March 13, 2007

Students React to Darfur Genocide

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When searching Cornell’s web pages for information on “student activism” one gets numerous results: the first mentions Day Hall takeovers in the ’60s organized in protest of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, the second refers to demonstrations in the ’90s over concerns about budget cuts to financial aid programs, and the seventh is a question for Uncle Ezra:

“How is student activism these days?” the question begins. ”Are students still concerned about these issues the way they used to be?”

“It seems … there was more public outcry and movement participation, more of a cause-driven revolution [in the past],” answers Uncle Ezra. “Now small group networking efforts are more prevalent, and there’s more of an attempt to save the world one person at a time.”

If contemporary college students need a cause about which to organize a movement, though, the genocide in Darfur may prove to be that cause.

“The U.N. now calls what is happening in Darfur one of the worst human rights tragedies in modern times. Just last week the 2006 U.S. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices declared that the genocide in Darfur is the world’s gravest human rights abuse,” Prof. Muna Ndulo, law, director of the Institute for African and a board member of Human Rights Watch, stated in an e-mail.

Uncle Ezra stated, “Motivation to solve problems seems less strong at the moment than it did in notable times past.”

Yet, Cornell has a strong history of student activism regarding the genocide in Darfur, a crisis that began in 2003 and continues today.

In the summer of 2005, student and faculty alike went on a 600-mile bike ride called “The Ride Against Genocide”. The trip originated in Ithaca and ended in Ottawa, Canada, with the presentation of a petition to the Canadian government.

Prof. John Weiss, history, the faculty advisor for the Darfur Action Group, Prof. Deborah Hyams, history, a member of the group, and Elvir Camdzic, a Cornell alum and co-founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition, spearheaded the journey.

David Rosthein, a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy and astrophysics at the National Science Foundation, helped organize the ride as a member of the Darfur Action Group when he was still a graduate student.

“The Ride Against Genocide really helped bring some attention to Darfur. At the time, Darfur was really just beginning to emerge as a big issue, and a lot of people didn’t know much about it. I think by having a few committed activists riding through New York and Ontario and giving speeches wherever they went and talking to whoever they met, we spurred some interest,” Rosthein said.

He continues his involvement with Darfur activism as part of Students For Tolerance, Awareness and Remembering Survivors.

“I think the big challenge now is to translate that knowledge and interest people have into further activism,” Rothstein said.

In spring of 2006, the Coalition of Pan-African Scholars, Cornell UNICEF, Big Red Relief Fund and other groups came together to campaign for greater awareness of Children of War and the Darfur Genocide. The COAS intended to mail about 500 postcards, signed by Cornell students and addressed to president Bush, demanding intervention.

Cornell students continue to utilize a variety of resources, in both academia and the arts, to raise awareness about Darfur.

According to Jonathan Ray, a public relations officer for Big Red Relief, its annual concert this spring aims to benefit victims of the conflict in the Sudan. Many student groups will come together for the event, organized in conjunction with the World Food Program.

“In 2007 WFP plans to distribute 682,000 megatons of food to some 5.5 million people, with a total cost of 685 million U.S. dollars,” stated Marian Yun of donor relations for the WFP in a letter.

In the same letter, Yun extended her gratitude to the Cornell community.

“Since more than 70 percent of the WFP beneficiaries targeted reside in Darfur, as Internally Displaced Persons and vulnerable communities, Big Red Relief’s assistance towards the Darfur operation is significant and greatly needed,” she stated.

At the beginning of this academic year, student voices, expressing similar concern for the people of Darfur, were heard by the administration. One of President Skorton’s first acts as head of the University was to announce, in August of 2006, Cornell’s divestment from the Sudan.

Elan Greenberg ‘08, vice president for internal operations of the Student Assembly, and CJ Slicklen ‘07, vice president for public relations of the S.A., drafted an S.A. resolution expressing student support for the administration’s divestment. The resolution was almost unanimously adopted.

“Students often make the assumption that as a somewhat secluded campus stowed safely away from the world, we lose touch with the power, and by extension the responsibility, that comes from being one of the most highly regarded centers of higher education in the world,” Greenberg stated in an e-mail, “[Students] wield incredible power in determining how the University will pursue a variety of issues.”

Slicklen agreed, stating the S.A.’s intention to continue cooperation with the administration.

“We pledged our support to investigate ways in which we might be able to assist the people of Darfur. While we haven’t been called upon to assist the administrators, we stand ready to,” he said.

President David Skorton, in an interview with The Cornell Chronicle shortly after the announcement of divestment, stated in response to the question of further action, “We are focusing now on positive things we can do.”

One of the positive things Skorton mentioned was a student-organized, campus-wide “Darfur Week” to be held this month.

“Darfur Awareness Week”, scheduled from Monday, March 26 to Friday March 30, represents the culmination of years of student efforts encouraging activism on the issue of Darfurian genocide, and also of cooperation amongst various groups of the Cornell community. The list of sponsors includes at least thirteen student groups on campus, several different academic departments and representatives of the administration.

“We have been working to bring in as many students as possible from all different backgrounds because we believe that this issue demands everyone’s attention regardless of their individual traits or beliefs,” said Ray Bai ‘07, president of STARS, one of the main student groups sponsoring the event.

The week promises to be a representation of student activism. It will begin with a candlelight vigil on Ho Plaza, lead by the Cornell chapter of Amnesty International. Throughout the week, photos provided by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. will be projected on the outside of Johnson Museum. Additionally, an exhibit will be shown throughout the week on the Arts Quad.

Bai said that the week’s schedule also includes a town hall discussion with professors, a lecture by John Prendergast, a former policy advisor of Bill Clinton, a screening of “Darfur Diaries” and a discussion with filmmaker Aisha Bain about the refugee situation, and remembrance services.

“We are also planning some philanthropy and political action for the week, such as the New York statewide divestment campaign from Sudan,” he said.

Julie Mao ‘08 is vice president of the Cornell chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy, another group sponsoring events throughout “Darfur Awareness Week”.

Mao expressed her feelings about the role and responsibility of students to speak out about international issues such as the crisis in the Sudan.

“The problem is, how do we get … individuals … to care about a people, a country and events seemingly so far away from home,” she said. “My participation in the Darfur Awareness Week at Cornell has taught me a lot about youth engagement … indifference is pretty rampant on campus. Most of us have heard about Darfur, seen it in the news or newspaper. We need to engage students about current events and ask them to question what is right and wrong, and most importantly, what we can do about it … Governments only move to our voices.”