“Not On My Watch”

September 20th, 2006

Students battle genocide and complacency

By Chelsea Theis
I used to think change was a bad thing. Then I went away to college, leaving two friends whose lives revolved around sports and video games and came home to find them wanting to make a difference in the world. They had been dragged to a protest, and the experience sparked something in them. Now they can’t stop fighting for their idea of a better world.

This summer when they asked me to help them obtain signatures for a petition at a local fair, it was the prospect of fried dough that made me agree. I hadn’t even thought to ask them what cause I was helping with before I was handed a clipboard over the front passenger seat. A stack of postcards forced the clip open to its widest point. They read:

Dear President Bush,
During your first year in the White House, you wrote in the margins of a report on the Rwandan genocide, ‘Not on my watch.’ I urge you to live up to those words by using the power of your office to support a stronger multi-national force to protect the civilians of Darfur.

Stopping the genocide in Darfur was a noble cause for my jock-turned-political activist friends to adopt. They had been the ones to make me aware of the horrific mass killing of Sudanese people, an important issue that many people still don’t know much about.

This was made quite clear once I started asking for signatures. Sure, I’m from a slightly back water type of place, but there are enough liberal-minded people here willing to tell ol’ Bush what’s up. At least enough compassionate ones. Or so I thought.

It was a lot more trouble to get people to sign than I had imagined. Oddly enough, I wasn’t having trouble with the adults, it was with the kids from my generation. I walked up to one group, and a “No!” was blasted at me before I even opened my mouth. For some reason, I thought opening my mouth would help. You won’t be contacted further. You don’t have to provide a mailing address or e-mail. You don’t even have to pay for postage. What I was literally pleading for seemed so simple. Sign a name, possibly help save a few lives. No. No. No. That’s all I kept hearing. The response from the people of our generation was quite appalling, especially when signing carried no further responsibility.

The postcards we were trying to get signatures for had to do with the Save Darfur Coalition project, Million Voices For Darfur. Launched in January, the point was to get a million postcards signed to send to President Bush to urge him to use his full power of office to support a stronger multinational force that would intervene to help protect Sudanese civilians. Since February 2003, the genocide has taken over 400,000 lives, as well as displaced millions who are now completely dependent on humanitarian aid.

The million-signature milestone has been surpassed, with the millionth postcard signed on June 29 by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Senator Hillary Clinton and other members of Congress. Senator Frist said, “The American people have spoken in enormous numbers. They understand that genocide is going on in Sudan.” But how many young people in the U.S. make up those “enormous numbers?” How many really know what’s going on in Sudan? Why is it that mass hysteria can grip us in response to something like “Snakes On A Plane,” but when it comes to an issue that truly needs our attention, the attitude by so many teens is, “Why should I care?”

Senior Kaitlin Hasseler, president of Ithaca College’s chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, says that education is the most important aspect of getting students to care. STAND’s priority is to create awareness about, take political action on and raise funds to relieve the genocide in Darfur. It’s a student movement that is present on over 200 college and high school campuses across the United States, in addition to a national STAND movement in Canada. Students at Georgetown University, where the national office is located, formed the first U.S. STAND chapter in 2004. The National STAND Coalition helps coordinate all U.S. Darfur action in order to increase the impact American students can make on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the situation in Darfur.

Students have been key components in social justice movements throughout history. Many American students brought attention to the apartheid government in South Africa through the use of divestment campaigns and helped bring an end to apartheid. With the genocide in Darfur, American students could once again pressure business and government to take action. Students in the U.S. are lucky enough to not have to be put in direct conflict - this isn’t Tiananmen Square. If students don’t know, are they able to help?

Junior Phil Byers, from Rochester, NY, says that the only reason he knows about Darfur is because there were a few Sudanese people who attended his church back home. “If it’s not in the news, how are we supposed to know about it?” he asks.

Hasseler points out that there has been more media coverage of Darfur lately, which helps promote awareness. However, she connects this boost of media attention to the worsening of the situation there. On August 31, the United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force, but the Sudanese government rejected the proposal. The African Union peacekeeping force, which is small and strapped for cash, may pull out when its mandate ends at the end of this month. In some ways, increased awareness may have come too late.

So what about the people who know and aren’t doing anything? Dean of the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies, Tanya Saunders, says, “I think there are many students who are genuinely concerned but may not know what action will make a meaningful difference.”

This is why STAND is doing what they can to spread the word. “We get a lot of ‘Dar-What? Is that a person? Is that a place?’ It’s important we let people know it exists,” Hasseler says. STAND puts on events throughout the year to spread knowledge of the issue, including the option to donate unused meals from meal plans and coordinating transportation to larger events, such as the Global Day for Darfur: Rally and Concert in New York City on September 17. Almost 40 Ithaca College students attended.

While STAND does encounter student apathy, Hasseler remains optimistic. “I want to think it’s because they don’t know, not because they don’t care,” she says. Small steps can make a big difference, and Hasseler knows it’s about the small victories. STAND hosted a screening of Hotel Rwanda in Textor Hall last year at which they showed footage from Darfur, followed by a discussion. It was so heavily attended that there was standing room only. Hasseler says these mass turnouts and the fact that the National STAND Movement is completely student run are inspiring. “To see students so passionate… it gives me hope.” •

Chelsea Theis is a junior journalism major who really, really, REALLY wants you to sign her latest petition. E-mail her about it at [email protected]

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