Post by Gina Del Tito, Dickinson College

The setting was safe: four cozy black chairs against a blue backdrop, the occupants of the chairs themselves comfortably diverse, male/female, black/white. Was it the recipe for the perfect panel?  Moderator Candice Knezevic, RAISE Hope for the Congo’s campaign manager, opened the Working Session on Human Rights, deeming Crimes Against Humanity the issue of a generation and positing that which we had heard before: “How do we ensure that ‘Never Again’ never, happens, again?” But our question for the session sought specificity: “What can we, as young progressive student activists do to prevent crimes against humanity?” Turns out maybe more than we might think.

Adam Sterling started things rolling on a good note describing the nuances of financing atrocities. He spoke of his own personal experiences with divestment campaigns growing the on-the-ground impact of small student organizations and letter writing campaigns into national legislation, in his case the Sudan Accountability Act. His words were perfectly tuned for student activists, a concrete example of awesome work that students at UCLA had done.

Judithe Registre of Women for Women International (WfWI) spoke beautifully about the impact of conflict on women. “My body cannot be the ground upon which you fight this war,” she intoned in her melodic and accented voice. Despite her passion about violence against women as an international issue and inspirational words about rape as a weapon of war, her testimony, while moving was less apt for students who live in the United States and are unable to work directly with victims of gender violence as WfWI does. The women’s empowerment that Registre and her fellows do is stellar motivation and a great aspiration for post-graduate work. But what do we do right now? How can we effect change while still maintaining our status as students, and not flunking out of college?

Jimmie Briggs did not have a lot of answers either. His slightly disdainful air in speaking about his accomplishments was a turn off for me, belittling the incredible work that he was describing. When he saw a distinct lack of a youth component to the movement against gender violence, he began working within the Hip-Hop movement to engage young men to “ManUP,” the name of his organization. He saw a way to use Hip Hop artists and culture as well as the world of sports for advocacy and change.

The panel began to switch gears after these opening statements, beginning to tackle the question of new media for advocacy, a realm where college students are well positioned to be on the forefront, but where the ‘digital divide’ might cause difficulties especially in relation to the developing world. While they talked about using tools for information and networking, Sterling counseled not to discount the value of face-to-face contact. The potential for technology to aid in the creation of a global citizenry must be balanced with its capacity to also dehumanize and alienate us from one another. We cannot let it divide us.

They then began to talk about ‘bringing the issues home.’ While engagement in the issues is important, the key is to make the issues personal. In the words of Candice, “involvement must be a lifestyle choice.”

The unstructured shifts in topic soon led into the question and answer session. Clarifications were made, other topics were drawn in, and as I sat listening, I was once again drawn to the question: what makes a good panel?

Despite my frustrations with certain aspects of the session, I was able to pick out some jewels, and overall, the questions had sparked my own internal thought process. I knew that there were some things that I could not do. I could not sponsor a female victim of violence in the Congo. I knew that I could not organize a summit in South Africa channeling the Hip-Hop movement into a positive inspiration for young men. But I can make Crimes against Humanity a part of my lifestyle. I can make it part of my dialogue with my peers. The problem for students in the United States is not that they think that these atrocities are acceptable, but that when we are sitting in our cozy black chairs, talking about things going on a thousand miles away from anything that we have experienced, it doesn’t seem real.

But if we can bring the issues home, if we can make the fact that people are dying in our own prisons, that discrimination does exist in the U.S. and in the world, and that if we talk about these things, really talk about them and push back, we can change the conversation. And that is something we can and need to do. So what makes a good panel? It must be that it begins that conversation.