The charismatic young social activist renowned for the breakout "Kony 2012" video on enslaved African children, and for a painfully public personal meltdown, returned to a public stage this week at UCLA, urging 1,500 acolytes to make their lives "bigger than your best dream."
Jason Russell, co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, went to a psychiatric hospital after he was arrested for traipsing, naked, down a San Diego street. He said Thursday he felt guilt and embarrassment for distracting attention from the video — said to be the most viral in history — after it got more than 100 million views in just six days.
Seventeen months later, Russell is headlining Invisible Children's Fourth Estate Leadership Summit, a four-day gathering seeking to recharge the group's nine-year campaign to stop central African rebel leader Joseph Kony and to kindle flames of social justice in a new generation of altruists.
An array of Hollywood stars and humanitarian luminaries addressed the convention of teens and 20-somethings. Newly confirmed U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, scheduled to address the group Saturday night, has already praised the activists, saying, "When they stand up, the world takes notice."
But no one received a more rapturous reception on the opening day than Russell. He called the event his "most intimate" coming out, following a television interview with Oprah Winfrey and more limited appearances on behalf of the San Diego-based nonprofit.
"Things got a little crazy, literally. Things got naked," Russell said at UCLA's Royce Hall, as the audience roared in approval. "It happened. It happened. It happened."
He described being lonely and bullied as a teenager and how he had considered suicide. And he drew a connection with his bizarre behavior on March, 2012, when, he said, he snapped from a combination of exhaustion, anxiety and what he believes may have been a form of post-traumatic stress.
He had been deluged with media requests, he said, and vilified as a human-rights dilettante. One commentator called him a part of the "white-savior industrial complex."
"I was 33 years old, and I was right back in junior high, right back with people throwing food at my face," Russell said. "And it felt like a 40,000-pound gorilla was on me, because I was questioning my identity once again."
In an interview, Russell said his personal setback temporarily sapped Invisible Children's momentum but would not stop it. "We are going to finish what we started," he said. The group's goal is the capture of Kony and the disbanding of his Lord's Resistance Army, which has been accused of raping and pillaging in central Africa for a quarter of a century, forcing girls into sexual slavery and boys into its militia.
Russell outlined grand ambitions for the UCLA gathering, saying it could one day become "as big as Comic-Con or South by Southwest or the Clinton Global Initiative." The event is intended to create the vibe of "a TED talk, mixed with a music festival and a film festival, all mixed in a Justin Bieber concert," he said.
An array of critics assailed Invisible Children for the slick 2012 video and for making imprecise and exaggerated claims about human-rights violations by Kony's militia. Others in Africa, and beyond, credited the organization with finally bringing world attention to atrocities that had gone unchecked.
Two years ago, 100 U.S. military advisors began working in with 3,000 African troops to defeat Kony, who is believed to be hiding in a disputed area of Sudan. He now has as few as 250 fighters, and violence has decreased markedly in the past two years.
At UCLA on Thursday, a wave of euphoria seemed to accompany the young participants from 27 countries. Many arrived in shorts and flip-flops, chanting and singing.
Many participants paid $495 for the event, including room and board, to see videos and attend seminars, such as actress Sophia Bush's session, titled "Who Runs the World? Girls!"
Organizers also screened an emotional documentary, "Blood Brother," about an American living with children in an AIDS orphanage in India. Moments after appearing on screen with lesions and struggling to survive, one boy featured in the film stepped on stage, beaming and in good health.
Stars of the MTV show "The Buried Life" (in which the four heroes fulfill wishes for those in need) told the story of a girl who couldn't afford a prothesis for her missing arm. They then invited the girl on stage and told her they had persuaded a manufacturer to donate an arm. Russell announced: "Magic is happening. A girl just got a bionic arm!" The crowd erupted in one of many standing ovations.
Russell acknowledged that his naked walkabout won't be forgotten, but he added, "it will not define me."
The audience seemed to agree. Jill Fredenburg, 18, of Memphis predicted Invisible Children "will build back up and end [Kony's army] violence. And Jason is still a good guy and super genuine. I have never met anyone else quite like that."
Russell urged the audience on to great things. "You are going to die in 60 to 80 years," he told them, "so you better make it your job, your sole job, to find that dream in your life. And you better pursue it at all costs. At all costs."