A Letter From Sean
Hey crew. How you been?
It has been a while since I sat down to write you a letter. It feels good to be back in touch. So much has happened, so much is happening, I’m so excited to catch you up to speed and give you a window in.
So where to begin… let’s start with end of 2011. November 28th. Election day in Congo.
The team at FW teamed up with a strategic designer at IDEO, a global design and innovation firm that works with clients like Nike, GE and the National Park Service. We introduced them to our partner team at Mutaani FM (Congo’s fastest growing radio station) to address the upcoming problem of election monitoring. Without monitors there is no accountability, and without accountability, corrupt politicians steal countries. So our goal was to make anyone with a cell phone a potential election monitor.
It was a simple idea - if a person saw signs of corruption, coercion or violence during the election days, they could immediately text it to Mutaani. The radio station would then report to the voters in real-time, and publish it online for the international community to see. The goal was to make what was once closed, open. To create a free and fair election.
On the morning of the elections, they launched the program. Mutaani began receiving reports from throughout North Kivu. Two days later with voting ongoing, the Congolese government shut down SMS across the country. Think about that. The government shut down text messaging across the entire country on election day. That week, there were public killings, massive voter fraud, and riots. In the end President Kabila stole the election and has been ruling since November.
We had to step back and take stock of what had happened. People had died and the elections were stolen from the people.
Exactly one month later, on December 28th, my father died. He was the best man I’ve ever known.
I flew home to Austin, TX to be with my family. The FW crew rallied around my family in an unforgettable week of mourning, storytelling, and laughing at old memories of a man who had become a mentor for all of us. At that point, David Lewis took over as CEO of Falling Whistles.
I had to leave.
My brother and I took a few months to travel and get my dad’s affairs in order. As I did so, I began to learn how he ran his business. The efficiency. The level of meticulous examination that went into each of his decisions, the financial sustainability of his model. Through many years of trial and error, he had built a solid business to support his family, himself, and those he loved.
I then began to take a hard look at our business, Falling Whistles. Over the course of three years we had built a coalition that included 35 Congressmen, 16 Senators and over 50,000 whistleblowers. We had partnered with 8 Congolese visionaries and sold in over 200 retailers. That work had some remarkable results. Among them are rehabilitating over 400 war affected children, 260 surgeries for children in the war-region, distributing 330,000 low-cost malaria treatments, building the Peace Market, and much more.
But as I dug deeper into my Dad’s affairs I began to ask myself; if I was him, would I invest in FW? It was clear that we would have to evolve as an organization.
We were far from what you could call sustainable. To be entirely honest, we weren’t even stable. Every month was a race. We overspent on matters of conscience and impact, and underspent on matters of profitability that all organizations need to survive. We made decisions that sacrificed our own long term strategy, for short term impact in a complex war. As a result, we struggled month-to-month to make both our commitments in Congo, and our commitments in the west.
About midway through the year, we returned to Congo. Though we are in touch with our partners constantly, Dav and I had not personally been back in 3 years because of visa issues. It would be the first time Dav, Mario and I would see, with our own eyes, the work our partners had done with FW’s funding. I spent the next few months there, listening and learning, listening and learning.
While I was in Congo, the rebel group M23 was wreaking havoc upon the population. Over 400,000 people were newly displaced from their homes and many were caught in the crossfire. A damning UN report was released during this time alleging the Rwandan government, and its President Paul Kagame, was providing support through means of funding, troops, and ammunition to M23. Along with many other organizations, our advocacy department has been hard at work pushing halls of power toward peace.
In the last 5 months, over $100 million in international aid has been frozen to Rwanda. In the short term, there are now peace talks. We will keep you posted as it progresses.
During this time, Amani joined the FW team full time. Amani had been a partner of Falling Whistles, but we were so impressed by the thoroughness of his work and his commitment to long term solutions, that we offered him a job. He said yes, but on one condition; that he get to lead his people out of dependency and into entrepreneurialism. Our answer was a resounding “yes”. Though new on the job, he jumped in with gusto.
While traveling with Amani, two things became very clear. First, was that the most sustainable, effective impact we had created had always come when we had created a job. The most simple of ideas, but I think as a result the most often overlooked. A job creates dignity and security. More than anything, a job means the family can take care of their own, rather than looking to charity for hand outs.
The second lesson was about scale. I looked at the work our partners were doing and was incredibly proud. Tens of thousands of you had come together to make it possible, and they were on the front lines making it happen.
But with so many newly displaced, a partner in hiding for speaking out against M23, another partner under threat, 12 of our boys abducted and nine of our girls victims of rebel violence, it was very clear; much, much, much more would have to be done.
This brings us to October. Here and now. We have begun a series of radical shifts at FW to take this campaign for peace into the next chapter.
First, we have trimmed the team dramatically. This was a difficult decision and challenging for our community. But what had got us here, will not take us where we must go. And so the decision had to be made. The support and administrative staff was let go, and all company activities were focused on the absolute essentials we need to grow. We are now a team of eight. Eight fire-breathing, stop-at-nothing captains, ready to build the coalition we’ve always intended to build.
We’ve also launched a new website. Clean and simple. I hope it will provide more clarity about who we are, what we do, and how we do it.
And tomorrow, we are launching a new line of whistles, The 5 Boys Collection. They are beautiful. They carry with them a powerful message of solidarity. We can not wait to share them with you and for you to share them with others.
In three weeks, the team will be hitting the road. But this time, it will not be the exhaustive cross country tours of the past. This tour will bring the entire team, with the exception of Amani who is running things in Congo, to five of our key cities. We will circle our core members of the coalition for deep discussions about the current security situation in Congo and long term strategies toward peace. In each city, we will launch a new retail installation in our premium retailers, bringing the campaign directly into the community. And we will invite you all to join us and celebrate this work and learn more about the current situations.
Through all of this, we will be publishing tons of new content and sharing these events with all of you.
Our goal this winter is to sell 15,000 whistles. This will ensure our Congolese partners are taken care of, and push us into 2013, ready to make the evolution we now know we must make.
Over the last 4 years we have shared some extraordinary victories and together we have become an extraordinary coalition. And we have also made our share of mistakes on this long and winding journey toward peace. Through it all, there’s one thing I can assure you of - we will always be honest with you about both of them.
I can also promise that we will continue to give our best work toward this great goal. The work of this coalition is simply too important. And the prize too great. So through the twists and turns, I ask that you run with us. Run toward the end of the deadliest war of our time.
Be a whistleblower for peace. Peace in Congo.
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