Shannon will also receive an honorary doctorate, recognizing her efforts to raise awareness and support for Congolese women. Before becoming a writer and activist, Shannon was the owner a stock photography business. In 2005, she saw Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, speaking about the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women regularly face violence, rape, displacement, illiteracy, disease, and famine.
Shannon felt that she had to do something and organized a solo 30-mile run. Her first run raised $28,000. This unexpected success encouraged her to form Run for Congo Women, a run/walk movement that benefits Women for Women International’s Congo program.
“The truth is, when I decided to do [the first run], I didn’t tell anyone for the first four months because I was scared I would flake. I wasn’t sure if I would do it or if I could do it,” she explained. To date, Run for Congo Women has raised over $11 million, directly aiding more than 66,000 Congolese women.
After six months of working to raise public awareness and funds, Shannon was struck by the lack of movement for Congo in the United States. “When I started it, I thought I would just do this run and that would be it,” she said. “I’m not even sure I would have taking it on if at the time I would have thought, ‘I’m going to give up everything to do this.’”
But Shannon could not walk away from the individual women she was helping. She had been exchanging letters with Congolese women through Women for Women International’s program, which she saw as a “lifeline between two people who really owe each other nothing and yet have this connection,” she said. “It started to feel like I had a personal relationship with women in the Congo, and [that] became a whole different motivator,” she continued.
The money raised by Run for Congo Women marathons allows Women for Women International to provide Congolese women with financial support, education, and business and vocational training to help women rebuild their lives in the aftermath of war.
Shannon was nominated for an honorary degree by Professor of Psychology Steven Sabat. “Shannon decided that her life had to mean something more than going along as usual. She went about creating that meaning with great purpose and intention, and helped people in ways that staggered my imagination and won my deep and abiding respect,” Sabat said.
“All too often, people who receive honorary degrees are noted celebrities and famous politicians. I felt it was time to show our students that someone who did not have an instantly recognized name, but who did great good, could and should be so significantly honored by Georgetown,” he continued.
As she found her own way to start a movement, Shannon was also staggered by the response to her efforts to aid Congolese women. “I think [a successful movement] requires a lot of space for people to be able to come in with their own passion and vision and create projects on their own terms,” she explained. After participating in Run for Congo Women, many people went on to create their own projects, including support for Congolese wildlife and land conservation and education initiatives.
“I think that one of the mistakes that movements make is not creating enough space at the top for many voices and encouraging other people’s power,” she said. As someone who never saw herself as an activist, Shannon hopes that this year’s graduates don’t underestimate their own abilities and potential to generate real change.
“I think a lot of people feel they have to wait until they know everything [to act], or that someone has to give them permission to do something,” she said. “Obviously that wasn’t the case for me since I’ve made everything up from scratch.”
The Georgetown College commencement ceremony is Saturday, May 18 at 9:00 a.m. The full ceremony will be broadcast live here.
For more information about Commencement Weekend 2013, visit the university’s commencement website.