The first time I heard Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, speak, she told a personal story that’s remained extremely meaningful for me in considering how to approach my role as an activist. The story had to do with the pitfalls in her relationship with the atrocities that she works to portray; she recounted how, working in Bosnia during the war, she was able to begin to make a name for herself as a journalist. She eventually realized, however, that she was beginning to want to see her stories on the front page more than she wanted to stop the events that she was chronicling, and it was at this point, she told the audience, that she knew she had to quit.
Many of us have probably gone through similar iterations of this what could be called the “activist existentialist crisis”- questioning our motives, questioning our effectiveness, questioning why we think we can advocate for areas of the world that most of us have never even been to.
This kind of thinking can be paralyzing if we let it be, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to dwell on it a little. We often talk about how far STAND as a movement has come, and it’s true- we’ve gone from a smattering of small, independent student groups to a national network coordinating campaigns, building its members’ skill set, and engaging with US policy. We can tell that we’ve progressed because many of us now possess suits, Blackberries, and caffeine addictions, and many of our members can throw around acronyms (FPLA, R2P, ICC…) with the best of ‘em.
Obviously, I’m being a little facetious here- this is not what STAND is about. But the question remains nonetheless, what IS STAND about? Soul-searching as a movement, like as an individual, can be a painful process, but I believe that it’s just as necessary.
I love talking to chapters and hearing about all the important work that they’re doing, but I know that I didn’t get involved with STAND to hold a position called “Great Lakes Regional Outreach Coordinator.” Instead, I remember hearing a speaker from Rwanda who had come to my middle school and being horrified that the events he described had occurred during my lifetime. I remember how upsetting learning about the Holocaust for the first time was in elementary school, and I remember beginning to read newspapers at the same time that they were filled with stories about victims in Kosovo.
I think that many of us have a shared experience in this respect- having lived out our childhoods largely unaware that such terrible things could happen on such a large scale, we became cognizant of the larger world community at the same time that this community was abandoning victims in Rwanda and Bosnia, and we thus became aware at a very young age that this was not the world we wanted to live in.
For me, this is at its core what STAND is about- knowing that this is not the world that we want to live in and truly believing, independent of any particular political philosophy, that it can be otherwise. We’ve begun to articulate a much more concrete version of what it is that we would like the world to look like and to learn the skills necessary to make it so, but I think that staying attuned to the purpose of STAND and staying energized in our work has a lot to do with taking the skills and the nuances that we’ve learned and reconnecting them with the pure, uncomplicated passion that we felt about these issues when we decided to act on them in the first place. That we formed as a movement because a number of small, disconnected groups realized that they had this same passion and were working for the same goals is extremely powerful- we are truly a grassroots movement founded on the shared energy and motivation of people committed to building a better world. I believe that as we expand, improve, regroup, reorganize, grow up, get fed up, and sometimes, yes, become temporarily cynical, STAND, fundamentally, is still about this kind of energy.
-Rebecca Burns, Great Lakes College Regional Outreach Coordinator