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Visible Meltdown

March 19, 2012 1 p.m.


Tiveeda Stoval, Executive Director, eXcel Youth Zone

Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology, SDSU

Related Story: Visible Meltdown Of Invisible Children


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: The very public meltdown of invisible children cofounder Jason Russell continues to be the subject of intense speculation. He was detained in a mental health facility last Friday following his naked outburst in Pacific Beach. His family says drugs are not the cause, rather exhaustion and dehydration. Whatever led to his behavior, the cause, the capture of alleged war criminal of Joseph Kony in Central Africa continues. But this scandal is no doubt a problem for the Kony 2012 campaign, and the legions of young people who supporter it. Taveeda Toval is executive director of excel youth zone, a nonprofit which gentlemans K-12 youth in learning opportunities.

TOVAL: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: And Jean Twenge is SDSU professor of psychology, author of the books Generation Me, and the Narcissism Epidemic. It's good to see you.

TWNEGE: Good to see you too.

CAVANAUGH: Taveeda, as the executive director of a nonprofit, how bad is this for invisible children?

TOVAL: Well, I'm sure they've already sat down and discussed what impact this has in the short-term, but also in the long-term. So I'm sure they're really working hard to strategize on how to keep the organization and their supporters on message about the mission of invisible children. I think that is probably the big focus for them right now.

CAVANAUGH: The Jason Russell problem, if it were the only incident, it would be hard. But this is on top of a lot of criticism the group is getting from foreign policy experts, about the group's finances. I'm wondering how would your organization handle a barrage of criticism like this?

TOVAL: Well, any type of criticism an organization gets definitely has to be looked into, especially within that organization. So I'm sure that's something that invisible children have been dealing with. I know for our organization, I would really hope that if anything like this were to occur, and I think that's for any nonprofit, is to really make sure that the message still gets out there that there is it a goal in mind, a real objective, and this is about human rights violations and abuses. So we really need to take very good care of how the message is being put out there. We still have a lot of youth supporting this cause, and we want them to still support this cause because it is a real issue. Other type was criticisms that are going on, those have to be dealt with. I know invisible children has already done some marketing, making sure of where our finances are, and I'm not only a colleague in terms of our youth being part of that movement from for over seven years, we have had youth involved, but also as a personal supporter, I get the e-mail, I'm pretty well-informed of how they utilize their money, at least from the marketing standpoint.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Taveeda, you've worked with Jason Russell. What can you tell us about him?

TOVAL: Well, my relationship with Jason Russell has been one as a nonprofit director of youth engaged in social issues to make a real difference in the community. So I was very fortunate to meet Jason several times over the years. It's very much a collegial interaction. He's a very consistent and personable individual. He really is passionate about his mission. And I definitely watched him really truly interact with people who want to collaborate with them. They're a very approachable organization, and Jason has definitely been someone who has eloquently been a spokes person for invisible children over the years.

CAVANAUGH: Professor jean Twenge, you're just out with a new study that says recent generations like people in college now are more focused on fame and money than on giving back. Yet young people are precisely the group that has been most attractive to invisible children, and the video, Kony 2012. Why do you think that is?

TWNEGE: Well, are the study of course is looking at your average 18 or 19 year-old. And there is of course the exception to the rule. Another big study concluded that only about 4% of the young adults today are truly civically and politically engaged, and those are the ones who would be interested in this issue anyway. But it seems clear, you watch the video, that the Kony 2012 campaign was aimed at this average young person who's going to watch the video, and they were very, very clever in the way they marketed this. I went to the website where their action kit is now sold out. But here's how they advertise it. It says people will think you're an advocate of awesome. So they really know how to speak the language of generation me, and this idea of the image and same and so on. You can buy the T-shirt and the poster, and it says you can decorate yourself and the town with this 1-stop shop. They know how to market to this group

CAVANAUGH: One of our producers, we were talking about all of this, and the problem that happened on Friday. Basically she described invisible children as the boy band of NGOs. They're young, personable, good looking, white, male. Does this description fit something that would capture the interest of young people?

TWNEGE: Well, yeah, I don't think the race and gender makes that much of a difference, but being outgoing and attractive and so on, that obviously really helps in this media climate that we have now. And this is a -- it was a beautiful film too. That's the other thing. I think many people can agree that it really draws in the viewer, and it's very, very well done.

CAVANAUGH: With all this negative news that's come out, the public breakdown, the news questioning actual focus of this campaign, how do you think that young people are going to react? They have been marketed to very well. What will be the reaction to this?

>> Well, generations really reflect the culture. And in our culture now, fame and infamy were virtually indistinguishable. So my guess is probably won't have that much of an effect.

CAVANAUGH: And what would you say? Is this going to stop this movement in its tracks or are they going to have to regroup or are the same people going to be as excited about the Kony 2012 as they were last week?

TOVAL: I honestly think people will still be very excited. I think today's youth, if you can engage them on an issue and they are dedicated to a cause, they really will stick with it. As a matter of fact, we have had many youth already in our organization. They talk about the viral video that came out via TMZ, but really at the end of the conversation they completely focused back on the mission of what invisible children does. And I really think that's going to be the heart and the strength of invisible children moving forward. At some point, they're going to have to address this issue maybe in a more public manner, but really I think the youth of today have made up their mind about what they see as a social injustice in the world, and they really want to do something about it. And invisible children have given youth the tools, and the resources and the voice to be able to do that, and that's a very powerful thing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know from not my own personal experience, but the personal experience of some friends that I've been speaking with, that this topic is causing some problems within families. In other words, the older generation, the parents are kind of saying, now, look this is not where you want to spend your money, this is not where you want to spend your time. This is a flewed organization, and some kids are saying no, we believe in this. Is this going to become a generational thing do you think?

TOVAL: It's possible. It's very hard for me to see -- from my perspective, because our whole organization is based on youth voice.

CAVANAUGH: Have you heard from parents though?

TOVAL: You know, it's very interesting, I have had a lot of silence from parents. I think they don't know exactly what to make of this yet. A lot of the very same parents a couple weeks ago were the ones actually promoting the Kony 2012 video. So it was as viral among young parents as with their parents and grandparents. But it's been a very interesting quiet with that same group after last Thursday's incident, whereas the youth have pretty much made their own evaluation and, ready to still move on with the cause. I haven't heard a lot of parents yet or teachers for that matter.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Professor Jean Twenge, I'm wondering, does the fact that Kony phenomenon seems to have fired up at least a segment of young people mean that the millennial generation is longing perhaps for something to care about?

TWNEGE: That's possible. I would doubt that simply because we do have so much survey data on them from this huge database, 11 million young people in high school and college, comparing the baby boomers and the gen X-ers to the millennials, and there's been the very steady decline in interest in the government, interest in social problem, in getting involved, and that continued between gen X and millennials. They're less likely to say that they want to, say, write a public official, less likely to say that they donated to charity. So it doesn't seem like they're that interested in that. On the other hand, this is the cynic's view. It's easy to watch a video and go buy a couple of posters.

CAVANAUGH: What cause is most likely to engage someone in their 20s from your research?

TWNEGE: I think something like this, that's relatively easy. That's true of most people of all ages, if it's easy for us to do, it's easier to get involved. Then we can watch an entertaining video and go buy a few posters. It doesn't necessarily take that much effort. And also it has that element of entertainment and fame, and the way they marketed this as well, I keep coming baing to that advocate of awesome.

CAVANAUGH: And has there been any sign of kids that you know who are really heart-broken over this?

TOVAL: I think there was definitely a lot of sympathy for the situation. It was very interesting how empathetic young people were. They of course -- the initial reaction to the video from TMZ was oh, that's close to home. But at the same time, a lot of these youth have grownup, especially here in San Diego, with invisible children. And they know the work they've done, and they're completely supportive. I think there was much more empathy than any negativity.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.

TWNEGE: Thank you Maureen.

TOVAL: Thank you.