i am writing this book to share with you the joy and excitement I have experienced meeting and becoming friends with some of the twenty-first century’s most innovative and compassionate visionaries. These extraordinary and life-affirming activists have enriched my life; whenever I am in their presence, I feel optimistic about the future of our planet and its people.
Where others tear at the social fabric, they mend; where others see the world in shades of gray conformity, they see the world as a kaleidoscope of possibilities; where others avert their eyes from the suffering of others, they fearlessly look at the world the way it is—and how it might be.
What are the personal experiences that shape the lives of today’s activists? What are their hopes for the world? What are their dreams of the future? What are their fears? How are they changing the world one step at a time? What drives them to put aside comfort and safety to join hands with those most in need?
A new consciousness is sweeping the globe. Columnist and -bestselling author David Brooks describes it as the New Humanism; Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, describes the natural human desire to be part of something “bigger and more lasting than ourselves.” I think of today’s visionaries as thoughtfully and actively guiding the world in the direction of greater justice and a deeper humanity, where the birth lottery does not determine life chances.
Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison, at a recent graduation speech at Rutgers University, beautifully expressed the personal importance of pursuing something bigger and more lasting than ourselves: “Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life; it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”
Whatever words we use to describe this new consciousness, the reality is simple: It is fundamental to our nature to join with others to enhance the condition of the human family. In Jacqueline Novogratz’s inspiring words, “The time has come to extend to every person on the planet the fundamental principle we hold so dear: that all human beings are created equal.… Our collective futures rest upon embracing a vision of a single world in which we are all connected.”
This book is a call to action. I am both motivated and humbled by the many people in our lives who serve without the expectation of reward. I have been fortunate to be close to people from all walks of life who feel it is a privilege to roll up their sleeves and extend a helping hand to others. Together we can make a real difference, today and tomorrow. If this book can, even in a small way, help you define and refine your dreams and plans for a better world, then it will have accomplished its mission.
In 2010 and 2011, my colleague Peter Cookson and I filmed each of the visionaries featured in this book. Their stories are told in their own words—directly, honestly, and passionately. The chapters that follow emerge from the lightly edited transcripts of our interviews. The stories you are about to read capture what we believe is often overlooked: Behind every story of service is a very human and heartfelt journey—signified by yearning, struggle, happiness, and fulfillment. These vignettes allow us to see how purposeful imagination and solidarity with others can transform the world and in the process transform the lives of those who serve.
Peter and I have known each other for many years; both of us are sociologists and educators. Not long ago, we discovered we were working in parallel and decided to collaborate on a book that would bring to public attention new and courageous leaders who are reshaping the world. This has been a truly happy collaboration.
The title Hearts on Fire is drawn from an expression used by Andeisha Farid to describe to us her life’s journey from childhood in a refugee camp in Iran to her present work, founding orphanages in Afghanistan. She movingly explained to us how the ashes of her heart were turned into a heart on fire when she started her first small orphanage in 2003.
The origins of this work have deep roots in my family. My husband, Ken, and I believe that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Our children, Zachary and Kiva, share our determination to help make a world where justice is the norm, not the exception. We founded the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service at Cornell University as a way of promoting and supporting visionary leadership. I am indebted to all my colleagues at the Clinton Global Initiative and to President Clinton himself for showing the way forward to a world where our shared humanity is celebrated and giving back is expected.
The symbol for this project is the hummingbird. Fifteen years ago, a family friend gave me a painting of a hummingbird as a gift, because he thought it captured my sense of urgency about those things I care deeply about. Recently, I learned that the hummingbird is considered sacred by many Native Americans, who believe it to have life-giving magical powers—a very fitting symbol for the work of the world’s visionaries.
Because our mission is to awaken and support your sense of commitment, we have included sources of information about employment, internships, grants, and sponsorships as well as educational and professional development opportunities in the growing service movement and some suggested further reading.
So, welcome! I sincerely hope that when you meet and get to know these women and men of vision, you will feel refreshed, optimistic, and ready to find your own path of connection, compassion, and constructive problem-solving. Please be in touch with us at www.heartsonfirebook.com and join the conversation—together we can make a real difference!
Jimmie Briggs has been called “a gentle giant.” It’s not so much his impressive stature, which fills the doorway; it is his dignity, his quiet sense of purpose, and the almost innocent quality that suffuses the entire room.
When I first met Jimmie, he needed some guidance with fundraising. I was motivated to help because I believed that whoever would meet him would be as taken as I was with his chosen mission: stopping violence against girls and women.
Jimmie has gone through a lot in the year since we first interviewed him: He suffered a major heart attack, which led to complete kidney failure. Since then he has been in hemodialysis three days a week, four hours per session. Yet he remains steadfast and totally committed to ending violence against girls and women. Jimmie loves life deeply. When I asked him about how he had gotten through his ordeal, he spoke of his family and friends and the community of caring he continues to be part of every day. His positive outlook is inspiring. I have learned so much from Jimmie; in his words, “social change requires working every day, every week, every hour—never turning off.”
Jimmie has many fans and was the winner of GQ magazine’s Better Men Better World Search. As he stirs hearts with his urgent quest to protect women and girls in this country and around the world, I hope he will stir yours too.
Imagine if we drew a map of the world where our unit of measurement was violence against women. It would be a geography of pain. We would see continents of buried suffering, mountain ranges of violence, and arid deserts of neglect. We would see a world where rape is used as a weapon of war (nearly 500,000 women were raped in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide alone), a world where one out of three girls reports being sexually abused and where one girl in four has experienced violence in a relationship. Worldwide, the leading cause of death and disability for women between fifteen and forty-four is violence.
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 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. 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. But I found strength in my family and community. 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 community had an investment in me succeeding. I am sure other young people my age in the church felt the same way. But it came across in a very personalized way. I grew up wanting to be a doctor. I volunteered at a local hospital in high school.
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 throughout 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.
I had the opportunity to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morehouse is a historically black all-male college with a long tradition of leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr., went there. Spike Lee went there. Some of today’s most prominent financial and political leaders went to Morehouse.
College had a tremendous impact on me in ways I didn’t recognize until later. I majored in philosophy and biology. But things really started to change my junior year. I had the opportunity to go overseas in 1989 and study, thanks to a [Philip] Merrill Fellowship. I spent a year and a half in Vienna, Austria.
It was a momentous time to be in Europe. I was there when the Berlin Wall came down. I was in Prague when their revolution occurred; I was in Hungary during their revolution.
It really energized me in a way that I didn’t recognize at first. I had always been a good writer and people said, “Jimmie, why don’t you pursue writing?” But I’d never thought about writing as a career option for me. I didn’t see how I could make a living. And coming from the family I did, there was so much invested in me becoming a doctor. I would have been the first one in my family to go to medical school.
But after traveling and seeing what I saw in Europe, I fell in love with exploring new cultures, hearing new languages, speaking new languages, and—you know—having the gift of sharing stories with people. After my junior year, I went back to college and finished my senior year at Morehouse. I resolved to take a new path for myself.“You Must Pass These Stories On”
I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, but I didn’t tell my parents until after college. I’ll never forget how it happened. The day I graduated we went out to dinner with the whole family and over dinner I said, “I’m not gonna become a doctor. I’m gonna become a writer.” Let’s just say it was a very rough few months after that. It was a difficult time period for me and them.
But my adventure had begun.
After college I spent the next year and a half waiting tables and tending bar, because I had never taken a journalism or a writing class in my life. I spent a few months unloading trucks for UPS just to earn money. All the while I was sending off query letters to editors in New York, not understanding the process, not having clips to show. Finally, a friend of mine was moving to Washington, D.C. He invited me to come with him. So I said, “Let’s go for it.” 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 him 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, Derek Hudson, and Donna Ferrato. 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 Mobutu 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, Colombia, 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.
During this period I was also going through a painful personal conflict. I’d met a woman while I was at Life; we’d fallen in love, gotten married, and had
a daughter named Mariella. My wife was a wonderful person but our marriage suffered because consciously and subconsciously I made the choice to put work first. That’s something I have deep regrets about. To ask someone to wait for you when you are going places where you might not come back alive is not fair, no matter how great a person they are.
During this time, I was plagued by what I’d seen. I’d seen people killed. I nearly had been killed myself. I had internalized some of the worst stories imaginable. It had taken a toll on my soul. I hit a block. I wasn’t able to work and had to take time off because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I reached a point where I couldn’t sleep and was having nightmares.
It was a challenge to finish the child soldier project. Once I became the father of Mariella, it all became more personal. I saw my own child in the faces of the children I was writing about. But I did finish. My book, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, was published in 2005. It is my proudest professional achievement. I became an authority on child soldiers and kids affected by war. No one had ever looked at the issue through personal narrative. I started traveling more and talking at schools, colleges, conferences, and the United Nations.
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 looking back at my life, it’s not surprising I started working on gender issues. From the very beginning, I was blessed to have incredibly strong women in my life. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother challenged me to carry myself with integrity and love.
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.
In 2012 we expanded our leadership team, hired a public relations firm, and formed a partnership with the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. We have an emerging relationship with Women and Girls Lead to increase public awareness and provide exposure to our youth delegates. On March 8, International Women’s Rights Day, we mounted a highly successful photo exhibition and auction. Since then, we’ve done online film screenings and are co-sponsoring a domestic violence awareness basketball program in the summer.
Increasingly, I realize that Man Up’s role and impact will always be evolving. We’re still very early in the initiative’s life, but I recognize a shift in how people discuss the issue and the role of youth in effecting change. Man Up’s greatest effect will be long-term, as exemplified through the legacy of our partners. Generally speaking, I think the collective struggle to stop violence against women and girls has made huge strides, but there’s still a great distance to travel.
I’ve been doing this work for the past three 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 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. But there were definitely others whose names won’t be recognizable, such as the young Congolese woman I interviewed, who lost her entire family on a day she was gang-raped twice, or the weary mother in Sri Lanka whose daughter—
a former child soldier for the Tamil Tigers—was beaten and raped in front of her. 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.
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.”
Excerpted from Hearts on Fire: Stories of Today's Visionaries Igniting Idealism into Action by Jill W. Iscol with Peter W. Cookson, Jr.. Copyright © 2013 by Jill W. Iscol with Peter W. Cookson, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.