If you look at the University’s Maize Pages website — which catalogues campus student organizations —you’ll find an entire “activism” category. This category encompasses 173 incredibly diverse organizations, from the University’s chapter of Invisible Children to a group providing financial assistance to students in Wayne County. All of these disparate organizations have a common aim of raising awareness for a particular issue. In order for an activist organization to exist, people must first be aware of the underlying issue and feel that it needs to be addressed in some way.
Thus, awareness of an issue is essential for the existence of all activist organizations, not just student-run ones. Remember Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign? The video that initially launched the movement turns seven months old this Friday, having garnered over 110-million views since its release. It did an incredible job of raising awareness in Americans ages 18-29 of the deeds of Joseph Kony, since 58 percent of them were aware of the video within 10 days of its release. I found the video through a friend’s Facebook page, and I remember being moved almost to tears by the video and pleased that so many people my age were talking about it.
Despite how effective the campaign was at raising awareness for these under-discussed atrocities, it was slammed with a withering broadside of criticism for the manner in which it advocated a solution to the conflict. There are other controversial issues that have reached a significant sector of Americans through traditional and social media as well, such as the ongoing civil war in Syria and the dispute between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear activities. When organizations such as the Friends of Syria Group or J-Street discuss methods to remedy the issues, they become as vulnerable to criticism as the Kony campaign proved to be.
An organization faces considerable hurdles if it wants to see its exact prescription for an issue fulfilled, and a major one of those is fundraising. This isn’t a straightforward process, since members of the public that support an organization on principle may not be willing to make a significant donation to an organization. Organizations also need some kind of legitimizing and powerful force behind their activities, whether that’s through the government or through private institutions. The Kony issue, for example, necessitates military force that Invisible Children isn’t in any position to provide. They’ve sought private donations and lobbied the U.S. government to provide force. However, opinions on those methods vary greatly. Criticism of an activist organization encourages a productive dialogue regarding the best way to solve an issue.
This criticism has the potential to frustrate some of those on this campus who are members of Invisible Children or those who fervently believe that Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army need to be stopped immediately. However, that criticism will ultimately benefit their cause. Awareness of an issue is only a baby step on the path to that issue’s resolution. Whether it’s most feasible to capture or kill Kony, how to help those affected by the LRA and how to prevent another tragedy are three questions that have a multitude of answers. Larger-scale issues like the Syrian civil war — involving international diplomacy and tens of thousands of deaths — are even more difficult to address.
But there’s an even more important reason why Invisible Children and other organizations benefit from the debate and criticism in implementing their agendas. This creates an environment where many responses to issues can be proposed, their merits examined and their flaws exposed. Student activists should know that though awareness is fundamental to any effort to address an issue, what happens after awareness has been raised is at least as important and far more difficult a task.
Eric Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.