04/03/2009 06:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mr. Kearns - A Legacy of Courage

We're currently on the plane to Amsterdam. Dav is to my left wrapped up in his hoodie with a pillow to the window. Jon is to my right watching LOST and making angry hand motions at his computer screen. He gets really into his tv. We're en route to the Democratic Republic of Congo and I'm stuck in the middle seat because I was sending last minute emails in the LAX terminal and well...the guys thought my skinny butt would best fit between them.

The movie playing on the public screen is A Flash of Genius. It's a simple movie, without special effects, graphics or flashy editing. To be honest, unless we were stuck in this tube, I probably wouldn't give the story a second glance. But since we're here I might as well watch.

It's a movie about a man named Mr. Kearns who originally invented the automatic windshield wiper. He then brought his invention to Ford Motor Company, the biggest player in the game at that point. They loved the invention, promised to buy it even. And then they stole it.

The deal gone bad sunk his family financially and he decided to see a small wrong righted. He began speaking to anyone who would listen and telling them that Ford, the beautifully branded, job-providing behemoth of a company had stole. The community who was employed by Ford immediately turned against Mr. Kearns and told him to shut his mouth and give in to the powers that be. "You can't beat Ford" they said. They've got too much power, too much money, too much influence. They'll win, everytime.

As Mr. Kearns began to buckle under the pressure two things happened. One was that his wife left him and took the kids with her. She couldn't handle his single minded pursuit and unwillingness to compromise his convictions. The other was that he began to receive letters from other inventors from all over the country. "Don't stop," they said. "You're not alone."

Mr. Kearns began to see that his wasn't an isolated incident. This was one part of a much, much larger story - a story of exploitation of the weak. This is a story as old as man.

The last time I went to DR Congo, I went out into the rebel Mai-Mai territory and found a hospital with bullet holes in it and without the medicine to care for the patients. It was the first day of the American led cease-fire. That same day, near the hospital, 18 women and children were shot in the back running from rebel fire. They were running away from oppression and toward something better. Freedom.

That night I journaled, "We who wish peace in the world cannot cower from power. It is our burden to earn it, and with it, honor the helpless."

And watching Mr. Kearns on this grainy airplane screen, I remember that day with new clarity. We cannot be afraid. We must speak up however we can, whenever we can. Our silence is compliance.

Ford came to Mr. Kearns and offered him a few hundred thousand dollars. Broke and alone, he asked - will you admit to what you did?

After losing his wife and children he was admitted into a mental hospital. He came back broken but resolved to fight. Over the course of 12 years he lost his job, his money, his credibility, and nearly every friend he had. Left with nothing else, he continued to fight.

Ford then came to him and offered a $1,000,000. Surviving on unemployment he stared "the negotiator" in the eyes and said, "this isn't about me." To him, this was about every inventor who had been taken advantage of by those more powerful. This was about the small people - as Harvey Milk put it, "it's about the Us's".

Without a lawyer willing to take his case to court, Mr. Kearns represented himself. Out-trained and out-funded, he taught himself law and made his stand. The night before the jury decided their verdict, Ford came to his hotel and offered him $30,000,000. Turning to his kids, he asked what they thought. His daughter looked defiantly at the negotiator -"Don't do it Dad."

The next day both sides had their moment to make their case. In the end Mr. Kearns implored the jury - I'm asking you to use your common sense. Do what is right.

We've spent the past year asking people around the country to do the same. But this time the issue is not an inventor's credibility or patent. This time the issue is millions of peoples lives. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Human beings dying. Needlessly.

For the past year I've seen a growing coalition of people step into the same legacy Mr. Kearns stepped into and say that no matter what the cost, they want this changed. The legacy is one of courage and it's among the few ways change has ever come to pass. Whistleblowing. Speaking up time and time again until, finally, the tides turn.

We're walking into DR Congo to get some answers. 5,000,000 people dead and everyone we've spoken with says the war could have the knees cut out from under it. We want to know how. We'll keep speaking up until those in power finally listen. Will you?

At the end of 12 years, Mr. Kearns sat in the courtroom and awaited the jury's response. He had given everything up to fight against a system that gave little to those without money, power or influence. In a tense moment the jury stood up and definitively decided that Ford had in fact stolen. He won over $10,000,000 that day, but the victory was not his alone - it was a win for all independents, everywhere. He took the power from those who thought they could walk over whoever they wished and gave it back to it's rightful place. The Us's.

I don't know what it's going to take to bring what every ordinary Congolese person wants - peace. But I'm certain that if we give up before they have a voice of their own, we'll have betrayed our greatest legacy and left a forgotten people to the whims of those who believe they can walk over whoever they wish.

You and me, me and we, we the free face a historic choice. Men, women, boys and girls are all walking toward a dream we call common. Life, liberty and justice for all. Will we be by their side?

I suppose I'm writing to recruit you. DR Congo is home to 70% of the worlds rapes and thousands of child soldiers. We're told it's possible to stop the cycle of violence and bring peace. All we need are more Mr. Kearns.

Make their weapon your voice

****Please feel free to pass this on to anyone and everyone. You are the reason this campaign exists.****
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