I was touched by the sincerity of U.S. Special Envoy Feingold as I watched Georges and Jake hand him an open letter from 73 campuses. On November 19, my Enough Project colleagues and I accompanied Georges and Jake to a meeting with the special envoy. As representatives of the growing student movement, Georges and Jake presented Special Envoy Feingold with a letter bearing the signatures of leaders representing 73 campuses from around the world, calling for peace in Congo. Student demand for action is quantified by the letter, but it is the intangible and ongoing qualities of this movement that are its greatest strengths.
Personal stories of connection and passion are what shine through often murky policy calculations and cold statistics. Georges and Jake exemplify the unique capacity students of any and all walks of life have to make a difference in Congo.
Georges is a student at Georgetown College who grew up in Rutshuru, Congo, and has experienced firsthand the incredible violence his country has been struggling to cast off for decades. Jake is a student at the College of William and Mary who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and has realized his ability to make a difference in Congo by calling on his own country to uphold ethical policies and business practices. Both Georges and Jake are members of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative.
While the purpose of the meeting on the 19th was to deliver the letter, the message of the discussion reached far beyond the words contained in the letter.
Georges recounted the violence inflicted upon his community back home in eastern Congo, and explained how the death of two cousins and the rape of his younger sister forced his family to flee for fear of further attacks. Last year, Georges was able to come to the U.S. to continue his studies with the help of an American doctor who agreed to be his sponsor. While many of us, if faced with similar situations, would never even consider returning to a place that holds so many traumatic memories, Georges is determined to go back to Rutshuru and create a sustainable community development initiative to deal with the root causes of the conflict. Such a goal may seem unreasonable or at least unwise given the perceived instability in the region, but thanks to the efforts of long-time advocates such as Jake and his fellow Congo activists at William and Mary, the situation on the ground is now changing, creating space for initiatives like the one that Georges has proposed.
Over the past three years the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, or CFCI, has experienced tremendous growth, and the delivery of this letter was only the latest in a series of significant accomplishments. With a network of over 150 campuses organized through a team of 8 regional Campus Organizers, CFCI is harnessing the power of student activism through strategic, targeted actions that repeatedly gain the attention of leading policymakers and government officials like Special Envoy Feingold. Utilizing lessons learned from previous student-led social movements while incorporating new technologies such as Google Hangouts, Twitter, and Facebook groups, hundreds of CFCI students are demanding accountability, responsibility, and a sustained engagement on the part of the U.S. government for Congo-related issues.
Georges and Jake came to this movement with different backgrounds, perspectives, and stories, yet their passions for achieving peace and stability in Congo couldn’t be more tightly aligned. Both recognize that something substantial needs to be done, and both have chosen to leverage their power as students to make that something happen.
Using conflict minerals as an entry point for broader student engagement, Georges and Jake have led the way on their respective campuses towards creating a well informed, and passionate constituency of students who are calling for comprehensive peace in Congo.
Georges and Jake spoke candidly with Special Envoy Feingold about their reasons for being a part of the student movement advocating for Congo, and I watched as the Special Envoy absorbed what they were saying. His deep concern not only for the social and political circumstances plaguing Congo but for the personal stories of our student representatives was expressed through his thoughtful attention and genuine responses.
Never before have we seen such a sustained commitment from the U.S. and other Western powers to bringing an end to the violence in Congo. With the appointment of Special Envoy Feingold, his counterpart in the U.N. Mary Robinson, the successful dismantling of the M23 rebel group through the combined forces of MONUSCO and the U.N. Intervention Brigade, and a broader focus on regional dialogues, now is truly a critical moment for Congo. Companies are beginning to take substantial actions to rid their supply chains of conflict minerals and invest in ethical sourcing practices in Congo, and celebrities such as Aaron Rodgers, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Robin Wright are using their platforms to raise the profile of the issues.
After leaving the meeting last week, Georges and Jake—strangers before the day began—shook hands and promised to keep in touch. Georges will graduate in December and travel back to Congo, while Jake heads into his final semester. Together, along with hundreds of students across the country and around the world, they will continue to demand peace, accountability, and justice for the people of Congo.
Photo: Student representatives Georges and Jake deliver the letter to U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region Russ Feingold (Enough Project)