From the students that created the White Rose leaflets during the Holocaust, denouncing the Nazis for their hate and violence, to the students’ movement against apartheid in South Africa, young people have long been at the forefront of the fight against discrimination.
Today, there is an opportunity for the United States Government to pass legislation that would allow strategic and comprehensive responses to genocide and mass atrocities across the globe. Once again, students are at the forefront of advocacy for this legislation: the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act.
The Act was introduced by Senators Ben Cardin, Thom Tillis, and Todd Young in the US Senate and by Representative Brendan Boyle in the House of Representatives. The bill has three aims: (1) establishing a Mass Atrocities Task Force, (2) requiring atrocity prevention training for foreign service officers, and (3) institutionalizing the complex crises fund.
The Mass Atrocities Task Force would be a high-level interagency group with representation from the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Treasury. Tasked with conveying information and policy recommendations based on assessments of global risk and prevention options to the Secretary of State, the Mass Atrocities Task Force would become essential to the US’s ability to mitigate genocide and mass atrocities across the globe. Furthermore, the institutionalization of the Complex Crises Fund would allow USAID and the Department of State the financial resources to respond to areas at risk of genocide and mass atrocities outside of traditional budgeting cycles.
In celebration of Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Month in the United States, Words in the Bucket talked with Savannah Wooten, the student director of STAND: the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, to learn more about youth advocacy against genocide and mass atrocities and student leadership in support of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act.
Why do students get involved with conflict prevention advocacy?
Many of the students learn about historical atrocities like the Holocaust or Rwanda in school and feel compelled to act when they learn that atrocity crimes are still taking place today. Some of them follow the news closely or feel moved by reports coming out of Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, Burma, and beyond. Some have personal connections to refugee or diaspora communities in their hometown. There’s a myriad of reasons students get involved … we welcome anyone who is interested in engaging with open arms.
In what ways have students been involved in advocacy around the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act?
Students have been advocating for the legislation for the last three years. Our students have lobbied their legislators in both DC and their home districts, have written targeted op-eds encouraging their Congresspeople to co-sponsor, and have organized social media campaigns in support of both iterations of the bill (the bill was initially introduced in 2015, and then reintroduced in the current congress). Each semester, the STAND leadership team has the opportunity to choose new campaigns and priorities, and they consistently choose to double down and continue pressuring for the Act. Our team views it as one of the most significant structural policy changes we can advocate for.
In what ways does STAND support student activists?
Part of STAND’s mission is to train and prepare our student leaders to be social changemakers. During their time at STAND, we train them to advocate for civilian protection and human rights in our conflict zones. While we hope they continue to champion this cause beyond their involvement with us, our ultimate wish is that they leave STAND equipped with the skills to advocate for any progress they’d like to see in the world. We host conferences with trainings, write weekly updates explaining nuanced policy or conflict dynamics, and provide students with campaign ideas to implement during their time in high school and college campuses across the country. We connect them with policy experts and mentors in Washington DC, suggest daily actions they can take in their own communities to support affected populations, and encourage them to engage with the world with an attitude of ‘What can we make better?’
What tactics does STAND use to encourage students to be involved?
First and foremost, we make it fun! If you didn’t know any better, you would likely assume that working on genocide and atrocity prevention initiatives is disheartening and unbearably somber. While we take our work seriously and constantly grieve for affected communities worldwide, we also want students to remember that taking action to protect others is empowering, necessary, and altogether positive work. We treat our student teams like family, attempt to give them all of the tools they need to make their own decisions (less top-down commands and more flexibility to design events that work for their own communities), and focus on the positive advancements being made in this arena each year. We also meet them where they are at, in terms of advocacy skills, working to build up their knowledge base and competencies each year so that they are both giving and gaining.
How do you think students play a unique role in advocacy efforts at the federal level?
Students are a distinct and driving force in federal advocacy. Visits from students are less common on Capitol Hill and students who involve themselves in this type of work early stand out. A common misconception about students is that we are preoccupied, self-centered, and/or disconnected from overarching policy issues. That couldn’t be more false. Students have often been (and will continue to be) at the frontlines of social change. As students, we spend our days learning about the world and its brokenness. With that new knowledge comes anger and hope. We choose to channel that energy into action.
Legislators receive youth meetings with piqued interest. They fear student groups who are activated against them and are altogether more responsive and reactive to the types of organizing we put together.
Students are well-equipped with expansive social media networks and know how to employ them to create political pressure. They use hashtags, image campaigns, and viral content to amplify messages in an unprecedented way.
As GAPA was introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives, STAND received special attention. During his allotted time, Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) said “I first met student leaders of STAND in 2005 and 2006 when they were part of the national movement that brought the genocide happening in Darfur, Sudan to public awareness. They were my teachers at that time. Tonight, representatives of STAND are here listening to this debate. They push us to do better, and I thank them for their commitment and their vision.”
STAND has students in 20+ US states, who have met with their representatives to encourage atrocity prevention initiatives and legislation. We make up a next-generation constituency and lend energy and zeal to more traditional advocacy networks in Washington.
We have access to different demographics, audiences, and can amplify these issues in creative ways! We learn so much from our partners and aim to add energy, numbers, and support to the movement.