught up in a learn-as-you-go journey), they’re learning the fine art of funneling sentiment through vast bureaucratic channels. The group has now expanded to 15 leaders.
As the plans have progressed, each original member has fallen into his or her natural role. Kinkade and Calvert took on media and public relations, screening the film and talking to as many people as possible about the event. Fritch started a dialogue with the Invisible Children headquarters in San Diego, and she created a MySpace profile to communicate with other people taking part in the SLO GNC. Ponder became so involved in the research and history aspect that the Ugandan massacre is now the subject of her senior project at Cal Poly. 
The group claims that their main function in this movement is to spread the story of these children, and they’re doing so with faith that viewers will be as compelled as they were to act independently on behalf of the child soldiers. The GNC comes with a set of instructions that detail what actions to take, and when to take them, so anybody can quickly and easily become an activist. The filmmakers cast themselves as sympathetic characters in the film, as regular guys who just want to make a difference. This tactic seems to have made them and their movement extremely accessible to their young viewers. Ponder exemplifies this with her enthusiasm and belief in their story. “It just seemed so tangible,� she says.
The film itself came into existence almost by accident. The filmmakers, Bobby Baily, Jason Russle, and Laryn Pool were held over-night in a Ugandan city after an attack by the LRA. The three men had unwittingly stumbled upon their “Invisible Children,� a problem so grave that UN officials have called it “one of the worst Human Rights crises of the past century.� The LRA is a terrorist militia whose ideology is a dangerous mix of violence and religious zealotry. They’ve been in existence since 1986 with the sole purpose of toppling the Ugandan government. Initially, the LRA received wide support from Ugandans, but as the war raged on, Northern Uganda continued to fall further into economic depression. With no end to the fighting in sight, the LRA eventually fell out of favor.
But the army needed soldiers, and by 1992, the LRA began raiding homes at night and abducting children, who would then be and forced to take up the fight. Any child big enough to hold a weapon is trained to kill, and it’s believed that children as young as five are routinely beaten, raped, mutilated, and slaughtered — often by other children, as part of the process of desensitizing and brainwashing. Today it is estimated that tens of thousand children commute every night from rural towns into the larger cities to avoid being caught in these night raids. This influx of unsupervised children has caused its own set of problems, bringing an increase in rape, drug use, and violence among the children. With a basic knowledge of the political history, and hours of footage with Ugandan Citizens, the three young men, along with their army of viewers, have set out to end this 20-year war.
The first step in the set of instructions is to inform, and the GNC is a way to bring the issue of child abduction into the public view. Over 35,000 Americans are expected to take part in the event, more than 400 in SLO alone. On April 29, at 7 p.m., hundreds of SLO’s youth will meet at the Mission and walk their way to Santa Rosa Park. Once they reach their destination, there will be a full-force letter-writing campaign to public officials, urging them to recognize this problem in Uganda as a viable and urgently important issue. The group further plans to create art pieces to reflect their sentiments for these invisible children. Finally, they will lie down to sleep, and in doing so create a visual reference to the thousands of young lives that are displaced in Uganda every night.
The three filmmakers were recently featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, promoting their cause and their next work of cinematic activism, due out next year. Though Invisible Children seems more than a little self-promotional at times, speeding through the history and political issues to include footage of the filmmakers throwing up (and at one point senselessly killing a snake), one can’t help but admire these three young men for creating such a stir with their project. For all its flaws, the movie delivers a powerful message, one that has garnered an emotional response that cannot be ignored. Part of the movement’s success hinges on the idea that if these Regular Guys can make a real difference, then anybody can. It’s not the March on Washington, but it’s a start. And in a time of ipods and personalized ring tones, it’s good to know that kids today, lucky as they are, can still take time out for a cause greater than themselves. ∆

Kylie Mendonca cares. Show her your love at

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