Faced with a constant slate of storyboards pitching “us versus them” versions of the world, filmmaker and social activist Mike Ramsdell asks the question, “What if we decided to tell each other stories that unite? That empower? That engage?”
Instead of taking the common, distant approach towards telling the story of Congo—which generally consists of rattling off a few statistics about the millions of people killed, raped, and displaced—Ramsdell, in his recent TEDx talk, offers what he hopes will be a more effective strategy for galvanizing action.
Ramsdell does not condemn as apathetic the inaction of the majority of people who hear about the atrocities in Congo for the first time. Rather, he believes it is quite the opposite: If a person who had never heard about the atrocities in the Congo tried to empathetically engage with such an overwhelmingly malicious situation, they would, as Ramsdell puts it, “explode on impact.” In other words, the stories being told today are so horrific that most people cannot logically accept that such circumstances are actually allowed to exist, and thus reasoning that there’s little they can do to stop it. Instead, people try to cope by resorting to adages such as “it’s horrible, but it happens,” or “if other more qualified people can’t do anything about, how can I?” and therefore they are left with no real impetus for action.
That is why Ramsdell proposes we change the story, so that we can change the way people engage and take action, and consequently change the reality of the Congo. Ramsdell helps his audience establish an intellectual and physical connection to the situation in Congo by informing them that the electronics in their pockets are made out of conflict minerals—tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold—which fuel the ongoing conflict in the Congo.
After this connection is established, it is important to offer an emotional perspective that does not completely overwhelm the audience. Ramsdell focuses on the story of an individual, rather than on mass atrocities. As he explains, “Five and a half million dead people is a statistic. One is a tragedy.”
Legislation such as Dodd-Frank’s section 1502 that requires companies sourcing minerals from Congo and its neighboring countries to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, provides a framework for establishing conflict-free supply chains that could help change the story for people in Congo. However, the SEC has dragged its heels in finalizing these regulations, and the Chamber of Commerce is threatening to sue the SEC on the premise that the rule is too burdensome for companies, alleging that the SEC did not adequately estimate the cost to industry to implement it.
Ramsdell asks, “Are you kidding me? That is the story they are trying to write?”
But what about the risk of not taking action? The reality is that eastern Congo right now is undeniably plagued by countless atrocities. If we refuse to take action, we are ignoring the fact that there are terrible consequences unfolding right now that will only continue, if not worsen, if no effort is made.
This is not a case of ‘it will sort itself out’—it is a perpetually abusive relationship that we as consumers have the opportunity to blow the whistle on. By rewriting the public narrative about Congo, emphasizing the role that companies could play to create socially responsible supply chains, we will take the first step toward rewriting the reality for Congo.
“We are the story tellers. If we decide at any moment to change our stories to ones of active engagement, ones of unity, ones of empowerment, then imagine what that reality would look like,” Ramsdell said to the audience at TEDx. “That, to me, is the story worth telling. That, to me, is the reality worth living. It is quite simply the greatest story ever told: the story of the infinite potential of the human species. I would love to see that story come to reality.”