What moves us to action?
Last night I attended a powerful program about the genocide currently taking place in Darfur. (Full disclosure: the program was planned by my husband. I was proud.) The speakers – Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, Mark Hanis of the Genocide Intervention Network, and Sifa Nsengimana of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur – gave informative presentations that also focused on specific steps we can take to help end the genocide in Darfur, which has already killed 400,000 people and displaced more than 2,000,000.
In order to inspire action, of course, the presenters drew on what sparked their own passion for this issue and appealed to ways that each of us in the audience might connect with this atrocity, happening so far away, to a people most of us haven’t encountered.
Sifa comes to this work as a refugee from Rwanda who lost 85 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide. For her, this work is personal, and she implored us to see it in personal terms, ending her talk with the direction: “Whatever you would do if this were happening to your family, to your children, get up and do that now.”
Mark, too, was initially motivated by family history: his four grandparents were all survivors of the Holocaust. As a college student reading about Darfur in the paper, this personal legacy of genocide made him ask what he could do to stop the killing.
Gloria was drawn to work in the Sudan during the civil war conflict between north and south, in which southern Sudanese were sold as slaves. She first traveled to Sudan to confront the existence of slavery in the 21st century. While there, it was the stories of Sudanese women that particularly grabbed her, leaving her with the resounding question “Who will be my sister’s keeper?” She returned to Sudan and co-founded a multi-racial women’s collective called My Sister’s Keeper, which supports communities of women in Sudan through schools for girls, by providing grinding mills to ease women’s daily labor, and by funding medical training for Sudanese doctors and nurses. In her work on the crisis in Darfur, Gloria continues to highlight women’s experiences – particularly how rape is used as a strategic weapon to undermine communities. She also emphasized the power of women to make change, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, who said “Women, whether subtly or vociferously, have always been a tremendous power in the destiny of the world.”
Sometimes the enormity of the world’s problems overwhelms and even paralyzes me. Contemplating all of the issues that require our attention often distances me from, rather than draws me to, a solution. This program reminded me that empathy underlies most social change. We’re most committed to and effective on the issues that move us in a personal way, but it is our responsibility to figure out what those issues are, or how we can connect personally with an issue even if it doesn’t immediately resonate with our life experience. There has been much talk in recent months about the imperative for Jews to act on the genocide in Darfur; last night’s program reminded me that we may also feel responsible and moved as women. What motivates you to take action?