An educator and parent combines his passions to help child soldiers

David Hartness and his son, Luke.

David Hartness never thought he’d be a music video director. But that’s what the 2013 Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) student became several years ago when he volunteered to help one of his students create a video for a rap song the student had written.

At the time, Hartness was working with the Peace Corps as a teacher in Mozambique—an African nation with a tumultuous past. He didn’t have any knowledge about creating a music video, but he did have what mattered: a camera and the drive to help this passionate student bring his music to life. This unlikely project changed everything for Hartness.

“When I was in Mozambique, there were a lot of stories about the country’s fight for independence and about the civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992,” he explains. “It was a violent and bloody time in the nation’s history. In those stories, a lot of people were talking about the child soldiers.”

One of the people talking about Mozambique’s civil war was the rap artist who was Hartness’s student. “His song was about the struggle for freedom,” Hartness recalls. “We got some archival footage of the war to use in the music video, and one of the most striking images was about 4,000 children learning how to march with weapons—learning how to be soldiers.”

As Hartness tells the story, the shock is still evident in his voice 5 years after leaving Mozambique. It was an eye-opening moment for the Puget Sound, Washington, native. From that moment on, Hartness knew he had to dedicate his life to protecting kids around the world from the same unfortunate fate.

“I didn’t realize how many child soldiers were used,” he says. “Actually, at that time, I didn’t know any had been. I started to research the subject and found out children are still being used constantly in battles around the world; more than 250,000 are currently being used. The figures just shocked me.”

Since the day he saw that alarming footage, Hartness has worked to bring this atrocity into the spotlight of public attention. From authoring a book to drafting a petition, he’s focused on raising awareness to inspire policy change.

Giving a voice to child soldiers

Child Soldiers International, a human rights research and advocacy organization Hartness supports, shares the definition of a child soldier: “A … child soldier refers to any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to … fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies.” (Source: Louder Than Words: An Agenda for Action to End State Use of Child Soldiers , 2012.)

Since 2010, child soldier use has been reported by 20 countries worldwide, including the Philippines, Colombia, Somalia, Myanmar, and Iraq.

“Hundreds of thousands of children are used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world,” states the United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. “Many children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities, out of … revenge.”

Exile International, a nonprofit organization that works to turn rescued child soldiers and children orphaned by war into leaders for peace, states that “in Central and East Africa, armed forces and rebels have abducted more than 100,000 children. Children as young as 7 are kidnapped and forced to fight in rebel armies. Many are psychologically tortured and brainwashed—forced to commit atrocities against their own families and communities.”

These facts and the footage he watched inspired Hartness to learn more and to work with organizations like Exile International. He delved into research on the topic and eventually wrote his first novel, Amani’s River, which tells the story of a child forced into the brutal Mozambique Civil War. Hartness spoke with several former child soldiers during his research, and the book captured their experience in a powerful way —it was a finalist for the 2015 National Indie Excellence® Awards.

“When I decided to tell the story of the Mozambique Civil War, I wanted to give the country a strong voice,” Hartness explains. “I decided at that point to use the child soldiers as the basis, because that was a big part of the war, but it’s also a current social issue that I think is being neglected. Mozambicans need a voice to change people’s minds and make a difference. I hope Amani’s River is that voice.”

An early passion for change

The mission to make a difference started for Hartness long before he discovered the plights of child soldiers. In 2006, Hartness decided to go to Kenya as a volunteer in Global Routes’s gap year program before enrolling for his bachelor’s degree in education at Central Washington University. He had been fascinated by Africa since he first learned about the continent in middle school, so he was anxious to experience the area firsthand.

“I spent 3 months there, and that drove a lot of my passion,” he says of his initial visit to Africa. “I taught English in a small village school, but they taught me more than I ever could have taught them. There’s so much work to do over there; I had more to give.”

He says he was hooked after that experience, despite the lack of running water and electricity in the remote community where the volunteers stayed. That desire to return to Africa and to contribute more led Hartness to apply for the U.S. Peace Corps. Two years after his first trip to Africa, he was stationed as an education volunteer in Namaacha, Mozambique.

“There’s not a lot you can do in 3 months, but with 2 to 3 years you can really accomplish quite a bit if you put your mind to it,” he explains. “The Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to work with the community to develop projects they would be proud of and that could live on after my service was complete.”

During his 3 years in the Peace Corps, Hartness developed programs that are still running today. One project was the HIV/AIDS Youth Council, an informal gathering where participants do art projects focused on healthy lifestyles.

His other two projects concentrated on literacy, which was his primary focus in the Peace Corps. Hartness worked with local teachers to develop an English theater program to help teach the English language in a fun, interactive way. He also partnered with a couple of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to build a library. The partnership brought in 5,000 books for the community. He says community members still go to the library and teachers are using the books in classrooms.

“That was my biggest goal: Whatever I did, I didn’t want to do it just to pad my résumé, I wanted it to be something useful that they could continue after I was gone,” Hartness says with pride. “The people embraced the programs.”

Sharing the gift of education

The 3 years Hartness spent in Mozambique were just the start of his mission of change in Africa. After leaving the Peace Corps, Hartness moved to Zambia in 2011 to work at an international school and continue community development projects. There, he started health-related initiatives that involved basketball and coaching.

He also continued with his literacy focus by starting an interactive program to promote literature. The initiative began with a pilot program for 150 kids, providing resources to help them read at an appropriate level for their age; the program grew to 600 within a year.

“It was a big push of mine to try to promote a culture of reading so they would start to enjoy picking up books,” Hartness says of the project. “We tried to get kids on the right educational path.”

Hartness was not only creating successful literacy and health programs while in Zambia, he was also writing Amani’s River and studying to earn his MBA from Walden. In his initial Web search for online degree programs, he was drawn to Walden’s reputation for success and its mission of effecting positive social change.

“One of the other reasons I chose Walden was because of the online courses,” Hartness says. “I was living in Africa, but Walden's online learning format allowed me to work on my degree while still doing the on-the-ground work that I was passionate about in Africa.”

While he has always loved teaching, developing effective programs for social problems is what really makes Hartness happy. He hopes to put his MBA and DBA to use by working for an NGO and focusing on education and health initiatives that will help children around the world.

He’s also using the skills he gained at Walden to draft a petition to raise awareness and hopefully inspire policy change.

“The petition encourages Congress to put sanctions in place to ensure that our taxpayer dollars are used effectively and not put into countries that engage in using child soldiers,” he explains. “We need to track our funds and ensure that governments that we help are not supporting groups like Boko Haram and ISIS that use child soldiers. Unfortunately, as it stands, we can't say with 100% certainty that our money is staying out of these hands.”

David Hartness and his son, Luke.

A parent’s perspective

Now, after 7 years working and studying in Africa, Hartness is home in the United States with his adopted son, Luke. They first met while he was training in the Peace Corps—Hartness used to play soccer with Luke and the other boys in the neighborhood. But they truly bonded during English lessons in Mozambique; Luke gravitated toward the language and was very eager to learn from Hartness. Now 14, Luke is most passionate about basketball but also enjoys reading, which Hartness sees as a good start: “I don’t know if most 14-year-olds are passionate about education, but we’re working on it.”

While Luke was not at risk of becoming a child soldier (he was born after the end of the civil war), Hartness says that being a father lends a heavier perspective to the issue of child soldiers. “People would not want their children to be kidnapped and used in this way,” he says. “I wanted to get out the message that children have a place in our society, and that place is not in a war that they barely understand. My own child played a huge role in that message; I don't want it to happen to him and I don't want it to happen to any other child.”

Hartness hopes his book and his work can inspire others to act as well.

“Write a quick letter, make a quick donation, or open it up for discussion at the kitchen table,” he suggests. “Change starts with us having the difficult conversation and being empowered enough to reach out to Congress to impact policies and bills. There are things that, as a nation, we could do to help ensure that the people who are exploiting children are not given the resources to commit those crimes against humanity.”

When Hartness thinks about this issue, he doesn’t think of it as violence taking place in far-off countries. He thinks about those who helped him when he became sick while in Kenya, people who are more like family to him. He had a high fever and was vomiting, and neighbors came to his aid: They brought the reverend to hold his hand, and a group prayed he would survive. This outpouring of compassion has stuck with him for the past 10 years.

“In Kenya, the community was so tightly knit,” Hartness says. “That’s what drew me to Africa to begin with. There are so many problems that plague the area, but in the face of it all, Africans are very much community-oriented. That’s one of the reasons I continue to serve them; with their high spirits in the face of everything, they deserve it. They deserve the opportunity for a good education and to not be subjected to a childhood of servitude in war.”

For Hartness, providing an education to the children of Africa starts with making sure those children aren’t abducted to become soldiers instead of students. Preventing that requires educating the world about this continuing issue, whether through his novel or a student’s rap video.

“I hope to educate people to help raise awareness that there are still roughly 250,000 children serving in militaries around the world,” he says. “If I can make a difference on this issue, then I will have changed the world for the better, and that is what I am setting out to accomplish.”

Photo 1 credit: Getty Images/Thierry Falise

David Hartness and his son, Luke. Photo 2 credit: Matt Rybczynski

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