Photo: Jeff Trussell/Enough Project
In his latest book, activist John Prendergast looks back on a life-changing friendship.
John Prendergast's social conscience is so highly attuned that even a routine call on his cell can kick it into overdrive. "Our phones contain profitable minerals that are mined in the Congo, where they're often a source of revenue for warring militias," says the D.C.–based activist and best-selling author. "It's just one of the ways we're intimately linked to these faraway places." He works to connect these dots in people's minds as cofounder of the Enough Project, a nonprofit that raises awareness of genocide and crimes against humanity (celebrity partners include George Clooney and Don Cheadle).

Prendergast has written nine books about Africa (the best known is Not on Our Watch, coauthored with Cheadle), but his latest examines a connection forged closer to home. In 1983 he was visiting a friend who worked at a homeless shelter when a beaming 7-year-old resident, Michael Mattocks, bounced into the room to rummage for change in the sofa. "His family was living out of plastic bags," says Prendergast, now 48. "I got it in my head to take him to the library. I had no idea that 30 years later we'd still be close." As recounted in Prendergast and Mattocks's jointly written memoir, Unlikely Brothers, their friendship thrived through years of fishing trips and summer vacations in Philadelphia, but struggled when Prendergast's activism took him overseas just as Mattocks was spiraling into drug dealing, street violence, and arrests in his teens. With the support of a few good influences—among them his "big brother," Prendergast—Mattocks straightened up; now 34, he's a bus driver supporting a family of five sons. "To become a mentor, you don't have to know how to tutor or exactly the right things to say," says Prendergast, whose bond with Mattocks has inspired him to consider starting a family of his own. "You just have to show up and let a kid know, 'You matter to me'."

Activists Making a Difference