“Don’t worry, my clothes are staying on tonight. And they will stay on for the rest of my public life,” Jason Russell joked in his first public appearance since last month’s telecast of a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Russell, the visionary behind the viral video “Kony 2012” and co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, addressed an audience of about 300 students Tuesday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.
Russell was in town preparing for MOVE: DC, a weekend event highlighted by a global summit that features international leaders discussing solutions to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict. Russell’s viral video was a short documentary on fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, head of the LRA, who has been accused of kidnapping children and forcing them to become members of his army or sex slaves. An international court has indicted Kony for war crimes.
Representatives from the United Nations, African Union and International Criminal Court will be in attendance. The free event, open to the public, will take place Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
After a screening of the Invisible Children documentary “MOVE” — a behind-the-scenes glance at the effort behind “Kony 2012” — Russell participated in a Q & A of pre-screened questions.
He surprised audiences with his candor when discussing his youthful aspirations, the film’s instant fame and its subsequent backlash. He even made light of his very public, nude breakdown, which was attributed to brief reactive psychosis near his San Diego home in March.
“My choices were [to either] hide in a hole and never show my face again or just be myself and say, look, that wasn’t me on the corner,” he said, “It was a cluster of things, but I am here [now], this is who I am, and this is what I care for.”
I had the opportunity to briefly chat with Russell before his Lisner appearance Tuesday.
Q: What is the current status of Joseph Kony?
A: We know, without a doubt, that Kony is on the disputed border between South Darfur and the Central African Republic. Basically, he is in a safe haven where is he allowed to roam free. Returnees who have been brought out of the bush, many due to our programs in the area, have provided us with knowledge of his whereabouts.
Until we, and by we I mean the Ugandan military and 100 advisory troops, are legally and internationally able to go into that region, Kony will remain safe.
Q: What are the major challenges the organization has faced this past year, and how have you addressed them?
A: This tour [the group conducts film screenings at high schools and colleges] was centered on rebuilding trust, and the movie [“MOVE”] was all about how [“Kony 2012”] went viral and the aftermath of that, how people thought it was a scam and all the negative energy, comments and criticisms. We really believe that [trust] can only be rebuilt face-to-face. It’s really hard to just put it out there in a movie and have people understand our authenticity. It takes time.
You know, [similar to] my breakdown, it takes an understanding and a willingness to listen. I think that it’s a minority that will actually take the time to do that, but hopefully that spreads and changes the cultural temperature of how people feel about Invisible Children. I believe in the future we will be able to rebuild brand credibility.
Q: Many believe Kony’s media attention and notoriety was short-lived. Moving forward, how does the organization intend to thwart “slacktivism” and continue to make Kony a household name?
A: That’s the culture that we live [in.] “Gangnam Style” is now out of style — it’s already had it’s two weeks. I can’t apologize for “Kony 2012” being the flavor of a month, then gone the next.
Our humanity is bound up in the humanity of these children who have been forced to kill and fight. That is not a fad, and it does not go out of style just because the Internet memes have stopped. It does not make the child who has been abducted just last week any less precious, valuable or worthy.
I believe in the work of our Dream Factory [art department] — their ability to be creative again, appropriate and drive the story home until our mission is accomplished.
Q: What is the status of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act that Invisible Children helped pass in 2009?
A: The 100 advisory troops sent last year, Oct. 12, was phenomenal. However, they do not have boots on the ground or guns in their hands — they are advisers. I think there is some disappointment that they have themselves with what they are able to do. I think they want to do more, because it’s kind of like a dream mission for someone in the military to go capture a bad guy who has been hurting children. I hope that the bill continues to keep the advisers there, which Obama has said he is planning on doing, but also gives them the ability to help the Ugandan military in a more aggressive and tangible way.
Q: Presuming that Kony is either captured or killed in the near future, where do you see the focus of the organization heading?
A: We see Kony as kind of a preface to something much larger. We have a lot of ideas of where this organization can go, because if we actually capture Kony and become a part of that narrative, we can do a lot more because the youth of the world are uniting around an idea that all human life is valuable.
Q: That said, do you see Invisible Children in the future pursuing the capture of other war criminals or continuing their current programming in Africa?
A: It is really to soon to say [as] we are focused on capturing Kony. However, the idea is to continue some of our programs, like MEND [a sustainable enterprise that employs women in Uganda] and impose a possible two- to three-year sunset on others. Do we want to eventually go after other criminals on the ICC’s list? Possibly. Do we want to start an institution that trains, empowers and educates young people to fight for justice creatively and politically? That would be a dream.