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How I (Reluctantly) Became an Activist for Congo

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How I (Reluctantly) Became an Activist for Congo

Posted by Enough Team on August 2, 2010

How I (Reluctantly) Became an Activist for Congo

Over 15 years ago Eileen Weiss and I helped co-founded the Jewish Ad Hoc Committee on Bosnia, or JACOB. We lobbied from a Jewish perspective, speaking out against the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although we had never intended to work on Africa, our commitment to ending genocide stretched around the world and eventually led us to Darfur. For the last six years, we have been organizing demonstrations, film screenings, drum circles, educational events, and lobbying efforts. We soon found ourselves heading up the New York City Coalition for Darfur, one of the largest Darfur-focused grassroots organizations in the country.

Even so, for several years, we had thought Congo was simply too complicated to take on. Marked by impossible multi-letter French acronyms, numerous militia groups, and multi-nation involvement, Congo seemed daunting. It wasn’t at first clear to us what we could do to be helpful or whether the United States had a role there.

Nonetheless, at a certain point we felt like we wanted to do something, even if it wasn’t much. Recently, one of our members, Tim Greene, met with a staffer of Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), whom we have worked with since the Bosnia campaign. He asked Congressman Nadler to sign on as co-sponsor to the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which he did the very next day! Later we met with Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and asked the same thing. He showed the same level of responsiveness and soon signed on to the bill.

Just as we were setting up meetings with members of Congress, the Enough Project launched an e-mail campaign to gain co-sponsors for the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. Jumping on board, I wrote letters to the offices of a number of New York City representatives describing our group, why the legislation was important, included a link to the Enough website, and addressed each one to the foreign affairs legislative aide for each congressman. I also sent a short note to members of the NYC Coalition for Darfur, asking them to call their Congressional representative (especially members on the Foreign Affairs committee) to ask them to co-sponsor the conflict minerals legislation. The whole process took me about an hour and a half.

One of our members even set up meetings with two representatives, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Elliot Engel (D-NY), who both quickly wrote back to me to let me know they were signing on. So in one week we got commitments from three representatives, one of whom, Rangel, was on the influential Ways and Means committee, and several of whom were on Foreign Affairs. In total, we helped convince five representatives to co-sponsor the bill.

What we have learned from this is something that Tim Greene shared with us after he met with Jerrold Nadler’s office. The staffer thanked him for coming and said, "We rely upon activists to tell us about these things." Members of Congress have so many constituents and bills to think about that it can be hard to keep track of what is important. Sometimes all they need is to be asked.

And it is my belief that we have an obligation to ask. After all, if not us, then who?

Sharon Silber is the co-founder of the New York City Coalition for Darfur.