Until January 2005, Lisa Shannon, a co-owner of a stock photo company in Portland, Oregon, knew absolutely nothing about the deadliest war since World War II that's been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the last 12 years. The fighting has endangered the lives and livelihood of those least responsible for any of the conflict: Congolese women — nearly 90 percent of whom have suffered the most brutal sexual violence imaginable in some villages in eastern Congo. After learning about this on an episode of Oprah, Shannon was astounded and decided that same month to do something about it. She sponsored two Congolese women through Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help women survivors from war-torn areas of the world "rebuild their lives" through education and skill-based courses; and also resolved to run a 30-mile solo marathon to raise money for the women of Congo, which she named the Run for Congo Women. Lisa saw her fledgling cause as a way to get off the couch, back in shape, and out into the world again. Her goal: Raise enough money to sponsor thirty Congolese women for one year; but after training for months and spreading the word through her small network of friends (who in turn asked their own friends), Lisa raised $28,000 on her very first run.
In 2007, Shannon quit her job, and became a full-time advocate for Congo. Although she was armed with little more than a handful of contacts, a shrinking bank account, and a "really clear sense" that she couldn't abandon the cause, Lisa self-funded her first trip to the DRC in 2007. For nearly six weeks, with the aid of translators and friends she met along the way, Lisa conducted group interviews with Congolese women and explored eastern Congo with the intention creating a documentary about her new "sisters" and their lives. The Portland native realized by the end of her trip that some of the most powerful moments she had witnessed had not been captured on camera, and she resolved instead to write a book about all she had learned. A Thousand Sisters, which was released in April 2010, details the events of Lisa's first journey to the Congo as well as subsequent trips.
Want to run a race to help these women? The Run for Congo Women is now held in 10 cities across the United States, as well as in three cities abroad. The next run is in Portland, Oregon, on June 26. Anyone interested in helping the women of eastern Congo can sign up individually on the Run for Congo Women website, or can search for pre-existing teams in their state and join in. "The day of the run is a very positive day," Lisa says. "It feels more like a celebration. Women can be matched on the spot with Congolese sisters, you can write letters to the women, or fill out postcards. People can walk or they can run. It doesn't have to feel like a heavy thing." And anyone can participate. "Friends and family and kids are welcome — a toddler ran in Portland last year!"
Proceeds from the Run for Congo Women benefit the organization Women for Women International, which enrolls Congolese women in a one-year, 20-person training course program that offers courses such as literacy and women's advocacy, as well as business and money management. Graduates receive $60, which has been used in the past to start businesses, buy land, or pay for their children to go to school. Furthermore, Women for Women has recently created a graduate network that tracks the progress of the former enrollees in their lives post-sponsorship, to make sure that they have truly become self-sufficient.