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Violence in Darfur Inspires Surge In Student Activism

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A08

Lisa Rogoff was an intern at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during the summer when the horrible details about the genocide unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan compelled her to do something.

The 22-year-old Rogoff, a Colgate University graduate whose family lost members in Hitler's extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II, decided it was time to educate U.S. college students about Darfur and, hopefully, spur them into social action. The museum built to bear witness to the Holocaust was the perfect spot from which to launch her effort, she concluded.

George Washington University student Sara Weisman, center, leads members of her school's Students Taking Action Now: Darfur group at a vigil on campus Saturday to raise awareness of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
The Continuing Crisis in Darfur
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
For a Small Girl in Darfur, A Year of Fear and Flight (The Washington Post, Nov 26, 2004)
New Pilgrims, Familiar Dreams (The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2004)
Violence Fractures Cease-Fire In Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
Rebel Attacks Raise Tensions in Darfur (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
In Sudan, a Sense of Abandonment (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)

So with help from the museum's Committee on Conscience, Rogoff invited dozens of college students from the Washington area to the museum in September for a night of learning about Darfur. She hoped to interest a few of them in the cause. The reaction, she said, was overwhelming.

Students at Georgetown University quickly formed an organization called STAND, an acronym for Students Taking Action Now: Darfur. And Rogoff helped counterparts at colleges throughout the country start groups to raise awareness, support relief efforts and lobby policymakers.

Now, Rogoff said, 35 campuses have STAND organizations, and thousands of students are spending extracurricular hours learning and educating others about a human disaster happening in Africa a decade after an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994 while the world watched.

"The whole model [of STAND] is an informal classroom," said Nate Wright, 21, a Georgetown junior who helped organize the group. "We do everything we can to learn about the subject, and then we export the knowledge we've gained to other students."

Group members assign themselves research projects -- refugee issues, for example -- and work at tables that provide information about the crisis in Darfur. United Nations officials estimate that the death toll in the western Sudanese province has reached at least 70,000, in a region where rebels have been battling government troops and Arab militiamen for nearly two years.

"I have never seen college students be this active on anything," Rogoff said. "I don't know how they go to class because they do so much."

Speakers are invited to address different aspects of the situation, and STAND members are doing other activities to raise awareness and funds to help with humanitarian relief. These steps include a "luxury fast," in which students were asked to abstain for one night from something they enjoyed, such as buying clothes or going out to dinner, and to donate the money they would have spent to help refugees.

They also write letters to U.S. government officials, urging the Bush administration and Congress to take whatever action is necessary to stop the tragedy.

The activism spurred by Darfur is part of a long tradition of student involvement in social causes in the United States. Although some surveys show that student activism has declined significantly since the 1960s, sociologist Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University, noted that the '60s were the exception. "If you look at the great broad reach of the last century, passivity, apathy, tranquillity and low-level anxiety are the norm," he said.

The situation in Darfur takes its place as an issue on U.S. campuses at a time when much of the energy stirred up over the 2004 presidential election is looking for direction, students say. Researchers on student activism said that humanitarian crises often have special resonance, attracting involvement from people who are normally uninvolved.

"The idea of 'never again' is important," said Julia Kramer, 22, a senior at George Washington University who has helped start a STAND chapter there. It is the first time she has been involved in anything of the sort.

"We said 'never again' after the Holocaust. And then after Rwanda. We have to keep trying to stop it, and the only way you can do that is get educated about it," Kramer said.

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