John Prendergast: A Larger-Than-Life Humanitarian With an Undying Mission
This Berwyn-raised human-rights activist has become a poster boy for peace in Africa. But has he made peace with himself?
The success and celebrity of Berwyn-raised international human-rights activist John Prendergast has come with close calls, powerful personal and political allies, and even a few enemies. For years, one of those enemies was himself.
John Prendergast was dying inside. Immensely capable and confident on the global scene, the celebrated author and peacemaker was as comfortable with presidents and Hollywood megastars as he was with Sudanese peasants. And yet, he was somehow incapable of having a meaningful, lasting personal relationship.
To tame his demons, it’s taken willpower, counseling and the sort of relentless self-examination that produced this year’s riveting tell-all memoir, Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption. Co-written with Michael Mattocks, his longtime Little Brother, the book details Prendergast’s significant coming-of-age struggles in Berwyn. “Part of the catharsis” for JP (as he’s commonly known) involved sitting down with people from his past. Among those interviewed were his real-life little brother, Luke—a friend and classmate of mine—and former teachers from Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor. In recreating his repressed emotional history, JP exorcised the past. Since then, he’s become more “emotionally available” for his wife, Sia, his mother and others.
Unlikely Brothers also details JP’s recent brushes with death. In Rwanda, he once had a gun pointed in his mouth. He was taken hostage in the Congo, survived mortar fire in Somalia, had a car explode in front of him in Angola, and was imprisoned for three days in Sudan.
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While in Sudan, a bridge he was on nearly became the target for a missile. “That was close enough to think, ‘S--t, that could have been it,’” says Prendergast, who celebrated his 48th birthday this past March. “I don’t miss any of this. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I don’t have a death wish.”
John Prendergast is where he is today thanks to some impossibly close calls. But you can’t discount his ever-evolving list of well-positioned allies—and enemies. On paper, his résumé is downright buoyant. He co-founded the Enough Project, a 2007 initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity. At 33, he was former President Bill Clinton’s director of African Affairs at the National Security Council. He was special adviser to the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, when she served in the State Department. He’s met with President Barack Obama five times, and worked for members of Congress, UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the United States Institute of Peace. He’s also a strategic adviser to the human-rights organization Not On Our Watch, serving on its board.
Among the 10 books to his credit, he has co-authored two with actor Don Cheadle: last year’s The Enough Moment: Fighting to End Africa’s Worst Human Rights Crimes, and 2007’s Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, a New York Times bestseller and an NAACP nonfiction book of the year. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes, Nightline, PBS NewsHour and CNN’s Inside Africa; consulted on two episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; and appeared in the documentaries Sand and Sorrow, Darfur Now, 3 Points and War Child. He co-produced Journey Into Sunset, about the “night commuters” of northern Uganda, and helped compile the album Raise Hope for Congo to bring attention to the atrocious violence against women and girls there.
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Awestruck by human suffering as a teen, Prendergast became obsessed with eradicating it—first in this country, then internationally, when he saw a TV special on Ethiopian famine in 1984. He now speaks of that eye-opening moment as a “conversion experience.” Soon after, he flew to Mali, which was as close as he could get to Ethiopia. Two years later, he upped the ante and bought a one-way ticket to Somalia.
JP’s parents were a virtual case study in goodwill. His father, Jack, once studied to be a Roman Catholic priest. Claire, his mother, nearly became a nun. They were forever charitable, but justice was their son’s calling. More to the point, he wanted to snuff out injustice before it could hatch. “I became angry at the relative wealth of [the Main Line],” he says now. “My father was a frozen-food salesman, not a brain surgeon. But it was clear that we were still privileged while others were homeless and struggling. I became furious.”
JP’s rage was fueled by his own sense of inadequacy. In Unlikely Brothers, he bluntly describes himself as a “lizard,” hiding his acne-scarred face behind long hair and books. Girls rejected him, and he figured he’d never be loved for who he was.
Home was hardly a refuge. With his gregarious public persona, Jack Prendergast expected his eldest son to be a perfect likeness of himself. JP writes of beatings, hiding spots, and ceasing to speak or even make eye contact with his father, a former Korean War sergeant.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, JP could identify with others who were down and out. At 15, he’d already run away to New York, where Moonies tried to claim him. Once, he almost jumped in front of a train on the way back to Berwyn from Philly.
There were several faculty saviors at Carroll. One, Joseph Stoutzenberger, now a professor of religious studies at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, encouraged JP to “leave the palace of suburbia.” In detention, Joan Kane gave him Amnesty International and Bread for the World pamphlets. Garrett Woznicki filled his head with literature, and the freedom to critique it.
Prendergast earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Temple University and his master’s in international development from American University in Washington, D.C. While in college locally, JP moved out of his Berwyn home and into a South Philadelphia apartment for $200 a month, selling his trading card and comic book collections for rent money. “It was alarming for my parents to see where I was willing to live,” he admits. “I became resentful and bitter. I became the angry young man.”
While cultivating healthier outlets for his animosity, JP initiated and sustained a Big Brother relationship with Michael Mattocks and, later, Michael’s younger brothers, James and David. Their inner-city Washington, D.C., lives were fraught with peril. Michael was a gun-wielding 13-year-old drug soldier, mentored by a street thug named Cool, who was eventually gunned down. James, too, was murdered. Another brother hung himself.
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For JP, his relationship with Michael was a shot at correcting “my father’s mistakes” and sharing a compassion and acceptance he never felt. For Michael, Berwyn was like Beverly Hills, the Prendergast driveway “another road.”
JP’s closeness to the Mattocks clan also fed an incessant need to be surrounded by human suffering—and it didn’t end there. For six years, he formed a bond with 11 mentally handicapped men in suburban D.C. There was also Khayree, a one-legged Philadelphian who was in and out of prison, his younger brother gunned down on the streets.
It’s all there in Unlikely Brothers. “If I didn’t address all that I did, I don’t think I could’ve addressed who I am and what I do,” Prendergast says of the book. “It wouldn’t have been a memoir.”
Against her son’s advice, Claire Prendergast read Unlikely Brothers. “It was hard for her, but she wanted to,” he says of his mother, who’s now in her mid-80s. “She said she’s sorry that I feel so badly about everything.”
Other family members are more angry than anything else. The older ones side with his father and feel JP has been disloyal. Several spoke up during his July wedding at Mia Farrow’s Connecticut home. It was so overt that actor George Clooney—a close colleague who didn’t attend—got wind of it. “What happened at your wedding?!” he emailed Prendergast the next day.
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“I was damaged goods for a long time, the result of the abuses—bilaterally between my father and I—and again in African war zones for 20 years,” Prendergast says. “It was back-to-back sets of trauma, and I carried it all around like a carcinogen. Until these last five years, I was a person who’d been locked inside a box.”
And JP’s catharsis may not be complete. Since his memoir was written, he’s unearthed thousands of slips of paper filled with notes, plus notebooks full of ruminations. “Emotional vomit—all very plaintive and sad, yet insightful,” he says of his teenage introspection. “It’ll all be part of the personal museum I open for myself.”
His first 20 years in Africa, Prendergast’s strength was in grassroots research, writing and activism. Since then, he’s undergone a dramatic career evolution, most recently embarking on a calculated strategy to bolster media exposure for the issues he’s passionate about. His work began morphing within the Clinton administration as he helped refine American diplomacy and peace-process strategies. These days, it’s about “creating big splashes” to captivate greater numbers. Celebrities have helped to hype the cause. It’s made Africa a “sexy, timely thing,” says JP, a topic that’s “seeped into popular culture.” It’s also one of Congress’ few bipartisan subjects.
“Africa is definitely having its moment,” he adds.
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JP’s six trips to the continent this year indicate a vast slowdown in his travels. Since beginning the Enough Project, he’s begun hiring younger kindreds to conduct the field research he once did. That keeps him safer, for sure. It also leaves him with more creative space to, say, work on an e-book project with actor and pal Ryan Gosling.
A project of the Center for American Progress, Enough played a key role in successfully advocating the 2010 passage of a landmark federal law to “apprehend or otherwise remove from the battlefield” internationally wanted war criminal Joseph Kony, ending the 20-year reign of terror from his brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. A month later, President Obama endorsed another law regulating conflict-mineral importation and trade—one that was attached (with bipartisan support) to the historic Wall Street reform bill.
In 2009, Prendergast co-founded NBA star Tracy McGrady’s Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program to fund education in refugee camps and create partnerships with U.S. schools. He also helped create the Raise Hope for Congo campaign, highlighting the global trade in “conflict minerals” used to make cell phones and laptops that fueled the war in the Congo.
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Last year, GQ magazine named JP a finalist in its “Better Men Better World” Search, honoring charitable work and public service. And while he deflects credit to a battery of people, both known and unknown, he acknowledges direct involvement in the peace settlement that ended the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where he worked with the State Department’s Susan Rice, UNICEF’s Tony Lake, the U.S. military and the African Union. He’ll say that South Sudan’s 2011 independence had nothing to do with him—even if many disagree. Still, his “longevity and tenacity” in the region didn’t hurt, he admits.
Prendergast couldn’t be more excited about the newly affirmed U.S. policy rooted in an international responsibility to protect civilian life, topple long-term dictators, and promote democracy—a trend clearly evident in Egypt and Libya.
“[It’s] an unequaled, momentous period of change,” says JP, who’s genuinely shocked by recent developments. “It’s breathtaking. The dominoes are falling, so we have to continue to encourage the dominoes. The sharks smell the blood. This is a movement, not a popular uprising—and one that’s definitely cresting. What we don’t know is how long it will last. Our worst enemy is inertia.”
As a highly visible protagonist, Prendergast has his share of antagonists—those who question the motivation for U.S. involvement in Africa. One is Keith Harmon Snow, a self-trained Massachusetts-based journalist and genocide investigator who’s worked in 27 African countries since 2000. He’s written extensively about Sudan and its oil-rich, war-torn state, Darfur, and he diametrically opposes the star appeal Prendergast promotes.
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Snow claims that the United States, Britain, Israel and their African proxies have backed 20 years of covert guerrilla warfare, war crimes and genocide. The interests of our government in Rwanda, the Congo and Darfur, he says, are cloaked in disingenuous campaigns to stop genocide engineered by national security agents like Prendergast, whom he’s called a “borderline sycophant.”
The West has shipped in weapons under the guise of humanitarian aid, Snow says, but it’s really about greed in South Sudan—namely, controlling the oil-rich land. And groups like the Enough Project are “greasing the skids of genocide.”
“White supremacy is a big part of the African puzzle,” Snow says. “John is the great white hero in Africa, and Africa is his playground. But it’s really about the power of whiteness.”
Prendergast calls such weighty criticism “chatter,” suggesting an ignorance of the facts and a resentment of his success. Not without his own antagonists, Snow has never forgiven the Clinton administration for backing the invasion of Zaire (now the Congo) in the mid-1990s and killing a family who saved his life when he took ill in the rain forest a few years earlier. He’s also under attack by the government of Rwanda as a “genocide denier.”
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Prendergast vehemently maintains that, for him and his allies, the strategic prize is nothing other than peace—the rationale for bold, diplomatic leveraging of the international community. He doesn’t deny the commercial-economic interests in Africa—all the more reason to protect the environmental sources of its rich commodities and back counterterrorism efforts.
As far as Snow is concerned, Prendergast will never tell the truth about the engines that make his world tick. “He’s having his strings pulled, but no one ever sees them getting pulled,” says Snow. “Yet, he gets attention for his grassroots work. If it’s really grassroots, then ask him how the Pentagon and Angelina Jolie got involved?”
Others have spoken out against Prendergast, as well. Two years ago, in a debate on Darfur at Columbia University in New York City, Mahmood Mamdani, an expert in the history of civil wars, genocide and human rights, debunked his strategies. The director of Uganda’s Makerere Institute of Social Research, Mamdani believes the only solution is a political one that comes from within the African Union—not anything externally driven by military involvement or a systematic shift orchestrated out of the U.N.
But Prendergast has many long-standing allies, too. “So many worship him and feel he’s special,” says Mike Bandstra, who met JP 24 years ago when they both worked at Bread for the World. The two had known each other just a few weeks when Bandstra approached Bread for the World’s distinguished board to fund programs for welfare reform and minimum wage. When its members hedged, JP threatened to quit. “Here he was brow-beating these guys on my behalf,” Bandstra recalls.
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The board agreed to the funding, and “we’ve been friends ever since,” says Bandstra.
Now a child-welfare lawyer in Iowa, Bandstra contends that the motivation behind JP’s passion for Africa is simple: It was where he could make the greatest difference. “John is a force of nature,” he says.
It was Ted Dagne, an Ethiopian refugee turned African affairs expert, who asked Prendergast to travel with him and Susan Rice back to Washington, D.C., after a Princeton University conference. The introduction and train ride may well have led to JP’s work in the White House.
Most interesting about JP and Dagne’s 20-year association is an invention called the Council, an informal think tank that’s met for lunch monthly at the same D.C. restaurant since the late ’90s. Over the years, the two have helped each other write reports and prepare Congressional testimony. “We don’t always agree 100 percent,” Dagne says. “But we debate and always come up with something.”
And to those critics who say Prendergast craves publicity, Dagne stresses, “He was [in Africa] when nobody was there, and none of his interest is for money. It’s not for fame, but fame has come—though the first time I met Clooney, I told him not to listen to a word JP says.”
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Three years ago, when his father’s pancreatic cancer spread to his brain, JP tried his best to reconcile the past. But his dad’s memories were much different than his. Was it denial? Irish stubbornness? His illness?
It wasn’t until the eulogy that JP came to the realization that he’d become his father’s son—a showman, a salesman. In the end, there was no space in his life that his father had left untouched.
“Any success I’ve had is because of the personal characteristics I learned by osmosis from him,” Prendergast admits now. “It was his ability to connect with people, his unending curiosity and style of diplomacy, his ability to sell you anything.”
Prendergast gets back to Berwyn at least once a month to see his mom. Often, he’s on the way out the door, as was the case the morning after a mid-September conference at Millersville University. This time, it was a fundraising trip to Hong Kong with Clooney.
After JP’s appearance at Millersville, a 30-year-old government and public affairs major put the experience into perspective. “For me, it was like seeing a president,” says Abraham Awan, who comes from South Sudan.
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Because of the unrest at home, Awan hasn’t returned to his village since 1987. After he graduates in May, he’ll go back and battle the corruption surrounding the delivery of services there.
In the early 1990s, Prendergast was in the same region where Awan spent the first six years of his life. Though war-torn, it’s relatively peaceful now.
“He has a shot at returning home and doing amazing things,” says JP. “His tie to his homeland is incredibly visceral. To finally have the doors open is a miracle.”
To learn more about John Prendergast and the Enough Project, visit enoughproject.org.