From Big Brother to Africa Activist: John Prendergast’s Unlikely Journey

Being a Big Brother, says John Prendergast, means that you have seen every bad movie imaginable.

“As a Big Brother to 10 Little Brothers, I’ve seen all the worst movies ever made — all five ‘Fast and Furious’ movies, ‘Real Steel,’ — and I’ve taught long division — and know it much better than I did when I was in school,” Prendergrast told the audience at Valencia’s Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

But for Prendergast, becoming a Big Brother was the beginning of something much larger. Not only did he vow to continue being a Big Brother for many other children, but the experience also set him on a lifetime spent as an activist.

Prendergast, an internationally-known human rights activist, has spent a lifetime fighting for peace. He co-founded the Enough Project, a 2007 initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity. He has worked for the Clinton White House, the U.S. State Department, UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the United States Institute of Peace. He was at Valencia College as part of the Peace and Justice Institute’s Conversation on Peace. His talk was also sponsored by Valencia’s Humanities Speakers Series.

His journey to becoming a rock star among human-rights activists, however, started at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.

In 1983, as a 20-year-old college student, Prendergast was visiting a friend in Washington, D.C. who was working at a homeless shelter. While at the shelter, Prendergast met 7-year-old Michael Mattocks. While talking to Michael, Prendergast discovered that the child didn’t know how to read — so Prendergast took him to the library.  And that, he says, was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and mentorship.  “That was the beginning,” he says. “I didn’t know it was something I’d do for the rest of my life.”

Although he was going to college in Philadelphia, Prendergast made it a point to stay in touch with Michael — though he admittedly bounced in and out of his life.  At one point, when child welfare officials wanted to take the three oldest children from Michael’s family and put them in foster homes, Prendergast — then 21 — stepped in and volunteered to take the three kids for the summer, until Michael’s mother could get back on her feet. Child welfare officials agreed and Michael and two of his siblings went to Philadelphia to live with Prendergast.  “I didn’t even know how to cook,” says Prendergast.

In more than 20 years serving as a Big Brother, Prendergast learned the most important rule for mentoring a child: Just keep showing up. Doing that, he says, will mean that you haven’t abandoned them — as so many other people in their lives have. “You give a little dose of affirmation to someone — a belief in them — and remarkable things can happen,” says Prendergast, who has written a bestselling memoir, “Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss and Redemption,” which he co-wrote with his first Little Brother, Michael Mattocks.

But Prendergast didn’t stop at being a Big Brother. One night, while nursing a bum ankle twisted in a basketball game, the 21-year-old Prendergast was watching TV and a documentary about the famine in Ethiopia came on. Too hurt to get up and change the channel, he watched. By the end, he was inspired.

“It hit me like a lightning bolt,” he said. “I knew I had to go to Africa.”

He applied for a visa to visit Africa and shelled out all of his money for a one-way ticket to Mali, one of the few countries in the region that was still welcoming Americans.  Although he didn’t know anyone in the country and had no plan of action, serendipity struck. On the plane, a man recognized Prendergast from his tryout for the Georgetown University basketball team.  Now a government official from Mali, the man had been a student at Georgetown during the year that Prendergast was also studying at Georgetown. “I walked on to try out for the Georgetown basketball team — anyone could try out — but he was an avid basketball fan and he remembered me,” Prendergast recalled.

Now head of security for Mali’s agricultural ministry, the Georgetown grad agreed to show Prendergast around Mali and explain the economics of famine.  “He was just the person I needed to understand famine,” Prendergast said. “He drove me to all these places — Timbuktu and Gao — it was like a college class. He was teaching me the economics of how and why people starve.”

Armed with the kind of first-hand knowledge that many Westerners never learn, Prendergast began a lifelong quest aimed at helping Africans: He worked in Zanzibar and Somalia; he lobbied the U.S. government to stop sending military aid to the Somalian government; he worked for the Clinton administration and later partnered with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to forge a peace agreement in the Eritrea-Ethiopian war.

He also began to cultivate the power of celebrities.  In 2003, Angelina Jolie traveled with Prendergast to eastern Congo and recorded a travel journal from that trip for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2008, Prendergast and NBA star (and Orlando native) Tracy McGrady started the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program to fund education in Darfur refugee camps.

Along the way, Prendergast also worked with Nelson Mandela, who was helping to negotiate peace in the troubled nation of Burundi. And it was there that he discovered how much home-grown activism can play a role on the international stage.  While black South Africans were struggling to fight apartheid, they were amazed to find that American college students were holding rallies to advance their cause. And it was the efforts of American college kids — demanding that their universities divest investments in South Africa — that turned the world against apartheid.

“He told me: ‘These students in America, I’m still amazed that they cared about us. It gave us so much hope,” Prendergast said.

Likewise, college students in Europe and the United States began protesting outside jewelry stores to spread the news about “blood diamonds,” the illegal mining trade that fueled and funded horrible civil wars in Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone.

From working as a mentor to kids at your high school to sparking an international movement, everyone can change the world, he told the 150 students gathered for his speech. Do a personal inventory and figure out what skills you have that you can use. Join a movement, like the college students against apartheid, use social networks, and find your passion.

“For me,” he said, “that magical phrase — making a difference — is about how we make change not only in the big broad world, but also in our own neighborhood.”