Invisible Children has been one of the more famous social justice organizations over the last few years. They made a movie about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda which turned into a global movement. Most recently, they were in the news for winning Chase Community Bank’s $1 million prize for a nonprofit. We recently talked to Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell about what the million dollars will help with and how social justice can be more than a T-shirt trend.
How does it feel to win a million dollars?
It feels pretty amazing. The energy in which we took the week by storm was really palpable. I felt like we could have surrounded our building downtown and lifted it off the ground, or at least a van. We could have taken a van collectively and thrown it onto the freeway, there was that much strength and energy behind really wanting to get the million dollars. And now that we have it, for the first time, I would say, in 7 years, it really gives us the breathing room to where we can actually not be anxious every month wondering how we’re going to support the programs on the ground and everything else. So it’s really the first time that we can breathe. It’s been really an amazing thing.
And there was some competition with To Write Love on Her Arms for celebrity endorsements. What happened there?
It was really funny because there’s a few back stories. One is that my sister works on the Miley Cyrus show, and so the week before the competition, I was like, “Amy, you’ve got to go talk to her when you’re doing the highlights in her hair, and curling her hair, tell her to say something about Invisible Children.” And we didn’t know it, but our friend Jamie at To Write Love on Her Arms had her already on lockdown for their organization. So it was a conflict of interest, but yeah, the Joaquin Phoenix thing, that was pretty amazing. I mean, our friends in the office were like, that might be the craziest pop culture happening this year. It’s really interesting that that’s where he made his reappearance.
How do you handle the ride from having that thrilling experience in Uganda the first time into this situation where now you’re a multi-million dollar corporate nonprofit having to report to a board of directors. Is this still fun for you?
It’s always a battle, right? Like, someone said it starts with a man or men, and then it turns into a movement, and then it turns into a machine. And I couldn’t agree more. That’s how the world works, that’s how governments are formed, or corporations are formed, or churches work. And that has been from day one, one of my most adamant struggles. Actually, we were talking about it yesterday for a guy who we want to bring onto the board, and I said, “I hate rules!” It’s in my DNA, in my personality tests; I do not like rules. I don’t believe that anything actually riveting in the world ever changes when you play by the rules. It honestly makes me want to throw up. I don’t love board meetings or anything like that. So we still have that chaotic unpredictable culture within the DNA and the tone of Invisible Children, but thank God we have five or more amazing disciplinarians, and implementers, and people who understand the reasons the rules exist, and why they are important. And I’ve grown to appreciate them more and more, but to be honest, the journey will always be, for me, day by day. What does this day have? What can I do today? And then, of course, getting excited for the future as the days roll out.
You’ve really changed the way people approach social justice and made it trendy to be a part of a movement. Do you have any concerns about how trendy it’s become for people to buy a T-shirt and now feel like they’ve joined a cause?
There’s a lot of other things that could be trendy that aren’t as important as global justice or social justice, so in the grand scheme of things, how amazing is it that even if it is a fad or a trend, at least it’s cool to help other people. Again, there’s just a lot of other messages that our culture feeds us which are make tons of money, be famous and then you will have success and fulfillment, then you will have a life that is fulfilled. And as most people you talk to who have tons of money or tons of fame, they’re often pretty bummed, or disgruntled or confused because it wasn’t the things that they thought, it wasn’t the things that it was promised to be. So we have that conversation a lot—what does it look like to make social justice cool. Honestly, that was the goal from day one, so even you saying it back to me, it makes me feel like, “Ok, at some level, maybe we have accomplished that.”
What’s a practical way that’s happened?
Laren Poole, one of the founders who went with me [to Uganda], was 19 years old when he went, had never gone outside of the country, and had never really thought about Africa ever in his life, apart from a National Geographic safari special. So it wasn’t like he’d ever thought about global justice or the rights of children bearing arms. So the fact that he came back and wanted to make a T-shirt that said “Africa is the new pink”, kind of as a spoof, like we always say, “Africa is so hot right now,” and in a way to say, what’s wrong with bringing it to the forefront of a cultural or pop culture movement?
How do we move beyond a “pop culture movement”?
You probably have heard the term “slacktivism,” where it’s cool to say you’re a part of it, but then deep down to the core, are you? I think that can last for maybe six months, maybe a year, but at the end of the day, your friends and your family, they’re gonna be calling you out. At some point, you’re not authentic if you don’t financially give something, if you don’t volunteer your time, if you aren’t reading or learning more about the conflicts, or knowing individuals who are affected by the conflicts that you are promoting or apart of that cause. So at the end of that day, it’s a matter of, are you an authentic person or not?
Listen to more of Josh’s conversation with Jason from the RELEVANT podcast.