With the ink on her college diploma barely dry, Rachel Brown headed to Kenya to help defuse an atmosphere of potential hate and violence. A few years later, she has returned to the United States with fresh ideas on how civil society groups anywhere can spread useful, accurate information to neutralize dangerous speech.
The aftermath of Kenya’s elections in December 2007 was roiled by violence, with more than 1,000 people losing their lives. Killings and other hateful acts were spurred by the use of incendiary text messages at a time when cellphones were beginning to be found in the pockets of millions of Kenyans.
When Ms. Brown moved to Kenya, a new set of elections in 2013 loomed, with the prospect of further violence. She had just graduated from Tufts University near Boston with a degree in international relations, and she went to work with local peace activists. “The first step in trying to reach somebody is you have to understand them as much as possible,” she reasoned.
So along with her local partners, Brown created Sisi ni Amani (“We are peace”) Kenya. Sisi developed into a kind of rapid response team that sent out a blizzard of texts urging peace and restraint, counteracting those that peddled hatred. It also used texts for civic education: All Kenyans were being asked to reregister to vote, and they had to understand which identification documents they would need to do so. Even the ballots themselves would be changing.
The nation rejoiced when the 2013 elections were largely peaceful. Sisi felt it had played an important role. After leaving the group in the sure hands of Kenyan peace activists, who are developing it further, Brown returned home to the US, eager to refine and deepen her understanding of how to promote peace.
Her next project came quickly. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., invited Brown to develop a guidebook called “Defusing Hate,” which offers step-by-step advice on how to combat dangerous speech.
The document, completed last June, is available online and has been distributed on paper in countries ranging from Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka to nations in East Africa and Europe’s Baltic states. The US State Department and the US Agency for International Development have added it to their toolboxes for preventing genocide and other mass atrocities.
That’s quite a lot accomplished for a young woman still in her 20s. It may be because she got off to a fast start.
“I’ve always been really disturbed by things that are unfair and preventable,” says Brown, who grew up near Baltimore. As a child, “I would see something that was wrong and ask my parents, ‘Why, why?’ ”
In high school she wrote a paper on the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. “I wanted to feel emotionally invested in what I was writing about, so my parents suggested we pick up the movie ‘The Killing Fields,’ ” she says. “And I was so moved by that movie that I thought, ‘I have to go somewhere and do something.’ ”
As a teen she was all set to do charitable work in Nepal when an insurgency there resulted in a veto from her parents. So instead, at 17, she traveled to India and worked in an orphanage during the summer. Later she paid for two young girls in India to go to school. As a college student she spent time studying in Kenya, and that experience led her to return after graduation.
‘Caught off guard’ in 2007
She arrived before the 2013 elections with some ideas on how to help. But listening to what Kenyan peace activists had to say quickly changed her mind. They had seen how text messaging had been used to create inflammatory rumors and false reports before the 2007 elections. The activists had been “caught off guard, and they didn’t know how to compete with it or react to it,” Brown says.
At the time she knew little about technology herself and had never started an organization, either. But the group plunged in anyway.
“We were really small and scrappy,” she says. As Sisi began to enlist tech-savvy helpers, Brown thought, “I can make this work.... We just kept doing stuff and trying things until we got better and better [at it].”
Sisi volunteers spread throughout Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and into the Great Rift Valley, where much of the previous violence had taken place. The first order of business: Listen. Learn about people’s concerns and the ways they obtain information.
That led to the next step. “What if we could get people’s phone numbers and then send them [text] messages?” Brown wondered. Eventually Sisi created a database of some 65,000 subscribers who could receive short message service (SMS) texts on even cheap and low-tech flip phones.
Sisi also used SMS texts to invite people to gather to learn about subjects such as landownership and to participate in political debates. “We’d poll them on issues that mattered to them,” Brown says in a chat at a coffeehouse in Camden, Maine, near where she was giving a talk. “We weren’t just doing the violence prevention; we were building a relationship with trust.”
After the elections, Sisi surveyed its subscribers to gauge the effects of its texts. Ninety-six percent of respondents said they found the Sisi messages “useful” or “very useful.” Ninety-two percent said the messages had a positive effect on keeping peace during the elections. Seventy-five percent said they had forwarded a Sisi text to at least one friend.
“[The messages] enabled me to vote wisely since I felt empowered with the information and am proud that I kept peace,” one respondent said. “[I] am a youth and I felt enlightened on what was going on and am thankful.”
Brown received training and support from PopTech, a 20-year-old nonprofit that works globally based on the premise that collaboration is a powerful tool for social change. A graduate of the PopTech “fellows” program, she spoke at the organization’s annual conference in Camden in October (see a video of her presentation here).
“She is one of the highest performing Fellows we have ever had and her subsequent trajectory speaks volumes of her talent and commitment to positive global change,” says Leetha Filderman, PopTech’s president, in an email.
Brent Decker, chief program officer for Cure Violence, an international peace initiative hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, collaborated with Brown on her project in Kenya. “I walked away from our engagement just being totally impressed. Just ‘wow,’ ” he says. “I felt we were lucky to be part of the partnership because it also shifted a lot of our thinking.... She was amazing.”
Not an easy task
Brown’s work in Kenya and at the holocaust museum has persuaded her that defusing hatred and finding peace isn’t easy or simple. But it is possible.
Peace activists often assume that if they provide enough facts, figures, and logic they will change minds, she says. “But that is not how human beings work. It’s actually really hard to change someone’s beliefs. We perceive any information that challenges our strongly held beliefs ... as a psychological threat. So we reject information that challenges our beliefs and accept information that supports them.”
Violence, she says, isn’t always caused by a lack of empathy. People who act violently may feel a lot of empathy for the people in their own group and try to protect them by using violence.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t judge what is good and what is bad” behavior, she notes. But changing minds may require new approaches, such as finding a trusted voice in the community to convey the message.
Brown sees any violence as a wasteful distraction that prevents people from working together to overcome mutual problems. “What does peace look like?” she asks. “To me it looks like people coming together to solve those critical issues.”
How to take action
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Selamta Family Project works in Ethiopia to create “forever families” and bright futures for orphaned children, marginalized women, and families at risk of breaking apart. Take action: Help buy hardware for a computer lab.
One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Give a community in a developing country a cordless video projector.
WorldTeach partners with governments and other organizations in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers, meet local needs, and promote responsible global citizenship. Take action: Be a WorldTeach volunteer in Bangladesh.