Shannon Sedgwick Davis
Seeing Past Impossible to Make the World Better
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by Susanne Pack with Celebrated Reflections
When Shannon Sedgwick Davis asks what makes your heart beat fast, she’s not talking about a workout, a run, or a Peloton session. She wants to know what calls to you and gets you excited. For Davis, that’s tackling issues of social injustice.
“From a human rights perspective, I’ve always had a heart that beats fast for issues of justice. I was extremely blessed to have parents who really taught me that if I put my heart and mind to something, there should be nothing that I view as impossible, and it would be a worthy effort. The combination of that really has helped fuel this work,” explains Davis.
As an attorney, activist, and passionate social justice advocate, Davis serves as CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world by pioneering solutions to seemingly intractable issues. Davis and the Bridgeway Foundation have been credited for their pivotal role in mobilizing awareness, civilian protection, and recovery efforts against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader, Joseph Kony, the first-ever indictee of the International Criminal Court.
“The foundation is designed to combat genocide and mass atrocities. It’s a pretty audacious mission,” she notes. “We really believe that the world’s most intractable problems actually can be solved. The conflicts that we’re working on and some of the mass atrocities that we’ve gotten engaged in are very difficult problems.”
That’s putting it mildly. She details the effort to take down Kony in her book, “To Stop A Warlord.”
“We end up launching an operation where we barely miss his capture, and it really was a catastrophic moment to some extent, shedding lots of tears and almost a moment where we had to decide, ‘Is this it? Are we going to give up?’ Instead, we pivoted. Instead of cutting the head off the snake, what if you cut the snake off the head? These people that he’s kidnapped over years that are now traveling around in small units – what if you beckoned them back to their homes?”
Bridgeway partnered with people on the ground who helped find their mothers, any surviving sisters, or others, recording their voices and asking those children to come home. With simple iPhone recordings, they would plug that into speakers and fly helicopters over different areas in Uganda, beckoning people to lay down their arms and come out. Almost 800 walked out, taking abductions and killings down by over 90%.
It wasn’t how she originally pictured stopping Kony’s terror. “You can get so wrapped up in a certain definition of success, but whenever you’re trying to tackle an impossible cause, I think you have to be very careful about how you define success and make sure that you’re always looking for the right answers and other ways to get there.
“Think through a situation, and you find other ways. It’s persistence, persistence, persistence. And then it’s a lot of creativity. What’s the end goal? I thought that this required a yes to get to the end goal, but maybe it doesn’t; maybe there’s a whole different way to get to the end goal and be creative about other ways to get there. I don’t like the word no, and I don’t like roadblocks. So we always find a way to hurdle them or walk around them or sprint around them sometimes depending on how urgent the situation is.”
“We had to reengineer how a traditional foundation works. Two of the major aspects that we’ve focused on and that have been a real force multiplier for us is being willing to take risks, which means being willing to fail a lot.”
Listening to Davis talk about efforts to help in Ukraine, the ongoing effort in Africa, and other issues that Bridgeway Foundation is addressing, her passion and commitment make it hard to imagine her accepting failure.
“There are these issues that a lot of us view as impossible causes or intractable issues. The truth is that human beings are extraordinarily good. And if they are willing to come together and work toward a solution, they can oftentimes lead to successful outcomes. But what is concerning is that when we completely ignore or turn our heads away from these deeply uncomfortable issues and from the awful suffering of others, in a lot of ways, we make those issues seem even more impossible. My great hope would be that we continue to open our hearts and minds to these issues, as hard as they may be, in the hope of better humanity and a better future.”
“I’ve learned that over the years, you can’t accept that there is no pain. I never want to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the world. I don’t ever want to live a shell of a life that is ignorant to what’s going on around me.”
Davis was named the 2022 World Affairs Council of San Antonio’s International Citizen of the Year. The award recognizes local leaders making a global impact. “Shannon’s compassion and tenacity, combined with the ability and know-how to bring political and military leaders and A-list celebrities together to back her efforts, is a testament to how well she is respected. She is a shining example of why it’s important to stay informed on world affairs and participate in the global community, because one person truly can make all the difference,” explains Armen Babajanian, CEO of the World Affairs Council of San Antonio.
Yet the San Antonio native, who shares her work and travel with her husband, Samuel Davis, and her two sons, Connor and Brody, sets her daily schedule around school drop-off and pick-up to spend time with the boys, is quick to credit to those she works with.
“What a privilege it is to be here and to be able to do this work. But the true heroes are working halfway across the world, these fellow humans that walk this planet along with us that most of us never get to meet. They matter. They more than matter. They are the best of us. I wish I could just bottle them up and bring them all here to show you. I know I’m standing on their shoulders.”
The nature of Davis’ work exposes her to the best and worst of people. “The world is both much more brutal and more beautiful than I knew or than I know right now. I wasn’t prepared for either. I lived a really charmed, lovely life. My childhood was wonderful. I had wonderfully supportive parents, and I very much had rose-colored glasses. I could never have conceived the utter lows of humanity. It’s hard to imagine that humanity’s capable of such lows, but by the same token, I never could have imagined the peaks … the highs that humanity is capable of. That’s sort of the beauty in the field that I work in. Because of the level of evil and suffering that we come across, the only way to overcome that is with this drastic counterbalance of goodness that almost feels supernatural at times. It’s pretty extraordinary and oftentimes feels divine.
“I had the extraordinary opportunity to have Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a mentor for a period of my life. The biggest lesson he taught me was one about joy. He taught me that joy was a discipline. It isn’t a temporal feeling like happiness, but it’s actually something that we should practice. So when the work gets extremely hard, and challenging and devastating to see and to bear witness to, I focus on this idea of practicing joy. That might look like dancing in a rainstorm, it might look like singing, but really being adamant about practicing joy. Otherwise, I think you can get very lost in this work, and it can become a very dark place.”
She pairs that idea with another lesson. “The spirit of ubuntu, a south African phrase that means ‘I am because you are.’ If we can keep that in mind, it’s so much harder to wreak havoc on each other. If we are all a piece of a single cloth, how much differently should we then feel about each other, taking care of each other, and looking out for each other?”
“My great hope and heart is that we continue to look for ways to serve each other and stay a little less focused on me and mine, and don’t accept that that politics wants to divide us or that this force wants to divide us, or that force wants to divide us. Trust that most people are extraordinarily good. Assume that goodwill and really try to push humanity forward.”