From Hip-Hop to Human Rights
Echoing Green’s Heart at Work interview series highlights individuals whose changemaking paths we admire. Jimmie Briggs is one of the most respected human rights advocates in the field of journalism. He has produced seminal reporting on the lives of war-affected youth and children soldiers and survivors of sexual violence. Read Jimmie's story as he finds his Work on Purpose.
Echoing Green defines work as the overlap between how you self-identify and how you spend your time. How would you describe your “work”?
As the co-founder and executive director of Man Up, I worked with dynamic colleagues to mobilize Man Up’s 200 youth ambassadors in 50 countries to identify and realize innovative approaches to stopping violence against women and girls in their communities. Every community is different, so every project is different. For instance, a team of three ambassadors in Paraguay has developed a graphic novel and accompanying curriculum on domestic- and dating-violence, which, thanks to funding from the Paraguay and Spanish governments, is now being used in every school in Paraguay. Meanwhile, our ambassador from Guyana organized a soccer tournament for men and boys framed around starting a dialogue about ending violence against women and girls. Here in the states, native and indigenous Americans in Minnesota are giving light to the issue of “survival sex” via educational murals.
But my “work” is more than that. Having been a journalist, I recognize that violence against women does not exist in a vacuum. I have seen how it is tied to abuse of children’s rights, displacement, economic disempowerment, and more. Though people connect me directly with the issue of violence against women, I am always concerned with the bigger picture. We can strengthen our work by broadening our perspective and our partnerships.
Let’s dive into your path. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A doctor. From the time I was a young child, my family and I strategized around my becoming a medical doctor. I minored in biology; I did all the pre-med summer workshops; I was totally geared toward going to medical school. But my junior year, I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria. I wrote a lot while I was overseas. Letters, I kept a journal, poetry, and I fell in love with expressing myself in that way. I had never thought that I could actually be a writer, though everyone said that I was good at it, but the day I graduated from college, I told my parents I wanted to write.
I remember both of them saying to me, “How could you waste four years of your life going to college only to become a writer? That’s not a career.”
It took my parents a long time to accept what I do. After my father passed away, his friends told me that he had been very proud of the book I wrote, the awards and the acclaim I received, though he never told me that himself. And today, my mom is also proud of me, though I was 40 before she gave up the dream that I would go to medical school.
Today you are doing work that, as Echoing Green puts it, “hustles.” What was your process of aligning your heart and your head to create a career that hustles?
The year after college was very frustrating. I was carrying my parents’ disappointment about not going to medical school, but at the same time I had identified this potential path: writing. People whose writing made a difference inspired me, like James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison. I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but I didn’t know how.
So I lived with my parents for a year, and then I moved to DC where I got a job in the mailroom of The Washington Post. At the end of the mailroom orientation, our supervisor told us, “This job in the mailroom will not lead to writing for The Washington Post. If you want to be a writer, go back to college for journalism.” I took this as a challenge. That day, I said to myself, “I am going to write pieces for The Washington Post one day.”
So I was working in the mailroom and on a whim, I decided to write a letter to the editor about a movie, Malcolm X by Spike Lee. They published it. Afterward, the person in charge of the art section saw my name and came down to the mailroom and said, “Do you like music?” He saw me and he thought, young black guy, he probably likes hip-hop. So I wrote about music, and eventually put out a piece about the impact of politics on hip-hop culture that became an op-ed feature. Next thing I knew, I was a freelance music critic and a news aid on the foreign desk all while working in the mailroom.
While in the mailroom, I saw famous reporters writing stories that mattered and I wanted to be like them. But I knew that to become a serious writer, I needed to be in New York, so I applied for a Village Voice Fellowship. There I researched and wrote socially conscious journalism, great muckraking stories that represented the underdog. Six months into the Fellowship, I was recruited to work for a magazine that no longer exists called Emerge—a monthly news magazine for African Americans, where I became assistant editor.
At Emerge, I felt like I could really start to meld my heart and my head, because I could write about whatever I wanted to. Actually, the first story I wrote was on domestic violence.
That’s interesting, considering what you do now.
Yes. When Emerge looked like it was about to fold, I became a staff reporter at LIFE, where I worked for four years. My first story for them was a cover story on how Gulf War Syndrome affected kids. That began a three-year period in which I did stories on young people—abandoned babies, children who died at the hands of abuse, child labor. I learned that I had a gift for getting young people to open up to me.
Is that how you began to focus on child soldiers?
LIFE sent me to what was then called Zaire, and is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There I met the kids, these child soldiers. What was happening to them felt so wrong, I knew I had to understand them and help them. I came home and I said, “One day I am going to write a book about this.” A year later, I was laid off from LIFE and I used that opportunity to work on my book.
What I thought would be short-term project became an 8-year journey. I traveled to countries around the world, talking to child soldiers, first responders, and the commanders recruiting child soldiers, trying to grasp for myself and for others what war does to childhood and why kids were being drawn into conflict. Naively, I felt that if I could understand how kids could become child soldiers, maybe I could help keep it from happening.
I was fueled by an intense passion for this issue, and was broken apart by the trauma I saw. I watched a lot of people be killed first-hand. I sat with people as they died while holding their hands. And it had a profound impact on me. I carried that trauma with me a long time. When my book came out in 2005, I wasn’t the same person. Any war I ever saw, any hospital I ever visited, I left a piece of myself in those places. The Jimmie who wrote about hip-hop and the Jimmie who wrote about war were two different people.
While traveling the world, I would hear all of these stories from girl soldiers who were being raped, victimized, and treated even more brutally because of their gender. As a young father, this was very personal. These girls felt like my own daughter. Over time, I knew that I needed to continue my journey by focusing on the lives of girls and women.
How has your path led you to where you are today?
Today, I see myself as a messenger. As a former journalist and now as an activist and an advocate, I am always striving to represent the experiences and the voices and the stories of the people who I am trying to serve. My purpose as a messenger is to take those stories into places that they would otherwise never go and use them to create change. I have to honor the gifts I was born with—the networker, the messenger, the inspiration, the writer, the cultural translator—I am not saying I’m special, we all have our gifts, but these are the gifts that I have, and the way I can use them, as I see it, is by standing up and speaking out for others. I am passionate about creating change. That is how I see my life. Today, I carry the stories of our youth ambassadors and girls and women around the world.
What advice do you have for Millennials trying to access purposeful careers?
Don’t do anything that inhibits your passion or doesn’t fulfill you, because to keep going in this work…the work to make the world a better place…you need an abundance of both.
Jimmie Briggs is the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War and his upcoming book is The Wars Women Fight: Dispatches from A Father to His Daughter, which examines violence against women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and the United States. Most recently, Jimmie founded the Man Up Campaign, a global initiative for mobilizing young people to stop violence against women and girls through the arts, sports, and technology. It formally launched during a Young Leaders Summit at the University of Johannesburg during 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, bringing youth together from 25 countries, many from Sub-Saharan Africa. For his work with Man Up Campaign and the issue of violence against women, Jimmie was selected as the winner of the 2010 GQ Magazine “Better Men Better World” Search, as well as one of Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
To see Jimmie talk about his Moment of Obligation, go to http://vimeo.com/40546861 and type in the password "Gathering2012"