The real Congo is one yet to be discovered by the Western world. The majority of us associate the Congo with headlines of war, poverty and genocide but rarely the beauty of its people or richness of its culture and future. We think its time that changed so we sat down with the powerhouse duo of Cassandra and Edison Lee, founders of Justice Rising a non-profit bringing peace to communities in Congo affected by war through educating children at risk, creating sustainable jobs and developing community leaders, to tell us about the real Congo.
The Lees aren’t your typical movement spearheads, Cass a blonde haired Canadian lover of fashion and manicured nails who moved to the Congo solo at just 16 years of age and Edison a tall Asian financier, but that is exactly what they are. Not only are they building schools in the middle of war-zones, pulling young girls out of sex-trafficking and rescuing child soldiers, but they also have the attention of the West with regular speaking tours amongst Ivy league schools, meetings with Supreme Court Justices and heads of state and donors from across the world. They may not be what you would expect two individuals at the forefront of change in the Congo to be, but their impact is undeniable and only getting started.
Tell us a bit about Justice Rising.
Justice Rising is an education based non-profit that builds schools in war-affected communities. We work primarily in the DR Congo (central Africa) right now, with plans to expand to Syria and other countries in the next year or two.
How did Justice Rising begin?
We often say that Justice Rising began “by accident.” Our goal was never to start a non-profit, but to serve the poor and the most vulnerable living in war-torn areas. I (Cassandra) began projects in Eastern Congo in 2010 in partnership with a few organizations, and after building our first three schools with roughly 500 kids enrolled, we determined that in order for us to expand and reach more students we needed to register as our own 501(c)(3). Edison quit his job and joined Justice Rising full-time and now we’re on mission together. We currently have 10 schools in operation with over 1,800 students, and continue to break new ground for future schools across three countries.
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“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice.” — Nelson Mandela . Today we remember Nelson Mandela on what would be his 100th birthday. As a great believer in education and life-long learner, Mandela continuously fought for education access and equality, seeing it as a key to winning the struggle against apartheid. . Similarly, we believe that education is a key to disrupting cycles of conflict and poverty. Thank you, Madiba, for your unrelenting fight for education and human rights. . #nelsonmandela #mandela100 #madiba #educationinwarzones #generationnow #foreverychild
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Why the Congo?
I (Cassandra) first heard about the Congo when I was ten years old. From the time I was eight, I wanted to be a missionary and had been praying about which country I was called to. One day while in prayer, I kept getting pictures of a place called “Zaire.” Thinking I made it up, I tried to forget everything about it until I heard a whisper from God telling me to go to the map and look at the center of Africa–that’s where I’m meant to go. Sure enough, there in the center of Africa was Zaire, which is present-day DR Congo.
What is your favorite thing about Justice Rising?
Justice Rising for us is a passion project–it’s a job we love getting up for in the morning. To pick our favorite thing is a hard ask, but we might lean towards fieldwork in remote villages. I know, it doesn’t sound exciting at first, but we believe that education can be life-changing. Going into many of these underserved and under-resourced communities, we have the opportunity to partner with local communities and build schools together, provide psychosocial/trauma care, deliver public education seminars and through education, affect peoples’ lives in a deeper way than we imagined possible. So for us, going into the field is one of our favorite parts of the job.
Tell us something we wouldn’t know about (the inner workings of) Justice Rising?
When we’re in the field, we live in very close quarters. We live in the same house, cook together over a charcoal fire, we haul 40+ lb jerry cans of water from the well up a flight of stairs (assembly line style), and we even do our laundry together (by hand)! We try to assimilate ourselves as much as possible into the local culture, but truth be told, the locals are simply so much better at living life in the Congo. But it gives us a better understanding of how people live there, and it brings us together as a team–we’re a close-knit bunch!
What is a typical day like for you in the Congo?
A typical day in the Congo can vary greatly depending on geography. When we’re in the city, we often start with Swahili lessons, followed by meetings with our staff and government agencies and visiting our schools and students. In the village, we’ll often run various training programs and adult learning classes and again, visit our schools and students. Also in the village, we’ll have mentorship opportunities with our Leadership League, which is comprised of former child soldiers who have laid down arms in exchange for soccer gear/equipment and an opportunity to play on a soccer team. They compete with nearby villages and are eager to learn and grow as young leaders within their community.
Most fun part of your day?
We love any moment we get to spend time in the local community. Listening to our students share their story, hearing fun testimonials about our schools and especially the times we get to visit with locals–to pray with them or even share a meal together–that to us is fun. While fun, it can also be some of the most emotionally taxing parts as well.
Scariest part of your day?
When you work in a war zone, it’s easy to have a lot of “scary parts” in your day. Often the unknown feels the scariest. Anytime we’re on the verge of a rebel attack or whenever we’re stopped by soldiers at a roadblock, it can quickly make your heart sink and your adrenaline rise.
Hardest part of your day?
While some of our favorite parts is sitting and listening to stories, it can also be the most heart-wrenching part as well. Our kids often tell us stories that are hard for us to comprehend: “I’ve never known a time without war,” Gaspar, age 13, a student in our secondary school tells us. Or Kikandi, age 5, in our primary school, who told us about how “the rebels often come at night and I have to sleep in the jungle so I don’t get caught.” You hear some of the most devastating stories and sometimes the hardest thing is just choosing to keep your heart soft in the midst of it all.
What is your favorite part of the work that you do?
My (Cassandra) favorite part of the work we do is scouting trips for new schools. When we get to go into a new village or a new region we’ve never been to before and perform needs assessments in the local area and learn about what people have gone through and how we can practically meet local needs.
What do you wish people knew about the Congo that they don’t?
Congo has had the bloodiest world war since WWII, yet nobody talks about it. It’s estimated that 5.4 million people have been killed in the 20+ years of conflict, which outpaces the death toll in the Syrian conflict by a factor of ten. First, we wish people knew more about the conflict, instead of simply writing it off as just another impossible situation in Africa. Secondly, we wish people knew that there are practical ways to help and make a difference. A little goes a long way and there are real ways to be a part of the change taking place.
What is a favorite JR story you can tell us?
One of our favorite stories happened in the village with our team when a soldier was marching down the road towards us screaming nasty threats. “I’m gonna kill them, I’m gonna force them out of this village!” As the soldier got closer, he stood right in front of my face with his finger pointing at me and concluded by saying, “but first, I’m gonna take these girls as my wife, and I’ll start with this one.” In a moment that could have gone a pretty terrible way, God showed up and began to speak through our head director. “No. I have a different idea for you. Instead, you will fall to your knees and we will pray for God to give you clean hands and a pure heart.” Immediately the man fell to his knees. We all gathered around and prayed for him and by the time he stood up, he was a completely different person! That’s kind of the story in short, but definitely one of my favorites.
How can we at home help?
There are tons of ways people can help at home.
- Obviously, we always welcome financial giving of any kind. We try to keep things very lean, but there’s still a very real cost to running a non-profit.
- Spreading awareness about our cause is huge. Whether through social media or hosting a small discussion group within your community, people joining together to share information online or in person can have a significant impact in spreading the word and inciting real change on the ground in conflict areas.
- Host a fundraiser. Often times, people may be passionate, but may not have the financial means to finance an entire school for themselves. One way to leverage your community and multiply your impact, is to host a fundraiser! Some examples may include donating your birthday, or running a marathon for a cause. We’ve even had one young woman fundraise by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania!
Okay, time for some fun questions! If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Maybe the power of invisibility. We could go deep into the red zone undetected!
What’s your personal motto?
Listen first. Questions will follow.
Who do you secretly admire and why?
I (Cassandra) have a celebrity crush on Nicholas Kristof, he’s a columnist for the New York Times and covers a lot of stories in places of conflict & crises around the world. He (nearly) single-handedly put Darfur on the map!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Great food from some of our favorite restaurants delivered straight (is teleportation a thing yet?) to our village in Eastern Congo.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Cassandra: My mom always said, “you take yourself wherever you go.” (Just be yourself)
What is the mantra/words you live by?
We have a couple of things we hold that keep us on our “true north” so to speak. One is Isaiah 54, believing that impossibilities are targets for miracles. And another is from MLK Jr., “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Edison, we hear you’re a bit of a foodie: What is your favorite secret LA spot? Favorite Congolese dish to eat?
I love all things Mexican and Korean. Some of my favorite Mexican spots–Guisados and Broken Spanish. As for Korean food, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (try saying that five times fast) for some great Korean BBQ. And if you’re a fan of wings, KyoChon Chicken is a must.