The Oslo Freedom Forum is a remarkable opportunity for countless reasons: it represents unity amongst various human rights movements around the world, it is a networking opportunity, and it allows for individuals to share information and experiences. Though my experience at the Forum encompassed all of these benefits, I was always under the impression that social change was the result of a necessary and daunting sense of desperation. I pictured oppression in its most grotesque form: after all, the speakers exposed us to images and accounts of torture and oppression that seemed ridiculously inhumane to me. However, on interacting with the speakers at the Forum, I realized that activism is not a defense mechanism—it is a choice.
Lee Ann de Reus is the co-founder and assistant executive director of the Panzi Foundation USA, an organization that seeks to raise awareness regarding sexual violence the in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. As a rising senior in college, I found myself asking Lee Ann how she determined that she was emotionally capable of being repeatedly exposed to stories of sexual assault. Lee Ann frankly replied that after she returned back to the USA after her first mission, she was “glued to her couch” because she was both mentally and physically overwhelmed by her work. Working with human rights means working with human emotions, and connecting with other individuals on a personal level. The media has socialized us to think of activism as large scale revolutions with protests and casualties. In reality, activism is the act of simultaneously accepting that humans can act with indifferent, good, or evil actions.
Once this commitment is broken, others are left disappointed. De Reus stated that eventually, she realized that she was “emotionally capable” of committing herself to her work not because there was a revolution occurring outside her window, but because the plight of women was immediate to her. In reality, activism is the act of simultaneously accepting that humans can act with good, instead of indifferent or evil actions. The trick is to realize that human rights are not a question of emotional capability—instead, the question is one of emotional obligation.