Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. On the morning of July 26th, two members of STAND and a U.S. Major entered Oklahoma Senator Inhofe’s office. I caught up with them after the meeting, and Jenn Polish’s adrenaline rush was vigorous, her energy infectious. “It’s interesting, honestly, because it was a really good exchange of views…people have to come to conclusions in their own time, their own space. That’s what social change is.”
Meaningful change often happens slowly, over a period of time–through conversations and, sometimes, confrontations. I couldn’t help but think of Jenn’s meeting as a symbolic indicator of the significant progress we have made. Here stood two citizens who have faced injustice in their own lives, fighting for those suffering a world away, exchanging views with a man who had served his country’s military and continued to do so through public service.
But maybe it wasn’t symbolic. Perhaps, that morning, two American students simply walked onto the Hill to meet with a Senator’s legislative assistant, and the assistant did his daily job and met with his boss’ constituents. Nevertheless, it speaks magnitudes about America and our democratic process. Since elementary school, we’ve been taught about our forefathers and America’s founding principles of democracy, individual rights, and freedom of speech. In fact, in Canada or England, freedom of speech falls short of being absolute, for hate speech (any communication which disparages a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race or sexual orientation) is prohibited. America has the most resolute preservation of freedom of speech, allowing all expressions as long as it does not present “immediate, imminent lawless action” as ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969. Our constitution demands that we express our beliefs, and we should demand it ourselves.
In America, every citizen has a voice. In today’s interconnected world, individuals and organizations — not just countries — play a defining role in international affairs, and the State Department has been taking initiatives to capitalize on these new possibilities. Take, for example, the “Engaging the Community on Foreign Affairs” Facebook page. STAND members voiced their concerns about the Obama administration’s inaction on Sudan,
“Mr. President: Millions of lives – and your legacy – are on the line. Your personal leadership is needed now to prevent a return to war in Sudan…your administration must respond with a policy that is coherent, strategic, and unified. With the lives of millions potentially hanging in the balance, now is the time for your personal leadership on this issue.”
Genocide prevention activists aren’t the only ones utilizing new social media. In response to STAND members’ posts, someone named Gil Donovan cheekily posted on STAND’s Facebook page,
"Mr. President: Millions of lives – and your legacy – are on the line. Your CONTINUED leadership is needed IN THE USA now to prevent a war AMONGST OUR OWN PEOPLE. People in THIS COUNTRY are starving. Thank you."
I agree with Mr. Donovan. Millions of lives are on the line, and the President’s continued leadership is, indeed, needed here at home. Though I’m pretty sure that my neighbors are not arming themselves for the Civil War of 2010, we do face fights of our own. We struggle with immigration reform; economic disparity; religion (c’mon New York), LGBT rights; pro-life vs. pro-choice; health care; unemployment; resource depletion; cost of education. These issues plague our country and need not only attention, but action. No matter the issue or what box we check when we vote, as citizens, we do our best to do, as rapper and activist Omekongo would say, "what we can, when we can, where we can," in every way we can. Through dialogue and civic engagement, we empower ourselves and our communities. We make our own voices louder and hold those in power accountable. Some of us make the choice to amplify others’ voices. Fortunately, helping others and helping ourselves are not mutually exclusive.
The United States government has the structural capacity to effectively address multiple issues. Most Americans think that the U.S. spends between 15-20% on foreign affairs. The truth? Less than 1.4% of the national budget is allocated to international affairs. Significantly, Mr. Gates, the United States defense secretary, has been the most eloquent advocate in government for balance in financing. According to Nicholas Kristof’s latest article, “Gates has noted that the military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats.” Furthermore, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The United States clearly resources its Defense Department sufficiently, demonstrated by its astronomical growth. Addressing the most traumatic violations of human rights does not come at the cost of our own interests. The U.S. can engage in more than one issue at a time.
It is absurd to say that one has to "choose" a cause to fight for. Case in point: Jenn Polish, a vigilant anti-genocide activist, additionally spends several hours a week educating her community about HIV prevention. Her STAND chapter, in additional to their advocacy on international issues, provides a food pantry for the local community. Furthermore, they will be working with Generation Citizen, a community-based organization that looks to expand democratic participation among low-income youth. Generation Citizen was created by Scott Warren, former STAND Student Director. Jenn and Scott connected at STAND Camp. When a person fights against injustice abroad, it does not automatically mean that they are against justice here, in the same way that when a medical student decides to become a veterinarian, it by no means implies that they value a pet’s life over a human’s. Support for one does not mean a lack of support for the other.
So, as I was saying, "a lesbian, a black girl, and a U.S. army major walk into a room." Ready for the punch line? There isn’t one. What’s more important is what happened before and what happens after.
When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech in front of 200,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he shared his dream. When Harvey Milk was elected to the Supervisory Board of San Francisco, he gave hope. These big moments were, irrefutably, significant. But these historical moments are only powerful due to the way they impacted their communities. These defining moments moved a group of people to meaningful action. This is what we, equally in our roles as movement-builders, and as individual, engaged citizens, have committed ourselves to.
Because change takes time. After all, America elected a half-black President less than two years ago. Harvey Milk’s hope became more of a reality only last Wednesday. The Jewish Holocaust ended in 1945, Bush jotted “Not on my watch!” in the margins of a report on the Clinton administration’s inaction to Rwanda in 2001, and as a candidate in 2007, Obama promised that his "conscience cannot rest" until the “genocide” in Darfur is stopped. Yet genocide, child soldier recruitment, and the use of rape as a tool of war occur as I edit this piece, and, as you read it.
We’ve got a long way to go. But, we are taking those challenging steps in order to bridge the gap between the world we have and the world we want. Thousands of students across the country are taking a STAND in their schools and communities, and more people join us everyday. A couple of weeks ago, at STAND Camp, over seventy STAND leaders got together in Maryland to learn the tools for effective organizing, advocacy, new media, and campaigns. I joined the movement because I wanted to take a step out of myself and do something. I’ve stayed because of the friends I’ve met that have made that same decision. We are building a community, bolstering our passion with concrete skills and working towards results-oriented action. We are building the first permanent anti-genocide constituency. And we’re here to stay. Together, we are taking a stand to preserve, first and foremost, the most basic human right: the right to life. Because without life, there comes no Liberty, or Happiness, or Property. And, because we made a promise. And we made it to each other. We’re acting together to ensure that the President keeps his, too.
Join us and take action now.