Keynote Address 2013

The keynote speaker at the 2013 commencement ceremony was Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and author of A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman.


Thank you so much! What an honor to be included today. When Dean Gillis extended this invitation, I was frankly amazed, not only because you are one of the finest academic institutions in the world. But because of a conversation I had with my dad when I was seven. I announced I wanted to be a politician. He responded, “Well, if you want to get into public service, you’ll have to go to Georgetown.”

For years afterwards, I swore I was going to Georgetown. And 31 years later, here I am! Crazy.

Today, I’d like to talk about power. It’s a tricky thing, because power so often lurks in the moments you least expect to find it. I’d like to share three of those moments from my life.

My grandest credential beginning my service on behalf of women survivors of war was “ordinary TV watcher.” I learned about the war in Congo watching Oprah. To give you a sense of the conflict, I will share one woman’s story.

A militia showed up at Generose’s home, demanding money. They beat her husband. She screamed. As punishment, they killed her husband, cut off her leg with machetes, cut it into pieces, and commanded her children eat their mother’s leg. Her nine-year-old son refused, so he was shot in the head. The other children did as they were told.

In 2005, it was eight years into the deadliest war since World War II, the worst sexual violence on the planet, and there was no movement for Congo in this country.

I decided to do a lone, 30-mile trail run. I had never done any fundraising, organizing, speaking … and I was a wimpy runner. I’ve had grandmas and their fat dogs walk past me on the trail. Once, I tried to train for a marathon. 10 miles into my first 14-mile training run, I called a cab to drive me back to my car, ending my marathon ambitions. Yet, for Congo I did the 30-mile run, and raised $28,000, supporting 80 Congolese women through Women for Women International.

When other women contacted me wanting to run, I decided to take it on the road.

Cut to, one year later: It’s 6 a.m., still dark. I’m in Manhattan’s Riverside Park for the first New York Run for Congo Women, in gale force winds. The storm was so bad that the park service called the night before, suggesting we cancel. My response: When women in Congo sleep in the forest in the rain, their kids get sick and die. No, we’re not going to cancel.

In short, I had flipped on my empathy switch.

Still, standing there in lightweight jogging shorts, in wind and icy rain, I knew no one would show up.

By our 8 a.m. start, one registered runner show up. We ran.

But one woman who didn’t show up that day became an organizer the next year. We had 100 runners, the next 300, the next 500. Today, thousands of people have participated in Run for Congo Women, and with related media, we’ve raised more than $15 million, aiding more than 90,000 Congolese women and children.

But how could I have known that on that morning in New York? To say I trusted running that day would make a difference would be gross overstatement. I hoped it would.

Yet, in that moment, we staked out a movement.

So, the empathy switch. Flip it on. Keep it on. It will fuel you through the threshold of doubt and fear and discomfort to help you find power.

The second moment. When I went to Congo, I spoke with hundreds of women, “sisters.” At great risk, they told me their stories. All said the same thing: Help end the violence.

A tall order. But a few years later, an opportunity presented itself. A bit of background: Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries on the planet, and the violence there has been largely funded through conflict minerals—like tin, tantalum, and tungsten—found in all of our consumer electronics products. In 2010, Congress was ushering through a bipartisan bill to regulate conflict minerals, our first real shot at legislation addressing one of the core drivers of the violence.

I learned tech lobbies, behind closed doors, were trying to gut the bill, calling it “burdensome to industry.” Such an interesting word choice in the face of what women like Generose have lived. This “burden,” according to tech industry lobbyists, was estimated at less than 1 penny per electronics product.

To me, that was like nails on chalkboard. Even slave owners in 1860 valued human life at more than a penny. I couldn’t just sit by.

So, I called my mom. At the time, 45,000 people died every month as a result of the Congo conflict. So we got 45,000 pennies and drove to Silicon Valley, with a simple message. “We’ll pay the extra penny, Congolese lives are worth it.”

At a tech conference, I faced thousands of guys lined up around the block, with zero interest in Congo. One told me to put my sign down because the word “rape” made him uncomfortable.

I want to be clear: Corporate campaigning is not my thing. I don’t like the confrontation. I didn’t want to be there.

Now, my mom in a recent interview was asked her how she liked this kind of campaigning. She leaned in and said, “I frickin’ loved it.”

Not so for me.

There’s an inner battle that plays out in moments like these. On one hand, there is this inner voice saying, “Uh, oh. I can’t abide.” But on the other hand, you’re thinking, “Who am I to do anything?” To quote T.S. Eliot, you wonder, “Do I dare?” “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

In these protests, I was able to cross the comfort threshold for one reason: my “sisters.” They risked their lives to speak to me…and this was demanded of me in return.

I found empathy equals power. In a confrontation with a public relations lady at Apple headquarters, my voice shook I was so nervous, yet I couldn’t hold back this tidal wave of passion, I told her, “Apple has known for years you purchase conflict minerals. Your industry has taken for granted there is no movement for Congo. Those days are over. It’s gonna be huge!”

And it’s just me and my mom and this woman Diane from Facebook. We were completely faking it. All we had was our message: we can’t stop tech or Congress from gutting the bill. But if you do, we will scream from the rooftops you do not value African lives at more than a penny.

Within six weeks, our protests were in the New York Times and on National Public Radio, Steve Jobs himself spoke out on conflict minerals, and despite millions spent by tech, jewelry, manufacturing, and retail lobbies, the legislation passed intact.

Some people talk about compassion fatigue, like empathy wears you down. I’ve found the opposite. I’ve found empathy to function more like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more power it gives. The more reflexive it becomes. It’s not that stepping up is more comfortable; it’s just that comfort becomes less relevant in the face of empathy override.

That’s what took me to the third moment, Mogadishu. You know, Black Hawk Down Somalia, “the world’s most failed state,” the most dangerous place on earth, terrorized by war lords and Islamic militants. Nowhere on earth had been more written off than Somalia. And no one in Somalia had been more written off than women.

So, in 2011, I went to Mogadishu to launch the first sexual violence crisis center there, which I cofounded with an amazing Somali woman activist, Fartun Adan.

I spent months making security arrangements: Flack jackets. Eight armed guards. Secure place to stay, inside the African Union compound.

My flight was late. I got wrapped up in long conversations with survivors, like 17-year-old Amina. She watched her best friend stoned to death, and herself was gang raped. She was scared to even leave her hut to go to the bathroom. How do you cut that conversation short?

So, we were late. The African Union had closed their gates for the night.

And there was no way the African Union would let our Somali security anywhere near that compound.

To make a long story short, I ended up in the middle of a wide-open dusty field, arms in the air, alone. Empty, bombed-out buildings all around, wide open to would-be hostile snipers. Men with guns behind me, African Union pointing their guns aimed at me yelling, threatening to shoot.

Now I tend to have a high threshold for risk, but that was decidedly “beyond my comfort zone.”

Yet, I chose it. And for Somali women, I would not have traded it. This moment, to me, epitomizes the threshold to power. If you step up in the name of something bigger than yourself, you will find yourself in that metaphorical field, hands in the air. Guns in front, guns behind. You are not authorized. You are exposed.

We don’t think of these moments as a source of power. Yet these choices, based on the empathy we practice, are moments that define a lifetime.

You have a choice. Run for your cocoon. Or rise to that moment. You cannot know the reverberations of that act.

Our center started with 30 women pledging $10 a month. Within a year and half, the budget was a million dollars, we’d reached thousands of Somali women, and Fartun has taken the world stage

Generose had one of these moments. In 2010, we had our first ever Run for Congo Women in Congo, where survivors ran a mile to raise money for other Congolese women.

Generose is a woman who has endured torture designed to destroy the human spirit.

Not only did Generose show up that day, she showed up in a red suit and pink pearls. And she ran. She didn’t have a prosthetic leg. She was on mismatched crutches. It was painful. She made it about a third of a mile. One journalist commented she didn’t feel she could cover Generose’s participation in the run, because she didn’t finish. But Generose stepped up, and took at far as she could.

When I asked Generose why she ran, she said, “If I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”

That’s all any of us need to do. Step up. Without permission, or endorsements, or anyone to say “go.” Stumble, fail, fake it, take it as far as you can. Trust what unfolds will be far bigger than anything you can measure.

I have one wish for you all: That you don’t pass up that invitation. That you don’t choose comfort. Soul-numbing comfort.

Flip on your empathy switch. Cross that threshold.

Dare. Disturb the universe.

Thank you. And congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013!