Merrimack students inspired to help Darfur victims

NORTH ANDOVER -- A group of students from Merrimack College is working to remind their peers, their school administrators and the nation’s leaders of their responsibility as members of a global community by making sure that they do not lose sight of the on-going humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

“We have a responsibility to protect other members of the global community who suffer from corrupt governments and institutions,” said student Sean Wittbold.

Wittbold is one of a group of students who worked on a class project to hold a Day for Darfur on campus as part of Associate Professor of Religious and Theological Studies Mark Allman’s course on Christian and Social Ethics last semester.

Through his service-learning course structure, combining both traditional research and components of activism, Allman taught his students about contemporary social justice issues and their Catholic moral responsibility to enact change and help those who are suffering and in need.

“The idea is that they have to do some kind of advocacy, which means they have to do something, and students have found that standing in the campus center with a table and poster board doesn’t really do anything,” said Allman.

Together, they drafted a petition letter to the College’s Board of Trustees, asking the Investment Committee to join 59 other colleges that have already divested from any holdings of foreign-owned companies operating in Sudan.

According to the list of “highest offending companies” published by the Genocide Intervention Network’s Sudan Divestment Task Force, Chinese and Malaysian oil companies, like PetroChina and Petronas, have been found to be the Sudanese government’s primary source of funds for the genocide in Darfur.

Additionally, some of the students participating in the project sent a petition to then President-elect Barack Obama asking him to make the Darfur genocide a priority concern for his administration during the first 100 days of taking office. They also asked that he publish a comprehensive plan to end the genocide and put it into substantive action.

In addition to the petitions, students wrote letters to their home states’ elected officials, local newspapers and the Chief Executive Officers of companies found to be the largest share-holders of offending companies.

“I feel as though there is much more that can be done to allow our country to help end the genocide in Darfur,” said Courtney DeSisto, a student who participated in the project.

“Approaching our leaders is an important step toward making this possible and I really hope our group was successful in reaching them,” she said.

Recalling Allman’s frequent quoting of “Spiderman” -- “With great power, comes great responsibility” -- Wittbold communicates the importance that his generation voice its concerns to those who hold political office.

“We are a global community and our interdependence on one another has increased dramatically over the years. My generation is young; we’re the new blood that is going to be able to voice our concerns. They will listen because we’re the ones they need to keep happy as we take over for the retiring work force,” he said.

Despite having completed the course in December, some of the students returned to campus on Jan. 12 to schedule a meeting with Ronald Champagne, the President of Merrimack College, to push forward their petition to the Board of Trustees to divest.

“I believe our efforts thus far have been successful; but there’s a long way to go in achieving our desired end. As for the Merrimack College Board of Trustees, they have acknowledged our requests but they have not yet fulfilled them,” said Wittbold.

Champagne, in a written statement to The Pilot, expressed his excitement for the student’s work and his undivided support for their cause.

“This group of students is living the mission of Merrimack College to empower lives and promote justice and peace. I couldn’t be more proud of the continuous effort and passion they are pouring into fighting injustice in Darfur,” he said.

“The Board of Trustees and I continue to engage in dialogue with the students and fully support the educational, spiritual, and moral core of this project.”

Allman’s students acknowledge that the course fundamentally altered their world-view and incited in them a desire to fight for change in the world.

“It has rearranged and defined my hopes of how, not only I, but our country, should aim to contribute to the world,” said Lyndsie Andrade, a participant in the project.

“Raising awareness like we did on campus is the first step toward letting people know what is going on in places like Darfur.”

DeSisto’s experience with the course caused her to change her major from finance to religious and theological studies. She calls this project “one of the best decisions I made as a student.”

“I’ve come to know what an existential experience is because, through simple ways, I’ve been able to expand my horizons and look well beyond my own worries and problems,” she said.

Wittbold echoed a similar experience to DeSisto’s, remarking that while before the course he may have ignored campus activism, he is now compelled to take a second look and be a part of it.

“My world view has certainly been changed as I have come to embrace various teachings in religion a great deal more; especially those of solidarity,” he said.

As their professor, Allman remains a source of support for them but also reminds them that their endeavor is not yet over. “For me, as a teacher of ethics and advocacy, I have never seen a social justice issue addressed, on any level, and resolved in a matter of weeks,” he said.

“I’ve never had a group, like these students here, who go beyond the course and are still active after its completion. The course is over, and they’re still doing this; which is exciting,” said Allman.