An Unlikely Journey: How a Man From the Conservative Bible Belt Is Fighting Violence Against the World's Women and Girls
The following is an excerpt fromHearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today's Visionaries Igniting Idealism Into Action by Jill Iscol with Peter Cookson, which goes on sale November 8.
Violence against women is a complex set of destructive, primarily male behaviors that include psychological and emotional abuse, forced marriage, son preference, honor killings, sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence against women in armed conflict.
Jimmie Briggs is the founder of the Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to stop violence against girls and women. He didn’t start life expecting he would dedicate himself to mobilizing the world’s youth in the cause of basic justice for girls and women.
But that’s what he did. And this is his story.
An Unlikely Journey
“I have to say my journey’s been a very unlikely one. It is not the path I thought I would take with my life. I grew up in a rural Bible Belt community just outside of Saint Louis. My mother was a teacher and high school guidance counselor. My father was an electrician. I have a younger brother; we were very much a middle-class family.
I grew up in a community that was predominately white, very conservative. I talk about this because growing up I carried a lot of anger. In elementary school and high school I was one of the few African-American students. I endured a lot of taunting—a lot of racial epithets—playing sports, in assemblies, and in the hallways of my schools.
It wasn’t an easy time to be growing up. The seventies and eighties were not times of innovation and change. My parents were very devout Baptists. A lot of my upbringing was tied to the church—fish fries, the Sunday socials, the clothing drives, the Christmas sales in the wintertime.
I was influenced by the elders of the church. It was not a wealthy church. Most church members were working-class people from the Deep South who had achieved a certain degree of security. They were very proud people.
It was an environment of affirmation. When I would do well in school or win certain contests or get on the Dean’s list, I vividly remember members of the church—many of them have passed away—discreetly handing me a crumpled-up five-dollar bill, slipping it to me as a token of their support. People would come to me after church saying, “Jimmie, we’re proud of you.” . . .
. . . The goal was to get me to college and to excel. My belief system was influenced by the Southern Baptist tradition, the African-American community, and my family. But I was also influenced by reacting to the sometimes hostile environment in which I grew up. I realized it was better not to judge people based on their skin color, ethnicity, religion, economic background, or physical or mental challenges.
I always had to go for the underdog. I guess I felt disenfranchised; I felt a kinship with other people who were disenfranchised. The kids who were poor, whether they were black or white, the kids who were in the special education program who had physical or mental disabilities or challenges— I always felt a kinship with them and would stand up for them when an opportunity presented itself. I always wanted to stand up for those who didn’t have a voice.
My heroes growing up were writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and John Steinbeck. Today, my heroes are somewhat different. One of my heroes has been my father. He was a constant hero through- out my life.
I would also have to say that my heroes include the everyday people I’ve met: the people whose names will never be in any books or in a news program; the people who have been sexually assaulted or raped, and endure and survive—they go on living, they carry on hope and faith; the women I met in the Congo over the last several years who, in spite of the tragedy they endured, have not given up on us, on humanity, on themselves.
“You must pass these stories on”
. . . I got a job in the mailroom of the Washington Post. That’s how I broke into journalism. In 1992 I wrote an op-ed for the Post about the impact of hip-hop music on the iconography of Malcolm X. It was the same year that Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X came out.
From the Washington Post I moved to New York City, where I spent time writing for the Village Voice on a fellowship. I felt like I was becoming a journalist, because I had the opportunity to write about more serious subjects like politics and social affairs, rather than arts and culture.
I then went to Life magazine. I was at Life for four-and-a-half years. I worked with some of the world’s best photojournalists, including Gordon Parks. It was the best education I could have had. I learned from people who define what journalism is today.
When I was working at Life, my focus became honed, because without being conscious of it I was being drawn to stories that dealt with women and children. My first story for Life was a yearlong investigation of the impact of Gulf War syndrome on the families of soldiers who served in the first Gulf War. That story led to pieces on child labor in India and Pakistan and then to stories on child abuse deaths and the phenomenon of the abandonment of newborn babies. That led to stories on the displaced children of Rwanda.
I was drawn to these stories. I would joke with my colleagues, “Why am I getting all these depressing stories about kids in need, kids in crisis?” But then an editor said to me, “Jimmie, you’re getting these stories because you’re good at them, because you’re able to do something which many journalists can’t do, which is to document the lives of young people and children in a respectful and authentic way. Kids feel comfortable talking to you, and you’re able to convey their stories in a form that resonates with readers.” I recognized where my heart was focused—on the lives of the voiceless and people who are not always respected.
One of the last things I did before leaving Life was to go with a photographer to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had been engaged in a decade-long civil war between longtime dictator Mobuto Sese Seko and a rebel leader called Laurent Kabila. Many of Kabila’s foot soldiers were children. At that time no one was really talking about child soldiers. I was transformed by what I saw: Boys and girls—eight, nine, and ten years old—were wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic rifles. They were killing other kids, killing adults, and risking their lives for a cause they didn’t understand. I had done stories as a freelancer and for Life about juvenile violence in the United States. I looked particularly at gang culture, the drug life, and the impact of urban violence on those who are not involved in the violence—the mothers left behind, the small children, the families that had to deal with shootouts or drug dealing on the corners or were just living in a hostile situation. So I was better prepared than I realized to go to central Africa and look at the issue of child soldiers.
After that first trip, I knew that one story was not going to be enough for me. I spent the next seven years traveling the world to different war zones. I went to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Columbia, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. I went back to Rwanda and spoke to the survivors of the genocide as well as the perpetrators. I went to northern Uganda to talk to parents and kids who had been abducted . . .
. . . I traveled to Uganda, where an elderly man said to me, “If a dying person tells you their story and you don’t pass it on, you’ll be haunted.” Well, I’m haunted to this day. I continue passing on the stories, partly in the hope that one day I can actually sleep through a night and partly in the hope that I can energize people to do something about this issue or some other challenge they are facing in their lives.
During the course of my work I was drawn to another issue—the violence against girls and women in conflict. I had met a number of girl soldiers. I also had met a number of women and girls who had been raped and assaulted. In Rwanda, ten years after the genocide, I was talking with a young Tutsi woman who had survived. During the genocide she had been fourteen years old. Her parents had been killed, and she had been gang-raped by Hutu militia. She had AIDS and was in the process of dying. As I was talking with her, I started seeing my daughter’s face. I started to cry. I remember telling myself, This is where I’m headed next—I have to tell these stories.
I started to work on a book, looking at rape as a weapon of war around the world. I wanted to do something else with my life. But I also had to honor those people in the Congo. I had to honor my own loss. I worked on the book for two years. My mother once said to me, “Jimmie, you’re very strong to do this. But no one here cares.” Initially, when she said that, I was deeply hurt. But over time I recognized she was right. Eventually, I burned out. I couldn’t carry these emotional stories any more. I asked myself, “What can I do with my life?”
We Are the Other
As I started thinking about my life, I had an epiphany that led me to the founding of Man Up. My vision was to create an initiative that would engage young people around the world to stop violence against women and girls. The tools of engagement would be the arts, sports, and technology. We’d use these tools to attract young people to the issue but also to teach them and to empower them to go back to their communities and to use these tools to change people’s lives.
In the summer of 2010 we mounted our first Young Leaders Summit. At the summit two hundred young men and women from fifty countries came together to discuss ways to address violence against girls and women in their communities. We have workshops in other parts of the world, so that young people can come together to strategize, share lessons learned, and move forward collectively across national boundaries.
For example, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, young people are using art and hip-hop to raise awareness against violence. They’re creating murals; they’re conducting workshops to educate themselves, to understand how violence against women affects everyone in the community. In Haiti, we are creating a peer counseling network, so when a Haitian youth is assaulted they can go for mental health support. In Uganda, young people are using break dancing and hip-hop to raise awareness.
It is important not to look at service as an occasional opportunity. We are the other. Violence against women is an issue not just in the Congo; it is an issue in this country as well. I don’t think I can single-handedly change the world, but I do have a gift. I have a blessing. I can write. I can listen. I can pass on stories. I am a messenger. To paraphrase James Baldwin, the older generation has a responsibility to pass on the evidence of its lives, successes, tragedies, and hopes.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m the guy who always goes for it. I always have to go big, and I feel that violence against women is a big issue. We have to reach people where they are. We already have thousands on our Facebook page. They’re on our website. They’re emailing back and forth. They’re blogging about the need for this campaign. They’re talking about what they’re doing in their communities. Man Up is a youth-led movement. It’s going to take ten to fifteen years to be successful, because we’re talking about cultural change. We’re talking about how men define what it means to be a man.
I’ve been doing this work for the past two and a half years. I’m in my forties now, and people ask me about the cost–what I would do differently. I think about the time away from my daughter and about the things I’m missing: the recitals, the practices, the parent-teacher conferences. I feel a certain amount of guilt. I could have had a different life—a much safer and more financially stable life.
I have been trying to draw hard lessons from the past. It is lonely sometimes—lonely to be a father who is not always there for his child, being with people who may not always understand why I’m doing this. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, you don’t preach a sermon with words, you preach it with your life. If I’m telling young people around the world to stand up and stop violence against women, I have to do the same thing myself.
I have been lucky to have mentors such as Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Abby Disney. They have been my guides in building Man Up. In the face of opposition these women have stood up for me. Eve asked me to write an essay for her website. I wrote a letter to my daughter called, “Why I Go.” What I said to her was that sometimes when you see something wrong in the world you can’t look away—sometimes you have to stand up.