For Jimmie Briggs, the founder of Man Up, a global campaign to stop violence against women, the past six months have been a roller coaster. Last fall, he learned that he had been selected as the winner of the Better Men, Better World award, given by the GQ Gentlemen's Fund to honor men who have taken action to make a difference in their communities and the world. Then, before that honor could settle in, he suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him.
When he finally pulled through, he said, he felt it was a message that he had more work to do.
Briggs, who delivered this year's De La Salle Week keynote address, officially launched the Man Up Campaign at the World Cup in South Africa last summer by bringing together young people from 25 countries at a Young Leaders Summit. The Man Up Campaign plans to enlist artists, musicians and sports heroes to spread the message that it's not "cool" to abuse women, or even talk about it, and that we all need to stand up, or Man Up, to break the cycle of violence.
"Violence against women is one of the most important issues in the world today," Briggs said. But he added: "This is not a women's issue; it's a human issue."
Long Road to Advocacy
Briggs took an unusual path to becoming an advocate for women's rights. He began his career as journalist by telling stories of hip-hop music and culture and then moved on to documenting gangs and the drug life. Later, he covered conflicts around the world and wrote a book called "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War," which chronicles the personal stories of child soldiers in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Rwanda and Colombia. That led him to cover war's all-too-common companion, rape. Looking back on his career, he realized that there was one consistent thread: the treatment of women and girls. The realization became even stronger after the birth of his daughter.
So he wrote about the issue, in order to bear witness and "honor the experiences" of women who had been abused and marginalized, like victims of rape in Congo, where a quarter million women are raped annually in the midst of an ongoing civil war.
His strong personal connection to the people whose stories he told brought him many accolades for his work, but several years ago, he said, he realized he "couldn't emotionally carry those stories anymore." He also realized that he had given up a lot to tell these heart-wrenching stories, like relationships and time with his young daughter, Mariela. Once, as he was preparing to leave on a reporting trip to document the medical system for rape survivors in Congo, she asked him, "Daddy, why are you always leaving?" It was one of the turning points in his life.
Crisis of Faith
Speaking from the heart, he said that seeing so much cruelty had taken a huge toll on him. "I began to lose my faith in God and my faith in humanity," he said. But he couldn't just turn his back and walk away. "A part of me never lost faith and never gave up," he said. He channeled his energies into becoming an advocate for change. He has worked for the U.N. Special Session on Children, Seeds of Peace, Oxfam USA, Amnesty International and the Enough Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now he's focusing on preparing "the next generation of change-makers." When the heart attack nearly felled him, he said, it made him worry that he hadn't done enough to empower others so that they could carry on if he were to die. "It was a reminder that the work I've been doing is important but that I have to do a better job of sharing the legacy," he said.
In addition to promoting and raising funds for the Man Up Campaign, Briggs is working as a consultant for U.N. Women and helping to design a gender training program for men in Haiti, where rape is rampant in refugee camps for survivors of the earthquake that took more than 200,000 lives.
Advice for Students
Asked what students at Saint Mary's can do to carry out the goals of the Man Up Campaign, he recommended working with the Women's Resource Center, then added, "You have to be willing to be uncomfortable and talk about it."
He also suggested that men need to embrace "alternative masculinities" â€“ archetypes of manhood that push past common stereotypes like "bold, aggressive, dominating and powerful."
"Individually, men don't see ourselves as part of the problem," he acknowledged. He urged the men in the audience to step up to the challenge of doing more to protect women's rights. "Being good must not be defined by what you don't do but by what you do," he reminded them.
He recalled how he launched the Man Up Campaign from a Starbucks cafÃ© and, with the boldness that has been a hallmark of his life, shot off e-mails to three towering figures in the feminist movement: Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King and Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues." The response was overwhelmingly positive, he said, and Steinem sent back an e-mail immediately, saying, "Now is the time. We need men involved in this issue. We can't go any further without men."
Photo by Jaycee Casalnuovo '14