Saturday, April 28, 2012

Drawing Lines

If Joseph Rao Kony, the bloodthirsty head of the Ugandan guerilla operation known as the Lord's Resistance Army, has given any thought to hiding out in Deming, New Mexico, he had better reconsider.  The teenagers here are on to his game, they've got chalk, and they are having none of him.

A local high school teacher had the impulse to engage her students with events in the world, and she chose the "Stop Kony" movement.  She showed her students the Kony 2012 film produced by the organization Invisible Children, the film that took Facebook and the rest of the internet by storm in March of this year.  Animated by the film's presentation about Kony, the students took to the sidewalks of downtown Deming to "make him famous," as instructed by an Invisible Children slogan.

Who they want to stop Kony, and how, is not spelled out; although one student made a concrete suggestion outside the entrance of our post office:

Chalk this youngster up as an interventionist.

For the record, the United States deployed military advisors to central Africa last year to train and advise African forces who are fighting the LRA.  Last month, the African Union deployed its military force to hunt for Kony.

Is this sidewalk art an exercise in activism or slacktivism?  "Slacktivism" is the term coined for pretend engagement: posting something on your Facebook page, signing an internet petition, associating yourself with a community organization without actually contributing much or anything to its work.  At the same time that the internet is proving an effective tool for spreading messages to a large audience (viz. "making Kony famous"), it also gives rise to the phenomenon of momentary pretend-engagement.

The impulse to engage students in the world is right on, and since I know the teacher personally, I know her interest in motivating the kids was genuine.  What struck me right away is that she chose a human rights issue taking place in Uganda -- the other side of the planet.

There is pressure on teachers not to appear partisan.  Therefore, issue-oriented lesson plans have to be broad.  You can connect to a human rights issue in Uganda involving a mass murderer: it's easy and safe.  Addressing human rights issues here on our own border, the complex moral problems in play just a few miles from the classroom, where the border patrol frequently rescues illegal immigrants abandoned in the desert by coyotes (when they are still alive), might be controversial and bring unwelcome attention. 

These chalk-bearing students are directly affected by conditions here in Luna County that involve the economy, racism, narcotics, and sex.  Because of the aversion to controversy, Joseph Kony is actually a safer target than our own county commission.

Building the skills conducive to effective civic engagement is urgently necessary, and watching children grow up here and noticing what options they have for their lives make the point very clearly.  Teaching local activism, however, necessarily entails engaging local controversy.  It's part of the terrain.  For their sake, let's get on with it.

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