The New Activists

by Kristina Brooks

Inspired by classroom ideas and intellectual debate, Scripps students today practice a different kind of activism than the anti-establishment protestors and college activists of the past. What are they doing and what’s making the difference at Scripps?

Bake challah. Run a 5K. Knit a blanket. Stage The Vagina Monologues. Gut a house. Sell grilled-cheese sandwiches. Organize a concert. Take food to a homeless shelter. Write a letter. Ride a bike across the country.

Scripps students acting to raise money or awareness for pressing issues of human rights and social justice blossomed all over campus this year. Unlike the social activism of the 60s, today’s brand is not strictly anti-establishment or anti-government. Young women who have jumped to action on the Scripps campus in 2006 have done so out of a deep intellectual engagement in issues raised in their classrooms or in lectures or films brought to campus. Their goal is to make a positive change, whether through political, economic, or physical efforts. Theirs is an activism that melds theory and practice, and grows out of an understanding of both history and their role in the future. Their deeds are born of the conviction that they can, indeed, make the world a better place.

When Liz Baker ’06 decided to study abroad her junior year, she knew she wanted to go to South Africa. She didn’t know then how greatly her decision would impact some 90 children, orphaned by HIV/AIDS, in Cape Town’s Baphumelele Children’s Home.

Cape Town is both a beautiful and an appalling city. Some of the world’s most stunning beaches co-exist alongside Khayelitsha, South Africa’s largest and perhaps most poverty-stricken shanty town. Immigrants from surrounding impoverished countries have contributed to a thriving gang culture. Attending classes at the University of Cape Town, Liz lived in a dodgy part of the city and was mugged several times.

The dangers, however, did not outweigh the transformative opportunities that Cape Town offered. Liz’s study abroad program provided the option of volunteering at Baphumelele, a non-profit orphanage founded by Rosalia Mashale, a South African woman who began caring for children affected by HIV/AIDS in 1989. By 2006, Rosalia was able to provide a stable home, food, and supervision for90 children ranging in age from newborn to 19.

“The children there have been orphaned by AIDS or have HIV themselves,” relates Liz.”They are often just found on the street. Literally the most horrible things you could imagine have happened to these kids.”

Volunteering at the orphanage was rewarding for Liz and also heart-wrenching. She remembers calling her mother in Santa Barbara, crying over the hardship experienced daily by the kids at Baphumelele. When Liz returned to Scripps in fall 2006, however, she did not leave Baphumelele behind. She shared her experiences with DeEttra Kudera, associate dean of students, who had discussed with students the idea of uniting Scripps women around global issues. In Baphumelele, Liz had the perfect linking organization for Scripps women: the orphanage was stable and established, and Liz’s personal connection with Rosalia Mashale made a partnership realistic.

“When I came back from being abroad,” Liz recalls, “I really wanted to make an impact with at least a few of the children at the orphanage, but I had no clue how to go about it other than just writing a check. Then I realized that Scripps is the perfect place to start something. Scripps women are generous, smart, caring, innovative, and want to make a difference.”

In October 2006, Women of the World (WOW) was created by Scripps students and staff as a collaborative project that would educate the Scripps community about global issues impacting women and provide opportunities for action. They chose the global AIDS crisis as their first focus issue and Baphumelele and the local Foothill AIDS Project (FAP) as their linking organizations. They distributed AIDS Awareness flyers on campus and put together a brochure that detailed the global HIV/AIDS epidemic as well as information about WOW, Baphumelele, and FAP. They co-sponsored two school supply drives to provide materials for local children affected by AIDS, and they helped collect high-protein food for clients at FAP.

But how could they really make a difference for the children at Baphumelele?

“We came up with a simple idea, based on the Challah for Hunger project,” explains Liz, referring to the students who sell challah every Friday to benefit Darfur relief. “We’d sell grilled-cheese sandwiches aoup every Wednesday night from 9:30 to 10:30.”

By the end of the school year,WOW had raised $550 for the local Foothill AIDS Project and the Baphumelele Children’s Home. Having accepted a marketing job with a jeweler in Cape Town, Liz will continue to act as a liaison next year between WOW and the orphanage. She and her mother are also discussing ways to help Rosalia Mashale in her efforts to educate women in the township about AIDS, provide basic healthcare, and increase the orphanage’s self-sufficiency.

Ayesha Chugh ’09 will help spearhead WOW activities next year. “I currently live in India,”Ayesha explains,”where a lot of the population within the lower income bracket is affected by diseases such as polio and even HIV/AIDS. I’m going to look into local organizations in India that I can closely work with over the coming year through WOW.”

Ayesha concludes:”People always do want to help out; you just need to give them that extra push or incentive—such as grilled cheese for a dollar!”

Spending a full semester studying the world’s problems and the challenges of humanitarian efforts sounds both intellectually and emotionally daunting. Yet, 15 Scripps students, nominated by their professors, enrolled as Humanities Institute junior fellows this spring, attending a seminar class and weekly guest lectures and films on “Doing Good in the World: Post-9/11 Challenges and Opportunities.” They delved into such weighty issues as global poverty, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the spread of infectious diseases, nuclear weapons proliferation, environmental deterioration, global climate change, civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and genocide.

“I knew, of course, that problems like poverty existed,” says Rachael Warecki ’08,”but I was ignorant of exactly how complex they were.The films were eye-opening, and…the lecture series provided a chance for discourse on such issues as poverty and women’s rights around the world.”

While some speakers took a pessimistic approach to global problems, Jeffrey Sachs justified the hopes of many of the students in a video conference at Scripps in April. Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and of the UN Millennium Project, Dr. Sachs was also the 2005 recipient of the Sargent Shriver Award for Equal Justice.

“He was the most inspirational,” says Erin Coon ’08, another junior fellow. “His message is,’We can do it; we can end poverty—it’s up to your generation.'”

To promote this optimistic, activist spirit, the course required students to complete an individual research paper and develop group community service projects as well.” Students were actually doing good throughout the semester rather than just discussing it,” Rachael says. Funded in part by Mellon grants, the students dubbed their efforts “Humanities for Humanity.”

Rachael and Hajira Ahmed ’08 joined a group that held “Paint for Pakistan” parties in Seal Court on Friday afternoons, where passersby could paint pictures and purchase their own artwork, with more than $750 in proceeds going to CARE for the Pakistan earthquake relief effort. Another group organized a speaker, film, and discussion about the global campaign to research and distribute microbicides (topical products that prevent AIDS and other STDs) in impoverished countries. A third group collected leftover food from campus dining halls and transported it to a local shelter. They have formed a campus organization to continue this project next year.

Erin relates, “I’ve come to feel that, while I may not be able to do a ton, the baby steps I can take are still important.”

One of Erin’s first baby steps will be her work this summer with the Tucson-based Human Rights Coalition/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders (Derechos Humanos/Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras), which deals with immigrant issues. “I’m really, really excited that Scripps could provide monetary support [through a Summer Internship in Conflict Resolution grant] for something I’m really passionate about and couldn’t otherwise dedicate as much time to.”

Since February 2003, more than 200,000 people have died and two million more have been displaced—most by violent attack—in the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2004, the U.S. Congress unanimously declared the situation in Darfur to be genocide.

In the fall of 2006, Scripps students raised more than $3,600 for African Union peacekeeping forces in Darfur and for continued lobbying efforts to end the crisis in Sudan. They did so by organizing a night of a cappella and improv performances, a 5K run, and a slam poetry event. They did so not to fulfill a course requirement, but to answer to their own consciences. The number of consciousnesses they raised and the number of postcards and letters to governmental representatives that they inspired cannot be tallied.

“I don’t know how any study of genocide can not be depressing,” says Cristina Masurat ’09, a member of the Core II class,”Communities of Hate,” that focuses on case studies of mass hate and genocide and that motivated students to take action for Darfur relief. “But it’s valuable to study in order to be a responsible member of the world community, to discuss what’s going on and what needs to change.”

Amy Marcus-Newhall, associate professor of psychology and associate dean of the faculty, and Nathalie Rachlin, associate professor of French and director of the Humanities Institute, have co-taught “Communities of Hate” since 1998, and noticed a decided increase in student activism among this year’s students.

“Other years, we talked about activism,” relates Marcus- Newhall.”We sold t-shirts; we wrote letters. But never before did students take such a level of ownership and responsibility. I think it was a concurrence of the Humanities Institute’s program—with speakers who urged ‘do something!’—and this particular group of students.”

The movement was brewing throughout the semester, as the 34 members of the class explored case studies of mass hate: the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, and the politics of hate in the United States. But the most pressing issue for most students was the genocide in Darfur, an ongoing crisis that they could either watch unfold or become involved in—if not solving—at least alleviating suffering right now.

Possibly the most transformative hours of the semester were spent in the presence of Mark Hanis, a 24-year-old who began a movement to end genocide in the Darfur region while he was still a student at Swarthmore College. Impelled by his own family’s history (he is the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors), Hanis and another student formed the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net) in 2004 and have raised over $250,000 to date. Their grassroots organization has inspired students on college campuses across the country to urge their schools’ divestment from Sudan and to raise funds and awareness for Darfur relief. In February, Mark Hanis gave a talk at Scripps called “You Can Stop Genocide: Find Out How.”

“His message was ‘educate, advocate, donate,'” recalls Emily Seaman ’09.”Seeing someone who’s basically our age and how much he’s been able to accomplish was a real catalyst.”

Taking up the challenge, Emily and seven other students from the class searched for ways to make a difference.”There were so many ideas bouncing off the walls,” says Skadi von Reis Crooks ’09.” We were really idealistic at first, but eventually narrowed our ideas down to something realistic.”

The result was WaBaCa: a night of festive entertainment featuring the popular 5-C improv group, Without a Box (the “Wa-B” of the event title); three a capella groups from all five colleges (the “a-Ca”), and an intermission fueled by challah French toast sales. Tables with T-shirts and bracelets for sale and postcards to send to congressional representatives helped draw attention to Darfur.

A standing-room-only crowd in Balch Auditorium on April 20 laughed, cheered, and proceeded to spend $1,200 on ticket sales, $200 on merchandise, and a staggering $1,000 on French toast sales to benefit Darfur relief.

Kristina von Hoffmann ’09 imagined another event that would enable her to “educate, advocate, and donate”: “I’d been involved in a slam poetry group in L.A., and I thought it would be a great avenue for people to speak their minds and learn more about Darfur. The idea was to have students perform and listen to their peers express themselves freely in a comfortable environment.”

Kristina booked the Motley Coffeehouse, a D.J., slam poet Judah One, and advertised “Say It!” to the campus community. On March 24, she took the stage and told her audience about the strife in Darfur and how they could get involved in the Million Voices for Darfur campaign to express support for U.S. intervention in the crisis. Judah One performed five original pieces, 10 students came up to the open microphone, and Kristina closed the show with “three original poems, the last of which,’Confidence,’ is a personal proclamation about what it is like to be a confident woman in an age when insecurity reigns.”

Two other confident young women in the “Communities of Hate” class tapped into their passion for running and staged an “I Ran for Sudan” 5K race around the 5-C campuses that raised another $1,200 for Darfur relief.”Running gathers and motivates large groups of people around causes,” explains Ariana Mohr-Felsen ’09.

“Ariana and I both run track,” adds Cristina Masurat.”We were talking as a class about what we can do about the situation in Sudan, and our professors encouraged us to be creative and said they’d support us.When Ariana had the idea of a 5K run, they loved it.”

Ariana and Cristina’s experience with the “Communities of Hate” class has helped direct their future. Ariana will be an intern with the International Rescue Committee in San Francisco this summer, working on rescue and relief projects worldwide.

For Christina, “The class inspired me to get an internship [this summer] with Survivors International, which gives medical, psychological, and legal assistance to refugees seeking amnesty. I’m hoping to design a major along the lines of social justice and action.”

Seven Scripps Students joined a group of 20 other Claremont Colleges students who spent their spring break in New Orleans’ ninth ward. These students did not catch up on their sleep, their TV viewing, or their friends’ gossip. Instead, they donned boots, suits, helmets, goggles, and respirators; they ripped out ruined houses’ tiling, carpet, drywall, appliances, and water-logged debris; they went door-to-door to inform residents about meetings and relief efforts; they heard stories of loss, death, and survival.They returned to Claremont changed women.

“Seeing and smelling New Orleans firsthand, hearing people’s stories—it was a life-changing experience,” says Julia Lum ’09. Along with her roommate, Susannah Kricker ’09, Julia paid for her own plane ticket and embarked on a 12-hour journey when she found that the organized trip’s 25 spots were already filled. “I had no idea of the extent of the destruction. It looked like the hurricane hit yesterday.”

The Claremont Colleges’ contingent forged a connection with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), a grassroots organization of Katrina survivors that coordinated “Katrina on the Ground,” an initiative to organize students nationwide to participate in community-led reconstruction efforts during spring break.

Yael Friedman ’09 explains her commitment,”There was nothing I’d rather do with my spring break than go to New Orleans.”

The students arrived in New Orleans late at night, met organizers at the historic St. Augustine’s parish church, which was founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color and itself sustained $400,000 in hurricane damage.The next day, their labors began.

Despite the students’ initial enthusiasm, the physical devastation was difficult to take in. Houses rested on top of cars, traffic lights did not work, streets were eerily empty.

Three of the Scripps students, with another seven from Harvey Mudd, gutted a house down to its foundations. Although the protective gear made conditions uncomfortable (“I’d never sweated so much in my life,” said one), it was not the eight hours a day of dragging, lifting, and carrying that made the strongest impression. The students experienced an adrenaline rush that made the work, if not easy, at least manageable.

“There were never any complaints,” explains Yael. “If you couldn’t lift something, you lifted harder. We had such a clear sense of purpose.”

“Everyone was so thankful for what we were doing, but, more important, they wanted us to spread the message that people there have been forgotten,” says Susannah. “They need houses, jobs, and schools.”

“The nation became Katrina-ed out,” adds Mary Rose Go ’08,”but the communities [in New Orleans] cannot afford to be. After going on the trip, I became inspired to create an organization [the Student Solidarity Committee] that not only discussed class issues on campus and in society, but that would take political action and get involved outside of the campuses.”

Mary Rose and Tasia Yamamura ’09 spent the week traversing the semi-deserted, upper ninth ward. Their task was to talk to residents and gather their opinions about education, health, the environment, and the April elections. To continue mobilizing residents, Tasia won a Seaver grant to work with the PHRF for the summer.

For the students who spent their spring break in New Orleans, the experience continues to reverberate in their lives. Yael has an apt metaphor for the lessons of Hurricane Katrina: “It wasn’t the hurricane itself or the water that was the worst of it; it was the mold afterward. It’s what happened after the hurricane that is important—the fact that conditions are still so bad. I do believe that if more people knew what was going on down there, they’d be outraged.”

Outraged but not overwhelmed, concerned but not complaining, Scripps students showed the residents of the hurricane-devastated area that they have not been forgotten. In turn, they experienced a “completely earth-shattering, life-changing” week that deepened their commitment to educate themselves and others about injustices that need to be addressed.

There is comfort in the fact that young women like those on the Scripps campus continue to confront difficult issues with compassion and creativity. Through their studies, their exposure to inspirational speakers or provocative films, and their discussions with professors and other students, these students have discovered their own paths to making a positive difference. As Emily Seaman puts it,”You can’t do everything, but there are things you can do.”