Sean Carasso just wanted to get lost.
“I felt like there was so much more out there to see, to hear, and to smell and to listen to,” he says. “That’s what ultimately led me into the Congo.”
But on the third day of his five-day trip into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, Carasso and his traveling companion stumbled onto a military encampment containing young boys. Some of them too small to even carry a gun, the boys had been abducted and were being sent to the front lines as human shields, armed only with whistles to scare away the enemy.
“Failing that,” Carasso explains, “they were supposed to receive the bullets with their bodies, and in falling, would create a barrier.”
“I was so frustrated that I knew nothing,” he says. “Twenty-two years of education, two years with an entrepreneur traveling around the world, and no one had ever told me about this?”
Unable to channel his anger, Carasso says, “I was just screaming at people.” The 31-year-old laughs a little reflecting on this approach. At the same time, his impassioned journal entries had gone viral, and people all over the world were asking him what they could do to help.
Then Carasso received a simple gift from a friend: a whistle. “No matter where you go,” the friend told him, “keep those boys alive in your heart.”
And with that, Falling Whistles was born.
“What we realized was that all change begins with a whistleblower,” said Carasso of the months he and his team spent researching ways to affect change. “We started thinking about the power of the symbol.”
Instead of screaming at people on street corners, they would wait for people to ask about the whistles that hung around their necks. And people did ask. They began selling the whistles, urging everyone to become a whistleblower for peace.
“Eight crazy kids showed up at our doorstep [to offer help],” Carasso says. And David E. Lewis was so inspired by the work that he hitchhiked from Austin to New York City, drumming up a coalition and demanding solutions from the undersecretary of African affairs on Capitol Hill. He is now Falling Whistles’ CEO. Falling Whistles’ artistic director, Mario Salangsang, made an overnight decision to leave his corporate advertising job, packed his bags and hopped on Falling Whistles’ RV to join the cause.
Carasso’s passion is contagious. When Monique Beadle, a human rights litigator, met him, she says, “He told me he was going to use this journal and whistle to build a global coalition for peace in Congo. I told him that he was insane and that he could count me in.”
Beadle is responsible for gathering information, and helped launch the organization's first major advocacy campaign, Baptism of Liberty. She established U.S. special envoys and a special adviser to Congo for the Great Lakes region, and she dried up funding to dangerous rebel group M23 — all while she was eight months pregnant. The biggest challenge, she says, is fighting the status quo, and the dictators and politicians who are happy to keep it.
Congo is the wealthiest country in the world in natural resources, and it’s also the deadliest. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenge of ending an African war, Carasso is optimistic.
“My experience is that most people really care about what is happening in the world — they just don’t know what to do about it,” he says. “If our media companies spent as much time telling the stories of solutions as they do the problems, I think you would see a lot more people participating in solving our most pressing challenges.” The situation in Congo is improving, too. Though the country has long been ruled by powerful, secretive and exploitative leaders, the Congolese are now accessing global information and connecting with people around the world. “Over the next few years, I think you'll see an overwhelming coalition of people, inside and outside the country, uniting for peace,” Carasso says.
So what can we do to truly stop the deadliest war in the world?
“Buy a whistle and be a whistleblower for peace,” Carasso says. “Wherever you put the whistle, it is sure to create conversations….That's your opportunity to speak up. To elevate the conversation. Tell them what’s happening in Congo and ask them to join the coalition as well.”