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Former CEO of Invisible Children, Inc. talks activism, child soldiers, and Joseph Kony

As an activist and former leader of Invisible Children, Inc., Ben Keesey has been through a lot.

He’s visited conflict zones in Central Africa, spoken with child soldiers, led powerful campaigns against war criminals and leaders of the Lord's Resistane Army (a rebel group in Central Africa), met with politicians, helped influence legislation, and dealt with harsh criticism from the public.

But the most striking thing about Ben Keesey is his calm, down to earth manner. His passion for Invisible Children’s cause is palpable, yet his enthusiasm is natural and sincere. Chatting with him is like chatting with a friend, though he’s accomplished more than most people I’ve ever met.

In many ways, Invisible Children, Inc. is a shining example of successful activism. The organization's short documentary Kony 2012 was viewed 100 million times in just 6 days.

How would you define successful activism?

I think any time you make your voice heard around an issue that you care about, that is success. If it’s at the smallest level of a post that you make, or something that you send out to your friends—great. Truly successful activism, though, at the policy level is when enough of you do that at the same time that you influence policymakers under this idea that I love—that we really live by at Invisible Children—which is “the people lead, and the leaders follow.”

So you would agree that Invisible Children embodies—or has embodied—the principles of successful activism?

Totally. It was a bunch of average people that looked at a problem in the world of Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and the use of child soldiers and said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That shouldn’t exist anywhere, and we’re gonna use our voice and use our mechanism of democracy and vote with our dollars and donate and campaign and fundraise and ultimately make a giant difference.” That difference is seen in the 93 percent reduction in killing over the last 4 years.

What surprised you the most about the negative criticism of Kony 2012?

Boy, so many things. One—any time that you’re trying to make change in a positive direction you will face resistance. There are a lot of people in this world, I believe, that don’t think a better world is possible. You know, they don’t think a world without extreme poverty is possible. They don’t think a world without child soldiers is possible. They don’t think—even individuals working on behalf of those causes—that it’s possible for them to be sincere. They want to find what’s the real story, what’s the real motive. And so I think some of it’s normal. And then, the Kony campaign, that was a phenomenon. It was giant, it was a hundred million views in 6 days. It was controversial.

If you had told the story of Kony 2012 in a different way, do you think it would have been as popular?

No. (Laughs) No, I mean, you know how it is. You go on Netflix, and there’s a host of incredible documentaries. It’s very tough to get yourself to click on one of them. It’s very hard to choose to go and pursue a heavy, real, true story about suffering in the world and that’s what made the Kony film so amazing—that a hundred million people across virtually every country said, “This is worthy of my time, and this is worthy of my voice.” And again, it worked in the sense that in the three years since, we’ve seen a massive reduction in honorary killing, an over 75 percent decline in their fighting force, and 4 out of the top 5 LRA commanders are off the battlefield.

That gets me to my next point. What’s changed the most about Central Africa since Invisible Children was released in 2006?

When we released the first Invisible Children film, there were 1.8 million people stuck in internally displaced camps in Uganda. There were tens of thousands of children leaving their home every night out of fear of abduction. The LRA has abducted between 30 and 60 thousand children over almost 30 years. And now those numbers are totally different. All 1.8 million of those Ugandans have returned home. The LRA, which was once one of the most lethal groups on the continent, is now down to the remnant group of about 120 that are still causing problems in Congo and in Central African Republic. And for those communities, it’s still very real. But in terms of the scale of their damage, it’s been drastically reduced—which is a huge success story in the world of conflict.

Are child soldiers still being used in conflicts around the world?

Yes, child soldiers are still being used. And in different ways. Not all children that are fighting as soldiers came to that position as violently as with the LRA—where they’re ripped from their homes, ripped from school, and violently indoctrinated into a system. Some are choosing to join militaries out of poverty. Some are encouraged by their parents in other parts of the world. But, thankfully, the trend globally is on the decline. But it’s one of these issues—it’s like, there’s a few issues in the world that despite your politics, despite your world view, you can say, “No kid—no child should be carrying a gun and fighting in any war.” Period.

What actions can global citizens take now to prevent child soldiers from being used in conflicts?

It’s different for each one. Whether it’s in Southeast Asia, or parts of South America, or parts of Africa, or in the Middle East and ISIS—there’s child soldiers amongst a lot of different conflicts. I think it’s about being specific. That was the strength of Invisible Children. Even I, as this former leader of a global organization, I don’t know those other issues that well. But I know the LRA because I worked on it, I committed to it, I read about it, and we went over there all the time. So, as an individual, looking at all the problems of the world can be overwhelming. But finding on or two that you really get to know and can make a difference on—I think that’s a great place to start.

Do you think that Kony will ever be caught?

(Laughs) Uh, yeah! I hope so.

And what will you do when that happens?

Actually, this may not be the answer you thought it would be. I think it may just be a sigh of relief, you know. I never thought it would, it would—I never thought 10 years after we started Invisible Children that there was a chance that Kony would still remain with impunity and getting safe harbor from the government in Sudan. So, if and when he is arrested or captured, it will put a smile on my face. And it’ll be a sigh of relief for the communities that are still affected.