On the weekend of November 4-6, Ashley Causey ’14, Tirzah Brown ’14, Keturah Thomas ’13, and I all lugged our (overly-packed) luggage and our Oglethorpian minds up to Charlotte, N.C. for the 2011 Amnesty International Southern Regional Conference. Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million people, in more than 150 countries, who fight injustices and advocate for human rights all around the world.
The organization uses a three-prong strategy to fight for human rights: (1) public education, (2) state work, and (3) case work. The vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights preserved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are rights that are often denied more than we realize. Some of the issues that Amnesty advocates for include, but are not limited to LGBTQ rights, the abolition of the death penalty, human trafficking, environmental issues, torture in Guantanamo Bay, controlling arms, immigration rights, and issues in Syria, China, Nicaragua, the Middle East, and North Africa, just to name a few.
With multiple workshops to choose from, Ashley, Tirzah, Keturah and I thrived off of the abundant information that was presented in each workshop. We all decided it was best to attend workshops that presented on issues we knew little about, which proved to be a successful learning experience. This conference was a life (and mind)-changing experience for me. This experience gave me that “boost” of motivation that I so greatly needed to start advocating and educating people on the many injustices that engulf society every day.
Out of all of the workshops and events that I attended, (including the Troy Davis Vigil and plenaries on human trafficking, queer liberation, undocumented youth, and more), the Closing Brunch Plenary impacted me the most. During brunch on the last day of the conference, two advocates against the death penalty spoke about their own personal experiences with the criminal justice system, and why and how we can make an impact against the injustices that violate human rights everywhere. Troy Davis’s nephew, De’Jaun Correia, only 17 years old, spoke about the execution of his uncle and how it impacted him. He was recently named one of the Top 25 Youth that will change the world. Rais Bhuiyan also spoke. He is a Bangladeshi American who was shot by Mark Stroman, who told police that he was “hunting Arabs” after the attacks on 9/11. Rais was saved from brain damage, but lost sight in one eye. He appealed to save Stroman from the death penalty.
These two speakers had a huge impact on me and really made me realize what we, as an organization, are really fighting for. We’re not fighting to change institutions, or even to change people’s minds about the most effective form of punishment, we are really fighting to eliminate hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
During Alternative Winter Break in New Orleans this past January, I learned to live life simply so that others may simply live.
Our group of 23 Oglethorpe students and staff members traveled down to New Orleans for a week-long service trip. We built a house through Habitat for Humanity for a family who had lost their home during Hurricane Katrina. Not only did we help to improve a community that was in great need, but we also learned new skills, met life-long friends, and got to hear touching stories from people in New Orleans who had been through this catastrophic event.
Throughout the week, I learned the true definition of teamwork, but I also learned how to see the world through another person’s eyes. While in New Orleans, we saw people on a daily basis on the streets begging for food. Seeing these struggling individuals gave me the most helpless feeling in the world. But, when we were building a house for that family, I saw the smile on their faces, and that feeling was indescribable. I felt that, although I couldn’t, and still can’t, help every single individual in the world at once, at least I can contribute positively to a few at a time.
I feel that every single student at Oglethorpe – no matter what color, orientation, major, interests, skills sets, or personality should attend an Alternative Winter Break with the Center for Civic Engagement. This year will be an incredible opportunity for students as we head to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to work on disaster relief. Throughout the week, we will help to rebuild a low-income housing community that was completely destroyed by the tornados in April. Residents were forced to move in with families or onto the streets because the only homeless shelter in Tuscaloosa was blown away by the tornados.
I think that the first step in our development as humanitarians is a capacity for compassion permanence—a courageous and generous capacity to remember the needs of an unjust world even when they are out of our immediate sight. I think to myself sometimes: what is the core of my being, what can I really do?? I continue to find through experiences such as Alternative Winter Break that the core of my being is to live as if I have received nothing, but given everything, as if each breath is my last, as if each word can make an impact, as if each hand and smile can change the world.
And I learned this on my experience on Alternative Winter Break. You will too, just try it. What do you really have to lose?
If you are motivated to go and make a change, then start filling out the application, which is available on PetrelNet and in the Center for Civic Engagement. Applications are due to the Center for Civic Engagement this Friday, November 18 at 5:00 p.m.