How to be the strongest advocate for the causes you believe in

Jumping into a cause can be as simple as shutting up and listening

Shannon Sedgwick Davis was already an advocate for human rights in 2008 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, murdered more than 620 people in the days leading up to Christmas. But it was the idea that this could happen again that galvanized her efforts to help end the terror in Uganda.

Since then, Davis, the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world, has built an unprecedented collaboration with the aim of finally ending Kony’s war. Working with remote communities in Uganda; a private, Ugandan military-trained task force; and David Ocitti, a former child soldier in the LRA, Davis’s organization has been instrumental in the country’s plummeting civilian-death rate (down by 90 percent over the past five years) and the increasing number of LRA defectors (730 rebels have left peacefully).

Davis’s advocacy track record is impressive, aspirational—and daunting. But the author of To Stop a Warlord is adamant that anyone can have an impact on the causes most important to them. “For us to presume that we have any solutions to some of these problems would be crazy, but for us to also assume that we can’t play a role or that we shouldn’t play a role for our fellow world citizens would also be crazy.”

During a discussion with Ocitti and activist and actress Sophia Bush, who has long championed women’s rights in the U.S. and around the world, at WeWork Now in New York City, Davis and her fellow panelists shared their best advice for any new or seasoned activist who wants to effect meaningful change.

Focus on what gets you mad. “You have to think about what lights you up—what wakes you up in the morning, and what makes you irreparably angry,” said Bush. “Those are your passion points. Injustice makes me irreparably angry. And thinking about solving a problem is what wakes me up in the morning.”

Listen, then listen some more. Once you’ve identified what gets you fired up, look for the organizations doing the right work. Show up—and don’t talk. “So many of us think we have the answers,” Bush said. “Instead, spend at least 30 minutes just listening, because then you’ll know the questions to ask and you’ll learn how to be of support. None of us walks into advocacy leading the charge. We learn how to march with people who are experienced, and eventually, we take positions where we’re able to lead.”

Don’t come in with an answer. Even leaders work to facilitate change, rather than solve the problem themselves. “Many times, people approach a human-rights problem from the idea of how they would do it differently,” said Ocitti, who has spearheaded the reintegration movement for former LRA soldiers. “But you’re not there to fix the problem; you’re there to help the people fix their own problems. Be willing to work with us. I was with Shannon in Gulu [a city in the northern Uganda]. She chose to come with me because she wanted to understand the problem.”

Get as close as you can to the issue. Once you understand a situation on the ground level, that’s when you can identify the gaps. “In Uganda, the UN peacekeepers weren’t able to do anything against the LRA because they didn’t have military support—and when they lost members of their ranks in rebel attacks, they stopped going in,” said Davis. That’s what inspired her to work with the Ugandan military to help create a 300-strong task force of soldiers specifically trained in tracking the LRA—which helped bring about the group’s downfall.

Remember the ultimate goal. But as fired up as any cause may make you, there’s one key element that defines any activist: a capacity for humanity. “My life is not a life without a life next to it,” Ocitti said of his continued involvement with human-rights organizations. “If I want to live a happy life, I need to help the life next to me and make it better, because that will have an impact on me.”

Ocitti’s perspective is what inspired him to come up with the idea of recording messages from the rebels’ families and friends to broadcast via helicopter speakers over the jungle canopy. That effort may have been funded and executed by Davis’s vast network and resources, but it was the Ugandan people’s ability to forgive that helped him bring rebels homes—a task at which many had failed. “The people in the LRA—they’re human, they’re brothers and sisters; they’re afraid to come home because they didn’t know what exists back there; they don’t know that anyone out there loves them,” said Ocitti. “We needed to break that cycle.”

Added Davis, “There’s no justice without forgiveness and love.”

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