What does the world’s deadliest war look like? It is not fought from control rooms and it does not involve missiles or nuclear warheads. It is fought by child soldiers, abducted from their homes and forced to the frontlines of battle. They are not armed with tanks, guns or even knives. No, in the deadliest war in the world, the youngest and weakest soldiers are sent to the frontlines to die – armed only with a whistle.
This is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The International Rescue Committee estimates that since 1998, almost 6 million people died in a brutal war for control over resources. In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health found that every hour in the war-torn Congo, 48 women are raped. More than 1.8 million people are displaced, ripped away from their farms and their lives. Why? A battle for commodities - specifically the minerals tin, tantalum and tungsten, which are all critical components of consumer electronics.
Some people hear about situations like the one in the Congo and feel defeated. Others, like Western senior Ashley Hogrebe, feel a driving sense of motivation to work towards change.
After graduating high school, Hogrebe chose not to go immediately to college, but to spend some time working for a cause she was passionate about. After some searching, she landed at Falling Whistles, an organization dedicated to bringing peace to the Congo.
Falling Whistles was founded by Sean Carasso, who stumbled across the situation in the Congo while volunteering with TOMS Shoes and was instantly moved to work towards stopping the atrocities he discovered there and healing the devastated region.
Hogrebe explained that while in the Congo, Carasso encountered a group of former child soldiers that were incarcerated as prisoners of war. The boys told Carasso about the war they had been fighting in and explained that children who were too small to carry a gun were sent to the frontlines of battle armed with only whistles, tasked with drawing out the enemy and acting as a human blockade once they were shot down.
“Sean obviously was freaking out with this information,” Hogrebe said.
Hogrebe said Carasso immediately began to call friends and family, and push the United Nations for support. His efforts got the boys released from the war camp, but he was not content to stop there.
“He learned that he was in the midst of the world’s deadliest war and that it’s mostly over conflict minerals and the things that are going into our laptops and cell phones,” Hogrebe explained.
Hogrebe said Carasso returned to Los Angeles with a mission of spreading the word.
“He was just screaming at people at parties, like getting on top of tables and yelling ‘kids are dying, kids are dying, we’ve gotta do something about this!’ His friend, Marcus, bought a vintage whistle off of eBay and put it on his neck and said, ‘you know, remember why you’re fighting and keep those boys alive in your heart.’ When he wore the whistle he didn’t have to yell anymore because people would ask, ‘Why are you wearing the whistle? What is that thing?’ He got a chance to elevate conversation. And that’s how Falling Whistles was born.”
The goals of the organization are two-fold. First, they want to raise awareness about the issue, create a consumer base that will speak up and demand that their cell phones and computers are not made using minerals that come from the Congo.
“We are directly affecting this war and indirectly funding it,” Hogrebe said. “Those minerals are going into our laptops and our cell phones and therefore we are connected to this in some way. I definitely think when there’s enough demand for something, change is possible, we just have to speak up.”
The organization’s other goal is to provide immediate relief by funding programs in the Congo that are striving to help the people affected by the war.
“We believe that the answers for the problems in Congo are not going to come from us,” Hogrebe explained. “They’re not going to come from the white saviors, they’re going to come from the people who have known the war and felt the war. So we partner with Congolese visionaries.”
Falling Whistles helps to fund programs including independent radio stations, children’s rehabilitation centers and women’s vocational centers.
To afford both it’s educational outreach programs and the programs in the Congo, Falling Whistles sells whistles online and in retail stores across the world.
“We sell our whistles to stores that then become our partners in peace,” said Laura Schmalstieg, head of retail for Falling Whistles. “We expect these stores to really use their space as a hub to educate their customers and let them know what’s going on in Congo and really stand shoulder-to-shoulder to us in solidarity to end this deadliest war of our time.”
Today, the organization has grown into a formidable band of people fighting for peace. Schmalstieg said there is a coalition of over 55,000 people that wear a whistle everyday.
But Hogrebe’s involvement with the organization began back when Falling Whistles was just getting started, and it began with a whirlwind.
“I applied on a whim and then two weeks later I was on a plane to Los Angeles. It was crazy,” she said. “Sean took us in and was like ‘this is what we do.’ Hearing the story straight from Sean’s mouth is just an experience entirely of itself. Then they do this thing called the ‘impossible task’. I had never been to Los Angeles before and we were right in the dirty arts district. We were in this weird warehouse filled with all these random musicians and there were rat infestations. They were like ‘Alright, we just moved in and we need you guys to re-vamp the space. You have a day and $50 to do it.’”
Hogrebe and other interns got on bikes and rode through downtown Los Angeles, trying to figure out how to make it happen.
“That’s something that is one of Falling Whistles core values, default to action,” Hogrebe explained. “You just don’t think, you just go and create.”
Hogrebe said she didn’t know what to expect from her internship, but said she pictured an intern as someone whose primary role is to get coffee. Instead, Carasso immersed her into helping run the organization.
“It’s amazing how much respect I was given as an intern,” she said. “Sean would sit there and say ‘Ashley, what do you think? What is your opinion on this?’ I’m like ‘are you asking me right now? I am not fit to answer these questions.’”
She said she rose to his challenges however, developing a shipping system and volunteer program for the organization. She also began to feel like she had found a community that she truly belonged in.
“When I got there I realized that those are the kind of people that I want to be surrounded by for the rest of my life,” Hogrebe said. “Those are the kind of people that are innovative and they’re not afraid to do everything and fail and then try again and if you fail then we’re going to try again. It was really great to be a part of that.”
Conflicted between her passion for Falling Whistles and a desire to get a college degree, Hogrebe took some time off to attend a school in Utah. However, she said she couldn’t stay away and shortly after she left, she returned to Falling Whistles to serve as the intern coordinator and recruiter.
That was when Carasso threw the biggest challenge yet at her.
Schmalstieg, who was an intern under Hogrebe at the time, said she remembers Hogrebe getting excited when she heard Falling Whistles was planning a nationwide tour.
“Ashley loves lists, it’s her favorite thing,” Schmalstieg said. “So she went up to Sean and say, ‘This is what we should do for tour, like a, b, c, d, e.’ And he would say, ‘Great, go do them.’ She said, ‘Sean, I’m 19. I have no clue what I’m doing.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s fine. I believe in you and I know you can do this. So run with it.’”
Hogrebe smiles recounting the memory. “Sean gave me the keys to an R.V. as a 19-year-old girl and said ‘Go run a tour.’ I still can’t believe that happened.”
In an R.V. named Harvey, Hogrebe and five other Falling Whistles staff members travelled to 33 cities in two and a half months, speaking to colleges, high schools, churches, retail stores and anyone else who would listen.
“It was inspiring to watch her mind shift from this girl of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ to this full-blown leader that took charge and allowed us to have an incredibly successful tour for Falling Whistles for peace in Congo,” Schmalstieg said.
The tour’s goal was education, to spread awareness and get people talking.
We spoke all over,” Hogrebe said. “Nothing was off-limits for us. We’d be at a church in Nashville and then a week later we’d be at a nightclub with strippers in New Jersey. Because the message of peace truly is universal. Anyone really can get behind it. I was amazed when these go-go dancers at the top of this bar would be like, ‘We believe in you guys so much, like we’re so excited.’”
After almost three months on the road, Hogrebe wrapped up her tour and began to contemplate what would come next for her. She made the decision to go to college and pursue her degree, and arrived at Western to major in journalism.
However, she said she still tries to keep updated on Falling Whistles and she proudly wears her whistle around Bellingham.
“When you wear a whistle, people ask you about it all the time,” Hogrebe said. “Is it a rape whistle, is it a dog whistle, do you put your weed in there? Its like, ‘No, but let me tell you about it.’ It gives you this avenue to speak up about something because not everyone is like Sean and will get on a table screaming about peace in Congo. I’m definitely not. But when someone asks me about it, I’m like, ‘Yes, I can finally talk about it.’”
Hogrebe said she still feels passionate about working for peace in Congo and plans on returning to similar work once she is finished with school.
“I’m definitely interested in being in that kind of environment, like the very innovative, social entrepreneurship, all of that,” she explained. “I don’t know if it’ll be with Falling Whistles again but, I don’t know, I love the road so much that if they ever needed a body to go on the road, I’d go in a heartbeat.”
Hogrebe said it’s been difficult to adjust to college life after being so deeply involved in something so different from the university atmosphere.
“It’s hard to go from being surrounded by innovators and people who believe you can change the world to coming back to school and just like seeing people so immersed in college life, like what parties you’re going to go to and all those things. It’s hard,” she said.
Schmalstieg said she admires Hogrebe for making the decision to attend college.
“Once you’ve seen a lot of those things, the last thing you want to do almost is be put back in a classroom,” Schmalstieg said. “It’s just really neat to watch her grow even more through this process and come back to school fully prepared to know exactly what she wants to do and what she wants to get out of an experience like college. I just think people should take her as a role model.”
Hogrebe says she can’t help but want to tell people about Falling Whistles and everything she has learned from being involved with the organization.
“I want to shake it into every single person that there is so much outside of college,” Hogrebe said.
For students who want to help with Falling Whistles’ cause in some way, Hogrebe says the first step is education. She recommends the book “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild for a better understanding of what is happening in the Congo. Students can also go to FallingWhistles.com or The Enough Project to learn more.
“Strive to be an educated advocate,” Hogrebe said. “Read about Congo. Buy a whistle because the money goes to our programs on the ground and helps people.”
Beyond that, she encourages students to get involved in whatever matters most to them.
“Find your passion. Find your Falling Whistles. My passion is Congo and peace in Congo, but its definitely okay if that’s not someone else’s. I’m not saying that you must demand peace in Congo, if you feel strongly about something then you should go out and make noise and make your voice heard, whether its peace in Congo, saving puppies or whatever it is. Find something that makes you feel alive.”