Three years ago, Northeast Portland resident Lisa Shannon says she couldn't even "pick out Congo on a map."
Then, while home sick one afternoon, Shannon (pictured, right) watched an Oprah episode focusing on the decade-long civil war in the African nation.
Those horrors moved Shannon, a 32-year-old filmmaker and photography producer, to start Run for Congo Women. The organization uses charity running events to support Congolese women and children who have suffered in the war, which has already killed an estimated 4 million people.
Run for Congo Women has raised about $100,000 in sponsorship money that goes directly to Women for Women International, a group helping women survivors of the war "rebuild their lives" through education to acquire the skills and funding necessary to start small, self-sustaining businesses. Organizers have planned similar events based on Shannon's model in at least 10 states as well as England, Germany and Ireland (visit her website, runforcongowomen.org, for more information).
WW talked with Shannon last week after she returned from her first trip to the Democratic Republish of Congo. She'll speak at 7 pm Wednesday, March 21 (free), at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave.
WW: Why choose running as a way to raise awareness?
Lisa Shannon: I was trying to think about what I had control over. Running 30 miles is something that can't be faked. I couldn't really stop the war . But if I did this, maybe it would make people around me see how serious I took it, to get out there every day and train.
How is Portland different from other cities in helping your cause?
If I had started to do this in any other city, I don't think it would have grown to this point. In a place like Portland, people hear about Congo and want to get involved. It's because of that momentum that it's grown beyond Portland to an international effort. There's a sense about being a global citizen here that I don't think a lot of communities have.
How do you extend this project?
I try to frame Congo as absolutely nonpartisan, as just doing what we can to help women and kids. It's a lot easier to talk with soccer moms in Texas or Indiana that way.
How prevalent was rape and abuse of women where you visited?
Unbelievably common. I talked with groups of women where 90 percent of them had been raped. Violent rapes. I met women who were gang-raped and had children who were conceived by rape. Interestingly, when you talk to Congolese people, they will always identify the perpetrator as being from a militia that's not Congolese. However, the Congolese army is responsible for an unbelievable percentage of rape.
What was the biggest surprise?
Women there had so much joy. I thought women there would be very bitter and very angry. But that wasn't what I experienced. They were still so hopeful and very joyful.
Did you ever feel in danger?
Yeah. It's an interesting thing —when you're there, you can be lulled into a sense of security that isn't there. But the situation in Eastern Congo could flip at any moment. A few months before, Women for Women staff were shot at as riots erupted. I think I came to feel safety was very relative, very much in the eye of the beholder.
How were you received as an American and a Westerner in a country with such a grim colonial history?
I had almost no interactions with people where I felt like there was hostility to me because I was American. I think the local people tend to associate white people there with someone who's there to help.
What comes next?
Being in Congo for six weeks cut into my training time. I couldn't run. So I'm trying to catch up. It's hard to train to run 30 miles.
Run for Congo Women's main event is its third annual 30-mile run through Forest Park, scheduled for June 23.
Last year, Runner's World named Shannon a "Hero of Running." And O, The Oprah Magazine, profiled Run for Congo Women.