Interview with Ivan Boothe of the Genocide Intervention Network (N2Y2 Featured Project)
"When we began a couple of years ago, and were just sort of starting our outreach on Facebook, we found there were already dozens of Facebook groups around the issue and working on these issues. It was just about networking them, giving them resources, giving them support in the work they were doing."
The Genocide Intervention Network's Anti-Genocide Community was one of the Featured Projects at the NetSquared Conference in May 2007. You can hear a podcast interview with Ivan Boothe, GI-Net's Internet Strategy Coordinator, on the NetSquared Podcast , as well as a recording of their 5-minute pitch at the Conference. A transcript of the interview is posted below.
Ivan Boothe: My name is Ivan Boothe. I am the Internet Strategy Coordinator for the Genocide Intervention Network. The Genocide Intervention Network, or GI-Net, is an organization that is about three years old.
It began as a student organization at Swarthmore College, where I, and several others of us, were students a few years ago. It's original purpose was to raise private funds for supporting peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan, where there was, and is, a genocide taking place.
We saw that there was a need for funding for the African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, and we saw that there was a lack of support from world governments, and so we wanted to create a mechanism for individual people to help contribute to that peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
Since then, we've expanded a lot and our mission now is much more general. Our mission is to empower our members with the tools to prevent and stop genocide in Darfur, and in other places. One of those tools is to raisemoney to support peacekeeping and civilian protection, but it's not the only tool.
Since then, we've developed a number of different campaigns - a Scorecard that rates each member of Congress and their congressional support for bills relating to Darfur and peacekeeping, an anti-genocide hotline where people call up 1-800-Genocide, put in their zip code, and based on their zip code they're given specific talking points and then connected for free to their members of Congress, or their Governor so that they can make their voice heard on the issue.
We've extended a little bit beyond our initial project of raising money, but our focus is still the same, and that's to really give people a direct impact on the situation on the ground in Darfur and in other genocides as they develop.
The long-term goal is really to build a permanent anti-genocide constituency, so rather than creating a sort of ad hoc group each time a new crisis emerges, we have a permanent set of people in the United States, and around the world, that says preventing and ending genocide when it occurs is a political priority for us, and we want it to be a political priority for our leaders, so declaring that on a regular basis and taking steps to make that clear to leaders when the crisis happens.
Britt Bravo: Can you give an example or tell a story of how the Genocide Intervention Network has created positive change?
IB: I'll give an example from early on in our existence. We began, like I mentioned, as a student group, and while we've expanded far beyond that, we remain pretty strong among students - we have a lot of student members. We have a whole division called STAND which has its own website and participates in a lot of campaigns across colleges and high schools throughout the country. We're very strong when it comes to student support.
Early on there was a bill in Congress, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, that was really going to be the first significant legislation on Darfur since Congress had declared the situation a genocide in 2004. This was more than a year later, Congress had yet to really follow up its declaration of genocide with any kind of concrete action.
The Darfur Peace and Accountability Act had made its way through Congress and was sitting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana was the head of the committee, and had some reservations on the bill, and was holding it up from progressing within the committee and progressing to the floor for a full vote.
What we did, as an organization with a lot of students, especially at that time, although we maybe didn't have a lot of direct influence or cache on Capitol Hill, and we couldn't go to Senator Lugar's office and pressure him directly like a large organization might be able to, what we did was by using the power of our networks - connecting with student groups through Facebook and using our existing contacts, we organized students within Indiana to go online and go to Opensecrets.org, which has all of the donation records above a certain amount from people who donated to Senator Lugar's various reelection campaigns.
Then, we had all of the students in Indiana call the most significant donors and say, "I'm a resident of Indiana, like you. I think passing this Darfur Peace and Accountability Act is important. It's important to me, and I think it's morally important for the United States to take a stand to mean what it says when it declares that a genocide is going on, to transform 'Never again' from a promise we make, into a commitment we keep," that sort of thing.
They asked the donors to then call Senator Lugar and asked him to pass the bill through the committee. We did that for, I think, it was maybe two or three days where we had call-in pressure on these donors. And after a few days and a weekend, Senator Lugar allowed the bill to pass through the Committee and made it to the floor, where it passed by a wide margin and became law, once several other things took place. As a result of our campaign, Senator Lugar moved it through the Committee, and that was primarily due to the pressure of students on high-level donors to his campaign.
BB: What are the next steps for the Genocide Intervention Network? What are some of its goals for the future?
IB: A lot of our motivation here comes from a book written by a woman named Samantha Power. She looked at the history of the United States' response to genocide in the 20th century, from Armenia to the Holocaust, to Bosnia and Rwanda. Her analysis was that it was never the case that there was nothing that the US could do, but rather it was the case that individuals within the United States weren't putting enough political pressure on leaders to do something.
It was easier for political leaders, of both parties, to do nothing and then apologize later, rather than take some political risk and attempt to help put an end to the genocide. So our long-term goal is to build this political constituency that says preventing and stopping genocide is a political priority for us.
In recognition that Darfur is still going on, and that the genocide there probably will not have ended in the next year, one of the campaigns we just launched is called Ask the Candidates about Darfur, and it's online at Askthecandidates.org. This enables people in the United States to send letters to every presidential campaign, asking them to take specific stands to pledge to end the genocide in Darfur, if they're elected President.
A lot of the campaigns will say, "Yes, what's going on in Darfur is horrible. We should end the genocide." We're looking to make sure that they make specific pledges toward that goal.
The first one is to personally divest any investments they have in businesses operating in Sudan and funding the genocide. One of our initiatives over the past couple of years has been the Sudan Divestment Task Force, which puts pressure on states and cities and universities to divest their pension funds from businesses operating in Sudan and funding the genocide.
We have extensive criteria that companies have to meet in order to be added to this list. We don't simply put any company on that list. It's only companies that primarily fund the military budget, that don't have any redeeming educational, or health, or agricultural value to the people of Sudan. It's primarily oil companies, and some other related firms.
The first pledge that we're asking presidential candidates to make is to put their money where there mouth is and to say, "I don't want to support the genocide in Darfur, so I'm going to divest my personal holdings from businesses that are supporting it." That's one of our longer-term projects, for the next year at least.
And then, even more long-term--and this is just getting off the ground now, so I don't even have a website to show you yet--but the work we've been doing over the last couple of years has been preparing for an initiative to get individual states to pass laws requiring genocide education in public schools.
In a lot of public schools, there are optional history segments on the Holocaust; that's a common theme for some public school teachers. What we're looking to do is to expand that focus to genocide in general, both the causes of genocide and genocide prevention. And so, this campaign for mandatory genocide education in public schools is just getting off the ground. There's been a lot of work that has been done over recent years through an organization called Facing History. They've had a campaign around this. We're joining together with them to establish state-based campaigns across the country, trying to get individual states to pass legislation supporting mandatory genocide education in public schools.
In a poll that we commissioned last year--I believe it was December of 2006--80 percent of Americans said they supported mandatory genocide education in public schools. So we know that there's broad support for this kind of project, and we're sure that this will be a big campaign over the next few years.
BB: What are some of the Genocide Intervention Network's challenges?
IB: Well, I would say we're still a pretty small organization. We have about a dozen staff. And we have some open positions, so if anyone is interested in working for us, we do have some job openings right now.
One of the challenges is that this is a very large issue. There aren't a lot of organizations working on long-term, multi-conflict genocide prevention. There are a number of great organizations, like Save Darfur, which works on the Darfur genocide, the US Campaign for Burma, which works on the Burmese genocide, and various other campaigns that are doing great work around specific conflicts.
But in terms of a permanent anti-genocide constituency, we're pretty much the only one, and so it can be challenging sometimes, the overwhelming nature of the issue. And I'm sure that's something that many nonprofits face.
I think mobilizing people has, surprisingly, not been much of a challenge. Once people hear about the issue, most people seem pretty supportive of coming together and forming this permanent anti-genocide constituency.
Our experience, overall, has been that local people are really out in front on organizing this issue, and we're just creating the tools, putting the tools in their hands, and giving them the resources to take action. For instance, the 1-800-GENOCIDE Hotline, the Darfur Scorecard, things like that are giving people the resources to take action.
In our experience, they're already out there doing a lot of stuff. I know when we began a couple of years ago, and were just sort of starting our outreach on Facebook, we found there were already dozens of Facebook groups around the issue and working on these issues. It was just about networking them, giving them resources, giving them support in the work they were doing. That's what we've been trying to do since then.
BB: What was the positive impact for GI-Net of going to the NetSquared Conference?
IB: Definitely connecting with other organizations working on related issues and learning, about how they're mobilizing people and empowering people with these kinds of tools. I think also meeting people who are involved in both the funding side and the technical side of nonprofit development, who are interested in these programs for social good and for social change.
I think making those connections has been really beneficial to us and has definitely had a positive impact on our direction with some of our campaigns, and the way we approach doing things. I think we were always very focused on member empowerment, and giving people a microphone and letting them speak, rather than telling them what to say. But I think having that reinforced through a lot of the speakers and a lot of the organizations, both at the first NetSquared and the second NetSquared, has definitely had an impact on how we approach these campaigns.
BB: How can listeners help to move your work forward?
IB: Any feedback on any of our websites would be greatly appreciated. We just launched a new version of our main website at Genocideintervention.net. It has an event system, a member profile, and a sort of bare bones social networking aspect to it. We hope to develop those things in the future. We're about to launch a genocide speakers bureau, to give people access to booking speakers for their events. Any feedback on those or any of the campaign websites I mentioned, Ask The Candidates and Darfur Scores and things like that.
Additionally, we're just in the beginning stages now of planning for the next version of our main website, which will be much more focused on social networking and building social connections, building the idea of an anti-genocide constituency among our members and among people who visit our site.
I should say we don't have any membership dues, so anyone can become a member. We're really looking to play that up, and build that idea in people's minds of being part of that kind of constituency. If there are any developers or web firms who want to be a part of that, either pro bono, or would like to take a look at the RFP that I have yet to write, [laughs] I will definitely be interested in hearing from you.
And I think also, in general, a lot of people are involved in some really cool and effective technologies, and we are always excited to hear about them, although we don't always have the capacity to engage in them. Things like the targeted 800 number for the White House and Congress and Governors' offices, that was something that someone heard about us and came to us and said, "We think this technology would really work for you."
We've been working with promoting some of our social networking things, like YouTube videos, through an organization called CoActive. They heard about the work that we were doing and wanted to contribute pro bono by supporting us with their software. Things like that, any interesting tools out there that are just getting off the ground, we're definitely interested in hearing about.
BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Genocide Intervention Network?
IB: I guess the only other thing I would say is that we're very interested and open to working with other organizations that are involved in similar issues. We're a member of the Save Darfur Coalition. We've worked with Africa Action and the Armenian National Committee. We've worked with Facing History. We've worked with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
We do a lot of joint campaigns, and we're really interested in mobilizing our members and anti-genocide activists to the greatest extent possible. If that means working with other organizations, we're happy to do it.
I guess I would just end with the idea that our organization is really about convincing people that they can have a hand in stopping genocide. All of our different campaigns - Ask the Candidates and Darfur Scores and 1-800-GENOCIDE and the Divestment Task Force, our student organization, STAND -- it's really about giving people both the tools and the vision to have an impact on preventing and stopping genocide.
So don't think you don't have an impact, because we have lots of examples of the positive impact that this movement and these campaigns have achieved over the last few years.