Showing Up - Lisa Shannon on conflict minerals, Congolese women, and activism
I had a conversation the other day with Lisa Shannon, independent business owner turned activist for the cause of war-effected Congolese women. She was in Washington, D.C. with The Enough Project to demonstrate for the elimination of the use of conflict minerals at the opening of the new Apple store. She spoke with me about her newly released book, A Thousand Sisters, and shared her plans for her organization, Run for Congo Women, and her message to all those considering getting involved in this or other movements to change the wrongs of the world. Her message was clear - all it takes to make a difference is showing up.
Lisa starts with a story from her most recent adventure - lobbying tech companies to support legislation to make the sources of minerals easier to track. She tells me an industry report estimates this would cost companies one cent per product, and that industry lobbyists are fighting the legislation on the grounds of the financial burden it will incur on tech companies. Weeks earlier she had gone to the headquarters of Apple in Silicon Valley with The Enough Project to attempt to contribute 4,500 pennies to relieve this "burden," and while they were demonstrating outside a disturbing thing happened:
"When we approached their headquarters, this PR woman came running out the building and wanted to talk to us. She basically told us that Apple was conflict free because they get a certificate. They ask their suppliers and they get a certificate saying that they're conflict free. Now, the problem with that is that no credible certification system exists. It was a remarkable statement, breaking with the rest of the tech industry. They haven't recanted that statement although it's a ludicrous statement. It's just totally uninformed.
"The funny thing was, I show up in DC and there's the same PR woman, that I met at headquarters . . . I tried to give her  pennies and she literally ran into the building. She just ran away from me. . . I went and got in line towards the end when the line was getting shorter and I just walked into the store and set down the pennies in the middle of the floor and walked out. The security people came in and swept them up and handed them to the women who were facilitating the event. So, in one form or another, they accepted the pennies. I felt at least we had made some progress."
I can tell Lisa is strongly invested in this cause and I wonder if she feels anger towards the tech industry for their part in contributing to the atrocities taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She explains that when she first learned of the conflict, about five and a half years ago, she was shocked that so little was being done about it – that it seemed to be ignored by the international community.
"But, as soon as I focused on what I have control over, which is declaring it a priority in my life, in my community, I didn't have much of a sense of anger. After traveling to Congo, and really getting to know these amazing women who carried very little anger themselves. I feel I've learned a lot of lessons from them. I tell people they need to show up imperfectly. Just show up. But this month it's been really hard, because I feel like that's my family that they're valuing at less than a penny. And these people are dying . . . when we're talking about a penny. I have anger about that.
"When I started Run for Congo Women, there was one story in particular that really haunted me. There was a woman who was being dragged to the forest, she was begging for her life and she was told by the militia, 'Even if we killed you, it wouldn't matter because you're not human, you're like an animal. Even if we killed you, you wouldn't be missed.' That haunted me because I felt that in many ways the international community had echoed that [sentiment] by doing so little. What I ran into last month [with the tech industry] was the very first time I had actually heard of someone arguing for that statement. For industry to argue against the value of human life, against the investment of one penny, is remarkable. I have a hard time getting over it, and I do feel intensely about it. Sometimes that's anger, sometimes that's frustration, and sometimes I manage that and feel that I just have to show up and play my role."
The obstacles against which Lisa is fighting are huge and I want to know how she keeps up her motivation in the face of them.
"The number one way is [by] knowing Congolese women. These women, after everything they've lived through, this horrific violence that by design is meant to destroy the human spirit, are still full of joy, totally resilient and find their quiet ways to show up for other human beings."
She goes on to tell the story of one of her sisters, Generose, who lost a leg to the war, but still came out to run in the first Run for Congo Women in the Congo. Not only did she show up, she came dressed in a red suit and pink pearls, and said, "If I can run on one leg then everyone will know they can do something to help."
It seems that not everyone knows that they can do something to help, and I ask Lisa what she thinks holds people back from getting involved. Her response is focused on the fear that people have to step out and be opened to criticism. She believes that, "People are terrified of getting it wrong and not knowing the right answer and not knowing the right thing to say." Her answer to those fears is simple, "Of course we're all imperfect, but our job is to show up. I think if people can let go of having it be perfect and just find simple ways they can show up, that's all it takes. That's all it takes."
Next I want to know how she had educated herself on the conflict in Congo and why she decided to write a book about her experience. She tells me that after hearing about the war on The Oprah Show she tried to find as much information about the conflict as possible, and discovered there was little available. This was her call to action. She looked to The Enough Project as a source, and gathered as much information as possible, and then found a way to get herself to the Congo. She wanted to learn from people on the ground. She asked the Congolese women in Women for Women International's program, "What would you like to say to American women? What would you like to say to the American government?" She developed theories of what steps were necessary to stop the violence and tested those theories on other knowledgeable people. Originally she had wanted to make a documentary film and had gather hundreds of hours of footage, but as she waited in the airport to return home to America, she "had a little bit of a meltdown."
"I think I realized that the process for me of going to Congo, and this whole journey for me - that I was getting as much out of it as I was giving. It wasn't possible for me to represent that in a documentary, the emotional process for me, or what it meant . . . I was in that airport on the Rwanda side of the border, and then I got on the plane and I was sitting right next to Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women, and Alice Walker. I started taking notes . . . That was really when I started."
A Thousand Sisters was written primarily for Americans – anyone who is thinking about getting involved in a movement, but is hesitating for some reason. Lisa explained, "My role is collecting [Congolese women's] stories and taking it back to American women, bearing their thoughts and feelings and serving as a conduit that way . . . Hopefully it has raised awareness and created the way here for people to bond emotionally with them the way that I did." She is already planning a second book, and still considering the documentary as well.
I also ask Lisa to talk to me about the significance of running with Run for Congo Women, and the importance of the letters that sponsors are encouraged to write to their Congolese sisters:
"I think running actually is a lovely way to support Congolese women because it’s a daily effort that can't be faked. . . I think they appreciated that there was a physical effort involved, not just writing checks, but actually putting sweat into it." As for the letters, "I have all of that self consciousness that I think everyone has when they sit down to write. But, what I found when I got there, is that it didn't matter what people wrote. . . Congolese women were just delighted to know that somebody sees them, cares about them as a human being, and is reaching out to them and supporting them."
It seems to me that Lisa has put a lot of herself into Run for Congo Women, so I ask her how she knows when she's given too much, how she keeps balance in her life. She laughs and admits, "I am not a good model.
"I feel like holding up wonderful women like Tracy Ronzio in Chicago, who's a mom, and a run organizer, and she balances it beautifully and incorporates that effort into her family life. Whereas me, I wasn't married, I didn't have kids, and it is my whole life now. It's my whole life because that's the feeling to me. . . It's become my life, and I don't think that's necessary for most people. I think for most people it's about finding simple ways to show up. . . As long as it's feeding your soul, that's the right amount to give."
With another laugh she continues, "For me, it feeds my soul to do it this much. Because this is who I am and what I bring to life. I think the place I have to look at is, at what point do I peak-out and become less effective at what I'm doing?"
Lisa explains that she struggles now to engage in "low stakes," and tells the story of her recent move. Right up to the day she was supposed to move she had not arranged a new place to go, so all of her belongings were moved to her mother's house while she figured it out. That night, she was awakened by a horrible crashing sound outside. She walked out to find a teenage girl had slammed into her car on the quiet street.
"I mean her car is parked, parked, on my hood, right? She'd totaled my car - except, I don't care. I'm stranding there, thinking, 'Yeah, ok, car's totaled, I'm going back to bed, someone else deal with the paper work,'" she laughs.
Now I'm curious what this woman, who can no longer engage in such unimportant things as a totaled car, would do if Congolese women no longer needed her. What will she do when peace is finally accomplished in the Congo?
Without hesitation she gushes, "I love writing! . . . I just love exploring really deep fundamental human questions about who we are and what we're doing, and I love," she draws a large intake of breath, "I love all of that. I would not say I'm committed to be an activist long term. I didn't choose Congo as a lifestyle. I chose it because I was responding to women in this particular set of circumstances. I would only move forward, number one if circumstance demanded it, and two there was a role for me to play that no one else could play. . . With Congo, when I started doing something, no one else was on the playing field," again she laughs, "so I just kept playing, right?"
When I ask her what role men could play in this movement, she responds emphatically, "I think men can plug-in in all the ways that women can plug-in, and I think men are hungry for that kind of community too. I don't think at its fundament that this is about strictly women solving women's issues, but about all of us addressing a fundamental human rights issue. I think everyone has a responsibility to show up."
As for building communities by strengthening the women, Lisa believes in the Women for Women's motto, as she puts it, "Stronger women make stronger nations," and she adds, "I think the same thing is true here [as in Congo]. One of the most exciting things I've seen on the ground here is watching women and men, who've never engaged in an issue like this in the past, emerge as leaders here. I think as much about the communities we're building here, and changing the fabric of American home life to include our new family in Africa."
With that final thought, I thank Lisa and allow her to return to the work at hand. She has left me feeling motivated and enlightened, as well as more willing to explore and accept the reality of the atrocities taking place in the world, my own contribution the their continuation, and my own responsibility in stopping the violence.
All we each must do is show up.
Picture is of Lisa Shannon and a group of sponsored sisters, taken in February 2007 by Raymond Kalume.