Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Happy Activist Dawn McMullan: Changing Lives in the Congo
[0:00:01] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 426 of Live Happy Now. I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, we’re introducing a new occasional series called Happy Activists, where I sit down with someone who is doing amazing things to make our world a little bit happier. Our very first happy activist is Dawn McMullan, a freelance writer and editor whose life changed when she met a woman who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo. As she learned more about the plight of girls and young women in the Congo, Dawn was compelled to act, and as you’re about to learn, she has become part of a nonprofit organization called Congo Restoration that has already changed hundreds of families and continues to grow. Let’s listen as Dawn tells us how giving back to others has given her a greater sense of purpose.
[0:00:50] PF: Well, Dawn, thank you for joining me as our first Happy Activist episode on Live Happy Now.
[0:00:55] DM: Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here. Very, very excited.
[0:01:00] PF: I just had to get you on the show, because I’ve known you for a very long time, full disclosure. I’ve watched as you become really passionate about helping others. As long as I’ve known you, you have always made it a point to give back. I’ve seen you take your entire family to Mexico and work on homes. You’ve collected donations for refugees who are starting over in the US. It seems to me like you are always doing good for others. I wanted to know, first of all, where did that come from and how did that start?
[0:01:31] DM: I’ll correct you that when we met in our 20s, I was probably not doing that, but –
[0:01:31] PF: We had other stuff going on in our 20s.
[0:01:39] DM: Exactly. But how it started was that I had kids. I think there’s a shift in a lot of parents when they have kids and how you’re engaging with the world and your child looking at you engaging with the world. That really is how it started. We go to a church and that, unfortunately, or fortunately, is a way a lot of people connect with doing good in the world. I say, unfortunately, because I have a lot of friends who don’t go to church and they have a difficult time finding ways to involve their kids and do good in the world. That’s how it started with us.
We started going to church, because our kids started asking questions. Then here we are with this little liberal church in Dallas, doing a lot of good in the world. One of those ways was to go to war as and build houses, and that’s a fun thing to take little boys to do. So, it started as a way I wanted to parent and teach my kids about the world. Then as with a lot of things, then it became much more than that for me.
[0:02:41] PF: I think it’s important to note that now your little boys are young men, and they’re still doing that. I just went back to Mexico with your husband, their dad, and did it again. I was really surprised to see that, gosh, after all these years, they’re still doing that, because you don’t think of – well, think of us in our 20s. We were not going to Mexico and helping others, but they do. It’s still important to them. I love that that instilled a sense of helping others in them.
[0:03:07] DM: Yeah. They were five and eight the first time we took them. They’re 26 and 23 now. Yeah, they take turns going with their dad. Sometimes they all go together, but once a year, there’s some combination of our family. I’ve opted out of that, because I’ve decided at 55, I don’t want to do manual labor as much anymore, but luckily, I gave birth to these people who do. I feel like I’ve checked that box.
[0:03:31] PF: That’s terrific. You do other things, though. That leads us to the Congo Restoration Project. How is, first of all, what that is, how this all started?
[0:03:41] DM: Congo Restoration is a project out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dear friend of mine, Gorethy Nabushosi is Congolese. She is from the eastern part of Congo, which border is Rwanda. Now, most people don’t know much about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most people are familiar with Rwanda, where the genocide happened in the mid-90s. There was a lot of publicity about that. There was a movie about that. It got all the guilt, money and good deeds done, because it’s a very famous thing. A million people died in the genocide. I was just there. Actually, one week ago today, I was at the genocide museum. It’s all very fresh to me.
[0:04:22] PF: Wow.
[0:04:23] DM: Six million people died in Congo, right across the border from partially the genocide expanding into that area. The people who did the killing escape to that area, that reached some havoc. A lot of the turmoil there has been because there’s a mineral in the Democratic Republic of Congo called Colton. 70% of the Colton in the world comes from this area. It is required in every single phone, every single laptop, every single iPad. This is required to run them.
You would think that it would be just a super-rich country, right? Because they have the minerals that we all need, but that’s not the case, because it’s a corrupt, generally been corrupt government. A few people at the top get rich and it’s one of the poorest countries in the entire world. My friend is from there.
[0:05:16] PF: Did she come to the US and that’s – you met her here in the States?
[0:05:20] DM: Yes. Yeah, she was a refugee who came shortly after the genocide, actually, when there was a lot of unrest, because of that. She’s an attorney by trade. She was trying to fight for women’s rights. That is so not a thing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, it’s still not a thing, but it was even worse this time. She was in danger. She came here. She has six kids. They were aged three to 11 at the time.
The way that asylee status works in the States, you come by yourself and then you try to get status for the rest of your family. She fled here, literally made smoothies at Whole Foods, because your education doesn’t really count once you get here and got asylee status. Then the rest of her family joined her. This is in Dallas where I live. She raised her family here. Then she went back at some point about 10 years later, right before I met her. She went to a hospital that was treating women for injuries of rape, because at one point, Congo was the rape capital of the world. It was used as a weapon of war.
It’s still not uncommon there, but at least I don’t think they have that title anymore, but at the time they did. She went because women’s rights were really her passion at that point. She went to this hospital and all the women were just saying, “I don’t know where my kids are.” Like they’d been – war, war is chaotic. They’d been pulled away from their family. She went to this village and found the kids, found, basically a lot of orphans and took them in, took 30 kids in, called her husband and said, “I need a thousand dollars to figure out what to do with these kids. I can’t leave them.” Okay. So, that’s how Congo Restoration began. That’s our origin story.
I met her shortly after that. She came home and just made a random call, like looked up. I know Methodist church on the internet and called the main office in New York. My church is Methodist. I’d happened to connect – I had connected with somebody there recently. That’s how we got connected. It’s a super random thing.
[0:07:16] PF: That’s amazing, like that meant to be.
[0:07:20] DM: Yes. They’re like, “I don’t know what to do with you, but Dawn’s in Dallas. Call her”
[0:07:26] PF: What was it that made you connect with it? Cause there’s so much need. We are constantly hearing tragic stories. It’s like everywhere we turned, somebody needs help. There’s a nonprofit that needs our money. What was it that made you say, “Yeah, I’m going to invest, not just my money, but my life and my time into this?”
[0:07:45] DM: I had been to Rwanda the year before on a trip with also connected to my church. We had just seen how the systems work and don’t work in that same region. This is all the same region. In Rwanda, because of the genocide, there were tons of orphans that were heads of household. This nonprofit was trying to help those oldest kids of these families really start a community, because a lot of the adults were just gone. You had to create a new system, basically. I’d gone on this trip and just really seeing things I didn’t know existed. Like I – like you mentioned. I’ve been to Mexico. I’ve been to El Salvador. I’d seen poverty. I’d seen deep poverty, but I hadn’t seen the lack of infrastructure where there’s no way you’re going to have running water in your life, probably, where just basic human needs were just unreachable.
I hadn’t seen anything like that in my life. I don’t know. It just seemed so ridiculous in whatever year this was that I went 2008. It’s also ridiculous in 2023. I just came back and saw the same thing. There was something about, and you never know what’s going to reach you. You just never know. If you get out there and say yes to interesting opportunities in life. You may – like I never, if you’d asked me 15 years ago, “Hey, do you think you’re going to be passionate about Eastern Africa?” I’d be like, “I don’t know. Never been.”
[0:09:13] PF: Do they have gorillas there?
[0:09:14] DM: Yeah. They have gorillas there, which is a nice little bonus to my work. Yeah, I can’t quite explain it except the – I didn’t know that situation really existed in the world on that level of being in the middle of it. Then there was just something about the people there and the region that just really touched my heart. Again, that’s different for everybody. That’s what mine was. When Gorethy came into my life, six months later, I was already somewhat familiar with the situation and just had this great, inexplicable passion for it. From there, from that beginning, we started what Congo Restoration is now, which I’m happy to tell you about whenever you’re ready to hear about.
[0:09:57] PF: Yes. So, what is it? What exactly does it do?
[0:09:59] DM: Our basic mission is to empower women and girls through education. Gorethy was also an orphan. Her parents died really young. Her siblings made sure she finished school and not only did she finish school, she’s an attorney. She was a, as I mentioned here, she was asylee here, working at Whole Foods. Her husband was a pharmacist, but also that did not translate here. They went from high –
[0:10:28] PF: A comfortable life.
[0:10:29] DM: Comfortable life there to minimum wage here. They had six kids, all of them went to college, like education was very core to everything she believed. Of course, I agree with her. There’s so many problems when you go into a place like Congo. It just seems like, “Well, how can I make a difference here? It’s just nothing works.” It just seems like nothing works. If you come at that in a smaller way, which is how it’s always good to come in a problem. It’s like, “Well, what can we do?” We can lift up women through education. That’s where we focus.
After the orphans, which we took in. She took in the 30. The next project was a sewing school for women who – girls there often don’t finish school, because it’s not mandatory and it’s not free. If you’re going to spend $15 a month or $5 a month on uniforms and tuition for public school, you’re going to send your boys. That’s just the culture there. Girls and women are meant to work in the field, so if you put them in school, you’re also cutting down on the fact that they’re gathering food for the family that you’re going to eat that night. These are very different priorities that they have to have and they do have as far as eating and food, food, security and girls and boys.
There were a lot of young women who didn’t finish primary school. They – a lot of them back then had been raped in the conflict. That was another overlaying factor. They are just the bottom wrong of society. Those couple of things. We started a sewing school. They learn a skill. They study for six to eight months. When they graduate. We give them a sewing machine and a sewing kit full of things they need for their sewing business, and they start a business. We’ve had more than 800 women graduate, and all but two of them have done exactly that. The other two moved off to –
[0:12:12] PF: That is amazing. How many years have you had the school up?
[0:12:16] DM: Since 2010 –
[0:12:19] PF: How many women?
[0:12:21] DM: I think it’s actually 850 from the graduation. I just went to about –
[0:12:23] PF: That is absolutely incredible, that you’ve impacted directly that many lives.
[0:12:29] DM: Not only does that give them a way to make money that they didn’t have before, but it also raises them up in society, like they’re no longer the lowest ranks of society. They are respected women, because they have a business. They send their kids to school, because they can make money. They’re in charge of their financial destiny. That is not a thing in the Democratic Republic of Congo that a woman would be in charge of that. Statistically speaking, no offense to men. If you invest in women, if you give women an opportunity to make money, they will invest it in their families and in their community at a much higher rate than men will. Again, no offense.
[0:13:08] PF: Are you starting to see that next generation yet that’s being affected by it from the early graduates?
[0:13:14] DM: Yes. We have – I mean, they’re still running their businesses. They are hiring. I went to a shop just a couple of weeks ago when I was there, one of our graduates she graduated about three or four years ago. She has a shop. She’s hiring three other people in her shop. She’s not only running her own business. She’s actually employing people. Her kids go to school because she’s in charge of that money. She makes that decision that they’re going to go to school. I mean, when you throw education at people, there’s nothing that’s going to – it’s going to do, but lift them up. Just fight me on that. There’s just nothing that – it can only lift them up. I don’t have the statistics right in front of me, but that’s just the case. We’re – seeing that.
[0:13:56] PF: Then how does it change the community that this is in where they see these young girls, these women creating a different life? How does it change the way that they view their own roles in society and what they can accomplish?
[0:14:10] DM: It’s interesting, because when we first started in 2010, a couple of things happened. One, Gorethy had to go – we have 40 women at a time. She had to go to almost all the homes of these young women and convince the parents to send them, because, again, what are you doing? You’re taking them out of the fields.
[0:14:28] PF: Right. She had to convince them that this is a long-term thing. We have gone through phases where we would give out soap or salt or something that was valuable, so that their families wouldn’t think they were wasting their time. There is no way to control how many kids you have in Congo, really. A lot of these young women would have kids. We’d have to convince the parents it’s worth your time to watch their toddler while they’re in school. Let’s think long term.
We used to have to do that. Now there are hundreds of women who line up when it’s time, when we’re about to graduate a class who line up wanting to be in that next class. One, that’s changed. Two, in the beginning, she would have a lot of pushback from the leaders in the community, who were all men, saying, “Why are you wasting your time with these women? Why are you investing in women?” They didn’t want to come to graduations. They didn’t want to be – they just thought, they didn’t like what Gorethy was doing.
Now they come to our graduations. Now there is still some pushback of why we mainly help women and girls. I’ll get into, because we have another project that’s with girls in a minute, but generally, their families come. They’re so excited. Their families cry when they get their diploma. It’s a shift in how the community sees these women. You can also see the shift in the women. I always meet when I go to a graduation, which is every few years. We’ll have the graduation celebration. Then usually the next 40 women will be there at the end and I’ll meet them. They just have a look about them. They don’t see their own value. You can see it in their eyes. You can just see it.
Then you look at our graduates and you can see them around town and they are just – they definitely see their value. We teach them a lot of things in that six month. Sewing is one of them, but there’s also, there are other things we teach them about how valuable they are. You can visibly see that in their eyes. The other project we have, because Gorethy saw like, this is making a huge difference, but it’s not going deep enough, because these are again, women who have had just a primary education. They’ve not had secondary education. They need to know how to read and write, so they can take orders from customers, but that’s really all. She wanted to go deeper. We started an all-girls primary school in fall of 2019. Not amazing timing with the pandemic right around corner, but who knew, who knew.
[0:16:50] PF: Well, you did not.
[0:16:51] DM: We did not. We have, as I mentioned, school is not free or mandatory. Often girls don’t get to go to school. We started a primary school. As of September we will have grades one through six, 160 girls. That again was a bit of a battle. Gorethy had to really talk it up like, well, first of all, we made it free, some people were somewhat interested in that. They didn’t have to pay for anything. Our sewing school makes the uniforms. Uniforms are mandatory.
[0:17:16] PF: Oh, nice.
[0:17:17] DM: Throughout Congo, so that’s another obstacle. If you want to send your kids to school, you have to buy uniforms. We don’t have to worry about that. Our sewing school makes those. Then we decided to feed them breakfast and lunch, which is highly unusual. Parents really liked that. These are kids who were eating one, probably not super healthy meal a day at home. So, to feed them two at school? That, one, is just good for their brains. Two, was a reason that parents were willing to send them. Again, now that school is very popular. People are always asking us why they can’t send their boys. Somebody else needs to come in. I’m going to do a shout out. Somebody else needs to come in and educate boys in that area, because girls are –
Yeah, it’s just it lifts the whole village up, because there’s something exciting coming there. The first graduation. The first sewing school graduation I went to in 2015, two UN white Jeep, land cruisers, right? Land Rovers, whatever they’re called, pulled up dramatically outside the school. We were having this big festival, this big like celebration. These guys get out and I’m still connected to one of them actually on social media. This guy from Pakistan says, “What’s going on here?” Very like somewhat aggressive. I said, “Oh” I explained what was going on. I said, “Did you have questions?” He goes, “No, I’ve been here for two years and I’ve never seen joy, so I just had to stop and see.”
[0:18:35] PF: Oh, my gosh.
[0:18:36] DM: He stayed for the whole thing, because he’s just like, “I’ve never seen anything like this in this community.” I think what our schools do in this village, even if you’re not directly involved, like you’re not a student or your kids not a student or your daughter’s not a student, is it offers hope. It offers hope, which is something hard to come by in this area of the world.
[0:18:59] PF: It’s so essential. That is just absolutely amazing. Tell me, we can see what it’s doing for the women and the girls that you’re working with. What has it done for you? How has it changed your worldview and how you welcome others into your life?
[0:19:15] DM: I think it’s just, it’s changed so much. It’s hard to not be changed by visiting that part of the world. Now I was involved in – I went to Rwanda. Then I was involved with Congo Restoration for six or seven years before I actually went. You should not look up the state departments warning about whether you should go to Congo. There was a little bit of a pause of me actually getting to convincing my family that was a good idea. It’s perfect. I’ve never had a problem.
[0:19:42] PF: Mommy will come back. It’s fine.
[0:19:43] DM: Yeah. Mommy will – my husband’s always joking, he has to get down to his dating weight before I leave. But I’ve never had any problems there. Certain parts of Congo, I wouldn’t go to. This part of Congo has been fine. To live in our world where just, literally things work. Let’s set aside the poverty for a minute, but just, things work. We have roads, we have water that comes out of a faucet. We have Wi-Fi that works. We have electricity that works. To leave that world for an extended period of time and to realize that most of the world lives more like that than we live.
I mean, Congo is an extreme example, but honestly, more people in the world live closer to that than live as we live. To be in that world and to be in that world enough where you have friends and people you know who live in that all the time, just you can’t help but come back to our world, and, well, just one, just be more thankful for it and not take it for granted as much as you can. Although, that’s hard, because this is our reality. I think it makes you much more – it’s hard to really complain.
I mean, we can complain, but it’s hard to complain a lot when we have the lives that we have. Certainly, things go wrong in our life. They do, but on a daily basis, we have food, that we have a bed to sleep on, not a floor to sleep on. Women have rights more, less than we did, but we women have rights here. Women are valued here. It’s not perfect, none of it’s perfect, but being a woman in Congo looks like the hardest thing I’ve ever seen. They will carry things on their back with a baby on their front, that look just impossible. They are, like a cow has more value, I think, literally than a woman does in Congo.
To see that makes me feel like I have such a responsibility as a woman to, one, lift others up because of the privilege that I have, just from being born here. I was just born here and they were just born there. Nothing else happened. That’s it. To pass that on to my sons, specifically. If I had daughters, I’d probably have a different take on it. That knowledge, yeah, it just, it can’t help but change you to see how differently other people live.
I have met so many interesting people that I would never know there and in other ways, because I’m connected to this. So when you say yes to something that really jazzes you, and to whatever your ability is to go all in – now I’m very lucky that I am a freelance writer and editor. I can travel this way. My work is more flexible than a lot of people’s work. Right now, I’m an empty nester, generally. I have a lot more freedom in that way, but to say yes to the things that really light you up like that, I think just adds so much to your life. I can’t even imagine my life without Congo Restoration.
[0:22:45] PF: Yeah. Everyone connects with something a little bit different and finds that that thing that lights them up and it’s going to be different than what yours is or the next person. What’s your advice for anyone who’s looking for that thing? Because sometimes we go through life and we’re like, “Man, I want to feel like I’m giving back. I want to feel like I’m making a difference and scattershot about it.” How do you do that?
[0:23:07] DM: One thing is look for how you feel, like I don’t know something in your life that when you, for me, it’s like when I go out with my girlfriends. When I leave that energy, like I’m driving home and I just feel like I’ve had too much caffeine. That’s what it feels like, just a little buzz, like I can’t quite just go right to bed when I get home. There’s something about that energy. That’s one thing I can compare it to. When I’m at Congo – when I am leading a Congo Restoration meeting or meeting with Gorethy about it. I have that same buzz like afterward. So, when you’re in situations, I think look for that, it may not feel – maybe I’m just weird with this whole caffeine buzz thing, but that’s what it feels like to me.
[0:23:49] PF: Maybe it’s just an actual caffeine buzz, Dawn.
[0:23:51] DM: It might be, but I don’t think so. Just look for your reaction to it, because there are some things. I mean, I have been on some boards on some very, for some very important things in the world and just been like, “Oh, I don’t want to go to this meeting.” Oh, this is such important work, but it’s not interesting to me. That’s okay. Everything’s not interesting to everybody. I don’t think you need to force a situation that doesn’t jazz you. It’s like when you’re looking to make friends or you’re looking to date somebody.
If you’re open to it and you’re saying yes to things and you’re exploring around, there’ll be some hits and misses. But if you’re open to it and you say yes to things, I think that you’ll find it. I would also like look around your normal world, like if you would rather cuddle with your dog than go out to dinner with your significant other, I’m not judging you. I get it. That might be –
[0:24:41] PF: Are you speaking, specifically to me right now?
[0:24:44] DM: I mean, I might be. Also, talking to myself, but like that might be like ding, ding, ding, maybe animals are the thing or if you like a certain region of the world. If you think about what jazz as you already maybe start out in that direction. Again, church is an easy way to do it. there are other ways to do it that don’t involve church. If you’re open to it. I think being open to it is key.
[0:25:11] PF: Yeah. Then this seems idealistic, but let’s go there for a minute. How would our world look different if everyone would find just one thing that lights him up and find one way to give back?
[0:25:23] DM: Oh, I just think it would be amazing. I mean, how could it not be different? There’s so many people in the world that just have their job and their family. Their friends and they watch Netflix at night. I do those things too. I also think there are people who like, are at the grocery store and everything’s giving round up to the nearest dollar for the food pantry and check the box. Go for that. Please do that. That’s important. If everybody in the world did something with the passion that helped some do good in the world, one, there’s just no way the world’s not benefiting from all those good deeds and all that good energy.
Also, it’s just such a, for yourself. There’s very few things like giving back. When I go to Congo, when I’m doing my things for the schools, I get so many things from the people there. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for doing this, like, but you have no idea how much you’re changing me, how much you’re teaching me. I just learned so many things. To have that energy from something you’re doing just makes you different, so you’re different, the people you’re helping are different. There’s just no bad scenario to all that happening. I just really wish people would find the one thing, if everybody would find the one thing that they – you don’t have to go to Congo. I’m an extreme example. You don’t have –
[0:26:50] PF: You go to the animal shelter.
[0:26:52] DM: Yes. You can go to the animal shelter. If you, do it regularly, like working out, like if you do it regularly, that’s where the difference is made. You’re changed, they’re changed. Relationships are made and that is where the magic happens.
[0:27:07] PF: Love it. Dawn, thank you so much for joining me today. I am so thrilled to be able to have you as our very first happy activist and couldn’t think of a better person for it. Thank you for the good that you’re putting out into the world. Thank you for coming on and telling us about it.
[0:27:21] DM: Thank you.
[0:27:26] PF: That was Dawn McMullan talking about her work with Congo Restoration has helped make her own life better. If you’d like to learn more about Dawn and the Congo Restoration Project, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. If you have a happy activist in your life that you’d like to see featured in a future episode, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us all about them. That’s email@example.com. That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps reminding you to make every day a happy one.