The Uncomfortable Silence
In his quest to end violence against women, former war journalist Jimmie Briggs faces his toughest audience yet.
Several months ago, my daughter’s teacher invited me to speak to her class about what I do for a living. How was I to tell a room full of squirmy first-graders that I am launching a global campaign to end violence against women and girls, using hip-hop and soccer? That I’ve gone from sometimes war reporter to human rights advocate? My own daughter has only the slightest inkling about my work, and the thought of facing her classmates terrified me.
As I trudged up the stairs to my daughter’s classroom, I could hear the barely controlled chaos beyond the door. I opened it quickly and bounded across the room. Once the giggles, finger pointing, and poking subsided under the teacher’s laser-like stare, I cleared my throat and walked to the front of the room, finally leaning my back against the chalkboard. My daughter was sitting near the middle of the class, unsmiling and propped forward—unable to contain her anticipation. I took a deep breath. All I could do was speak to them as I would any other group and hope they understood.
I told my daughter’s class the truth: I began my work as a journalist but will be ending it as an activist. I told them about traveling around the world to speak to kids very much like them, who are fighting and hurting each other, or who are being treated badly by the adults around them, especially girls. I told them that I didn’t like the stories I heard when I was writing articles or books, and about how I’m trying to get other people to help me give those stories happier endings. I told them that since the summer of 2008, I’ve been flying back and forth across the world to build a new kind of effort to end violence against women and girls. It’s the vision of a worldwide campaign called “Man Up.” As I spoke, I saw my daughter lean back and smile.
But I couldn’t tell my daughter’s class about all the suffering I’ve seen in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve held people as they have died in my arms, and I’ve sat with women who have been raped to the point of paralysis.
I also couldn’t tell my daughter’s class about my struggles as a man in a traditionally woman’s movement, because I barely understand them myself. I frequently meet with people to talk about my ideas for confronting violence against women, and I run into a lot of suspicion—as if I have an ulterior motive for doing this work. At one cocktail reception, a woman asked me, half-jokingly, if I was exploring this issue as a way to meet women. The stare behind her smile told me she was being more serious than not. My guy friends assume the same.
Outside my professional life, I consciously avoid speaking about the work I do, because people expect me to be the embodiment of the “good guy,” the ideal man. I’m quick to cite a mother, ex-wife, daughter, and scores of frustrated ex-girlfriends who would eagerly agree that I’m anything but perfect.
Trying to build a campaign, or a movement, is all-consuming. Most of the time I feel halted in social situations because all I’m really able to talk about is work, leading me to feel like “Debbie Downer” from the TV show Saturday Night Live, guaranteed to bring a festive mood to an abrupt, uncomfortable end.
One night at a regular Sunday evening dinner party with friends and acquaintances, every time I brought up my work, or hot-button words like “rape,” “activism,” or “change,” one guest would change the subject to the texture and taste of the dessert, or to the succulence of the roast chicken. Eventually, I made it a game to see what food item would be introduced next.
As my talk to the first-grade class wound down, I asked them rhetorically, “Why do I care so much about what is happening to women and girls around the world?” The students all turned to look at my daughter as she began to blush and smile nervously. They got that I’m doing this for my daughter.
I hope one day my work over the last 20 years for women and girls will mean something to her and her classmates. At present, my daughter only knows that her dad leaves for days and weeks at a time, returning only to leave again, just when we’ve become reacquainted. But I stay on the path because there is hope; there is affirmation in this movement of women and men. I see it every day when I read about the many men’s conferences on violence against women that are springing up on college campuses across the US; when I see the grassroots efforts that are struggling to be born in the unlikeliest of places on the Web; and when I witness the coalitions that are being formed between organizations across the globe.
Amid the darkness I witnessed as a journalist, there was light as well, resting in the imaginations and faith of countless young people surviving in the worst imaginable situations. My purpose, the end goal of the Man Up Campaign, is to create the space for that light, and for my daughter and her classmates to be in it.