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THE STORY :: by Stephanie Schneiderman, Voices for Silent Disasters, Founder and Director

This all started with an idea to do one house concert to benefit Mercy Corps’ efforts in Africa. ONE house concert! I was on tour with Dirty Martini and I was reading in Rolling Stone about the issues in eastern Africa. The more I learned the more I felt a strong pull to do something that involved artists from Portland’s music community. Having been involved with the local music scene for the last decade, I knew I could pull in some amazing bands from many different genres. A couple of weeks after that tour, I played a benefit concert for Darfur and one of the coordinators spoke about how it only takes one person to start a movement; one person with one idea.

It got me thinking… why couldn’t I be that one person?

The idea grew from only one house concert to ten, involving other local songwriters each accessing their own fan base. I spoke with a buddy of mine named Gordon Heady who loved the idea and offered to host one of the concerts. Gordon and I decided to team up and pool our resources together. With my contacts within the music community and Gordon’s vision and marketing expertise, the idea grew into being Portland’s first annual humanitarian concert series.

We decided to make it a benefit for Mercy Corps and to focus on the celebration of Portland music scene and all of its grass roots glory. We met with a team of Mercy Corps reps who directed our focus towards their “Silent Disaster” fund, specifically on their efforts in Uganda. At that time, I had no idea about the 20-year civil war in northern Uganda, the thousands of children abducted into the army and the millions of displaced people.

Over dinner with a few local Ugandans, we began learning about the conflict first hand. It was incredibly moving to hear personal stories about the war and it began to sink in what an honor it was to be connecting with and learning from people from communities halfway across the world in a region I’d never been.

And so the “Voices for Silent Disasters” ball began rolling! We set out to create a concert series that would define Portland. But as it turned out, Portland defined the concert series from its head to its toes.

100 of the best local musicians donated their time, McMenamins donated their venues, local organizations donated their services, their coffee, their t-shirts ~you name it. A fantastic team of experienced professionals volunteered their time and came together to help with the planning of the 10 concerts. Each concert was a unique and special event. Everyone involved walked away having more appreciation for our thriving local music scene and more knowledge about the silent successes and challenges that northern Ugandans face.

Last September I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Uganda and meet with the communities that we were raising money and awareness for. I had no idea how much a trip like that would change my perspective. I wrote a blog about it while I was there. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“the devastation that has happened in this region is so hard to fathom. these families had lives full of culture, lots of land to sustain themselves, schools, small communities spread out with room to grow...they've lost ALL of that. they've lost family members, they've lost their freedom. being at the idp camps they lost their ability to celebrate culture to the full extent they were used to. they lost their schools. many kids missed years of school while they were abducted by the lra, and when they finally did rejoin their community, they were too old to continue where they left off... so they lost their education. they lived in huts in IDP camps completely crammed together. this resulted in so much gender violence, disease, alcoholism...

but the amazing thing is how resilient they are. for one thing, i think life has become better in the resettlement sites. they have a bit more room now to spread out even if it doesn't compare to what they had before the war. you can feel mercy corps' presence in the camps. there's hope and joy even through all the devastation. i imagine how our community would respond in a situation like theirs... it's been inspiring to see.

i got to interview a young girl named monica. absolutely stunning girl. she was breastfeeding one of her babies the whole interview. we have to be careful not to ask specific questions about their experience when they were abducted because it's too sensitive of a topic. monica, like all the other youth we've spoken with had to quit school to take of her children. she spoke about how she just wanted to figure out a way to get back to school. all the youth wish for the same thing. education is the single most important thing in these communities. they value it over everything.

…i tried to memorize him, the community, the school with my eyes. its hard to describe what it feels like to hang out in those communities. you feel so protected. and cared for. physically, emotionally, spiritually. i know there's violence and gender issues in those camps... but they weren't out in the open... so all i could feel was the beauty of the land and the playfulness of this community.

one of the main things i've learned on this trip is how competent, capable and resilient the people in these communities are. they've lost their freedom, their land and their ability to full express their culture due to the close proximity they've been forced to live in inside these idp camps. as they are beginning to move home and to resettlement sites, there is more hope and joy present but they've lost so much. one thing i've recognized is how much media limits our view of africans in general. we seem to be accustomed to the idea that they need saving. its just not an accurate picture. i've met so many professional, proficient, disciplined men and women who are leaders in their communities and proactive in their pursuit of reclaiming their lives on a post-war region. mercy corps is very much a partner with these communities as they help to support ugandan led programs. it's been amazing to see!!

i think portland is all about sustainability and self-sufficiency and are like-minded in spirit to those communities in northern uganda.

This year, we’re re-focusing on house concerts. And we’re asking members of the Portland community to become involved by hosting concerts using our “House Concert Kits”.  I’m excited to see how this will grow and take shape. Right from the start, I wanted to organize something I knew I could sustain. And I wanted to create that kind of inspiration in others to do their own fundraisers as well. I think that this model of house concerts will be sustainable and even more effective in raising money and awareness for different communities throughout the world.

If you made it all the way to the bottom, thank-you for taking the time to read this!
I invite you to get involved in anyway that works for you. Host a concert, attend a concert, contribute money, make your next “book club” or poker night an educational/fundraising event...be that one person to start something no matter what size it is!