But these photographs can not just be beautiful and rest there--not this week. If you've been following the news, you'll know that it has not been a good week for the peace outlook in DR Congo. Earlier this week, the M23 rebel group took control of Goma, a city of one million people. At least tens of thousands of people have fled their homes (probably half a million people over the past 6 months or so), and even refugee camps on the edge of the city has been emptied. Internally-displaced people experience so many crises, including hunger and disease. Regional leaders have asked M23 to leave Goma, but they have refused. Violence has been surging in eastern Congo since M23 arrived on the scene in April, and there is every indication that it could continue to get worse.
Looking through the photos, I began to fear that posting them right now would be almost like a flaunting of privilege--look at us, we are safe, we are running luxuriously in the name of people who run for their lives--and I am going to be honest with you about some of the other things I thought. The fact is, I am always interrogating the nature of the advocacy that we do through Utah for Congo, and I am always thinking about how to elevate our advocacy work to a space that transforms people's relationships with themselves and the world. (Sometimes I think it is hard to be a friend or family member of an activist, the way we shower you with love and gratitude one minute then the next, demand more and more of you, hands and soul.)
In our advocacy and fundraising work for people affected by conflict in DR Congo, I don't want to rest in an easy space of occasional emotional engagement or in a space of banal sentimentality that validates privilege. I think we need to work toward complex narratives and contextually accurate stories and ever-so-cautious representation. Stories of brutality in armed conflict are hard to look at, but what is even harder to look at is our own complicity in the global realities of the stories, and the way our privilege is shaping the way we hear the stories. I want to say a lot of things--sincerely--at once. I want to say, "Thank you for coming out on this cold morning with a generous donation in your hand and compassion in your heart." I also want to say, "There is so much more to do, so much more to give or rearrange, so many more questions to be asked. And brace yourselves, because the questions are not easy."
Looking at these photos I confess I felt overwhelmed with the relative privilege and security that they represent: A gathering without fear of violence, warm coats to protect us from the cold, children bundled safely in our arms. I am deeply grateful for these safeties, but I have to fight every day against complacency, against the urge to stop asking upon what my safeties are built. Gratitude has the capacity to sharpen our vision of the world, but if we are not vigilant, it can also make us blind.
Then I kept looking, and I looked closer, and I saw something else in these photos, and it might be precisely what everyone else saw first when they looked at them. I saw connections, old and new, printed in color and black-and-white:
And looking at the photos, I am reminded that I have one great hope that never stops burning inside me, and that is my belief in the power of connections and relationships, between humans, between humans and animals, between humans and the Earth we live on. It may sound like a sentimental grasping, but I mean it to be concrete and radical and explosive. I believe in connections: the connections that allow us to see one another's intrinsic worth regardless of gender or race or class or geography, the connections that teach us to see ourselves as both oppressors and oppressed, the connections that lead us to exercise political solidarity and radical compassion and great, brave leaps of kindness for people we know and people we have never met.
I have no doubt that brave acts of kindness and compassion are happening right now in eastern Congo; amidst the fear and pain and uncertainty, people are helping and holding and healing one another, because those are some of the things that people do. We can follow their lead and do it here, too: listen, heal, love.
I believe in the power of connections to change the world, and though I don't pretend to know exactly how it will happen, it is a hope that keeps me going. I think (and I hope this is true) we start by doing what we know how to do, and then pushing ourselves to do it better and more mindfully and with a greater sense of the contexts we are doing it in.
So if you know how to make a rhythm, make it loud and clear.
If you know how to sing, sing.
If you know how to dance, dance.
And if you know how to run...
Thanks--sincere, sincere thanks--to everyone who helped plan the 5K, to all our performers, to everyone who came. We were able to raise nearly $1,500 for Women for Women's Congo programs that help women and their families affected by war, and we were able to form new connections within our own (globalizing) communities.
And now. Let's think together about how we can react as a community, both emotionally and publicly, to widespread political/economic violence in eastern Congo and other parts of the world. Let's keep learning and listening. Let's support each other as we ask the hard questions. Let's do more, together.
You can see more of Meili's photos by joining our Utah for Congo facebook page.