Surely most Gustavus students have heard the word genocide, but not all students know that genocide is occurring at this moment in the Darfur region of Sudan. Despite the attention given to Darfur by such events as the Building Bridges conference last year, the Camp Darfur tent this fall and the Wallenberg lecture on Nov. 13, many members of the Gustavus community remain unaware of the terrible atrocities being committed in Sudan. But some Gustavus students are working hard to get the word out.
Professor of Religion Thia Cooper’s Faith, Religion and Culture class was assigned the task of working with students at St. Peter High School to advocate issues of genocide. According to the course syllabus, “Faith, religion and culture do not exist in a vacuum. To understand them we need to see how the issues affect our lives on a daily basis. To that end, service in the community is part of this course.”
Cooper’s students have formed groups to design projects which directly involve high school students in various activities related to genocide awareness.
“My 10:30 [a.m.] class is doing everything from a PSA (Public Service Announcement) on the radio to advertising for the day, to selling buttons, to circulating petitions to send to the President-elect,” said Cooper. “Part of what the class needs to do is wrestle with the questions: Who is human? Who is my neighbor? And then, how should I treat my neighbor? These questions then translate into how we approach the situation in Darfur.”
Sophomore student Clayton Schnell is part of a group that designed a unique project to spread awareness. “We’re doing a Dive dance on Dec. 5, 2008. The dance will be put on for high school [kids], but anyone is welcome to come. Outside the doors, we’ll have some people selling t-shirts and bracelets. We’re going to try and create some kind of capital to fund an organization that we can donate to. We’re trying to spread the word about genocide, which is an ongoing problem that for some reason will not stop,” said Schnell.
Mark Hanis, this year’s Wallenberg lecturer and founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, spoke to the Gustavus community last Thursday about raising awareness.
“The key thing about awareness is that it has to be actionable. Information is not power; actionable information is power. Because when people hear about what is happening in Darfur, they say, ‘That sucks,’ and move on. So awareness is only good if it translates into action,” said Hanis. Pressuring lawmakers and divesting in companies that help finance the Sudanese government were suggestions Hanis made to take action.
Although Hanis was well received, some Gustavus students remain skeptical about the effectiveness of raising awareness. Junior Political Science and History Major Dan Couillard takes issue with the use of large amounts of school money to bring in speakers for the sole purpose of raising awareness.
“Although myself and many of my classmates have become aware of the situation in Darfur, we have done little to help end the problem, and I am sure I am not alone in this regard. How many people will truly be spurred to act after becoming aware?” said Couillard.
“It is simply a massive waste of resources to pay multiple thousands of dollars to bring in large-scale speakers and presentations in order to raise awareness, because the awareness these advocacy groups bring is not coupled with meaningful action. So raise all the awareness you want, but don’t be surprised when all the money spent on advocacy does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the innocent children of Sudan,” said Couillard.
The debate over the effectiveness of raising awareness will remain up in the air. However, many students involved in these awareness-raising groups believe that the first step in solving any problem is to be aware of the problem.