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Herberg Middle School students, from left, Elbin Orellana, Joey Pietrowsky, Hannah Stechmann and Naomi Elzner, all 14, talk about a mural they help create for a school-wide campaign to protest the alleged war crimes of Ugandan refugee Joseph Kony.
Tuesday May 1, 2012

PITTSFIELD

In a digital age, where an audience of young people are empowered to make videos of cute kittens and skateboard stunts go viral, a short film, "Kony 2012," by the charity Invisible Children Inc., has become a sensational exception.

With perpetual posts about it on Facebook and YouTube, it seems that any youth with Internet access and a social media account couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the powerful images of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army allegedly abusing children and apparently forcing them into the roles of soldiers and sex slaves.

For young people, seeing their same-age peers struck a chord to the tune of sympathy, shock and outrage.

"The kids came to us. We had no clue who Kony was and what the film was all about," said Jen Jaehnig, an eighth-grade history teacher at Herberg Middle School.

Incidentally, the eighth grade had been studying Africa at the time and was in the process of developing a class service-learning project related to the country.

With so many students talking about Kony 2012 and wanting to spread the word, too, both Jaehnig and her fellow history teacher Bill Berryman said that the topic couldn’t be ignored.

Teachers and students watched and discussed the video. Then, students were asked to do additional research and asked to specifically cite some of the criticisms of the campaign -- which included rumors of whether Kony is still alive; whether campaign donations actually reach Ugandan families and whether the facts of the campaign are exaggerated.


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"We talked about all the aspects and asked them if they still wanted to do this. They said yes," Jaehnig said.

She continued, "We need to allow youth to be a part of the community, to let them do things to contribute. They’re ready."

The Herberg eighth-graders decided that they would not make any financial contributions, but that they would participate in Invisible Children Inc.’s April 20 "Cover the Night" poster and flier campaign. But instead of city streets, the halls of Herberg were to be their domain.

"We wanted them to find a way to be activists in a safe way," Berryman said.

On the Friday before the April spring vacation week, 30 students volunteered to stay after school, on their own time, and create large-scale murals of posters and also hang fliers in the school to be seen by their classmates when they returned to school the following week.

They spelled out Kony’s name in fliers, built a bullseye and a large arrow. Another group of students helped another Fair Trade organization, BeadforLife, through which Ugandan women turn colorful recycled paper into beads for jewelry, which are sold and generate income for themselves and their communities. Herberg students used beads from this group to create a Kony mural as well.

Joey Pietrowsky, said he felt empowered by helping out. " This is kids helping other kids. If I were trapped in a situation, I’d want others to help me out too," he said.

His classmate, Elbin Orellana, said he felt better about participating in the campaign by knowing more about it. Hannah Stechmann and Naomi Elzner, also eighth-graders, agreed.

"People shouldn’t jump into something just because other people do. You need to learn about it first," Stechmann said.

Elzner, said she hopes the effort will cause a chain reaction, not only in helping to end war crimes in Uganda, but also in inspiring her generation to be thoughtful and active global citizens.

"We’re the voices of the future. Whatever decisions we make, we should learn about it and do it carefully," she said.