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How should we tell stories about people we're trying to help?

Individuals, churches, missionaries, and nonprofit groups should ask this regularly. The answer is inextricably bound to the very justice we're trying to promote. The question now has a perfect case study.

Joseph Kony recently became an Internet star through Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. Among the millions of people who watched the video, no debate broke out about the evil of Kony, who as a warlord in central Africa maimed many and made children into killers. Worldwide consensus may be near impossible, but the cruelty inflicted by one of the world's most wanted men can do that. The common goodwill the "Kony 2012" video unleashed was encouraging. People want the best outcome for those in that region.

But a cyber-speed debate broke out over almost every other aspect of the campaign—sparking a discussion about the best policy, advocacy's role, white man's burden, interventionism, and the use of military force.

My prayers have been for Invisible Children's co-founder Jason Russell's recovery from a public breakdown and strength to continue working for justice. While I don't focus on African policy issues, what has continued to interest me—what intersects with my profession as director of a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti—is the opportunity to think about this question of how "we" tell stories to help "them."

To dive into this question, consider the dynamic of the Kony video and its aftermath, where two realities collided:

  • The audience (that is, us) craves simplicity of message, participation in meaningful positive change, and emotional reward—at low personal cost.
  • We (that is, "us" and "them") each want to be treated with nuance and respect.

The Kony 2012 makers indisputably addressed this first reality brilliantly. Invisible Children took a risk, communicated their perspective powerfully, and started an important conversation.

For the second reality—the desire we each have to be treated "with nuance and respect"—it's clear Invisible Children wanted people to treat them this way. They wanted people to consider the video within the context of their work, watch follow-up videos, read a Q&A, look at charts, and take their time assessing the situation. It was a fair request, because everyone deserves as much.

Whether they sufficiently did the same for people in northern Uganda was up for debate. Critiques came quickly about oversimplifying or mischaracterizing the situation, as well as disagreeing with how Ugandans were portrayed as victims to be saved by American college students. Others defended the portrayal as effective advocacy that didn't answer all the questions but kickstarted an important movement that could lead toward more learning and positive influence on policy in the region.

We can all keep striving to better understand how to work toward justice not only with our actions, but also with how we tell people's stories.

* * *

Jesus' so-called Golden Rule should serve as the overarching guide: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12).

If you've ever talked about your experience on a short-term missions trip in front of your church, tried to start a new project for disadvantaged people in your neighborhood, or raised money to help others, at some point you might have felt an uncomfortable twinge: Did I make the case strongly enough to motivate people to step up and help? Did I selfishly make myself the hero? Did I paint people as one-dimensional victims instead of as the people I know them to be? Did I overstate how much good we've done? I know I've made these mistakes many times during my 15 years in nonprofit work.

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