MONDAY, APRIL 28, 2014
The month of April always challenges me. It is the month of my birth, reminding me of the passing years. I tend to reflect upon what I’ve accomplished and how much more there is to do to combat injustice wherever we find it.
This April has been particularly hard as the world recognizes the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Just as my parents remember where they were when JFK was shot, I know where I was as the Rwandan catastrophe unfolded; I was a young teacher at Glenbrook South High School. As the news slowly spread, my students asked about Rwanda, the people, the cause of the conflict, and what I thought would happen. We all struggled to wrap our minds around the tragedy. Why wasn’t the US taking action? What could we do? By the time my seniors graduated that spring, hundreds of thousands had lost their lives.
Sometime later, I was at a conference where the question of US inaction in Rwanda was explored. Some individuals blamed the government for failing to act, others argued that we had no national interest and appropriately stayed out of the conflict. Those debates continue to this day; I ask my students to wrestle with this challenge from time to time.
However, a comment made during the conference struck me more powerfully than the discussion over national interest. Someone (I believe it was a former US Senator) suggested that there was little outcry for action from the public at large. There was no outpouring of concern emerging from the people. No phone calls. No letters. No public protest. No demand for action. The comment wasn’t made to excuse the government’s inaction, but to remind us of our power to influence those that govern in our name. What would have happened if I, in conjunction with my students, joined by people across the country, had simultaneously demanded that the US step in and stop the genocide? What if?
That one comment remains with me to this day. It informed my thinking when I joined with students at GBS to create our STAND Against Genocide organization, dedicated to stopping the genocide in Darfur. We didn’t wait to see if the government would act, we took up the mantle of the Darfurians ourselves. At first, STAND included the voices of myself and two students, Max and Robbie. By the end of the year nearly 50 students joined us to speak out against genocide. Over the past eight years, we’ve raised over $25,000 for schools and supplies in Darfur and have reached thousands of students with our message. I say this not to brag, but to show what is possible when people choose to act.
Over the past several years, my students broadened the scope of the organization. We’ve changed our name to STAND for PEACE. We attempt to shine a light on the needs of refugees in Syria, demand a stop to human trafficking in Cambodia, call for the education of young women globally, while continuing to promote peace in Sudan. We seek to make a difference, to make the world a better place.
April is a month of challenge, but also of hope. On April 26, 1994, South Africa’s first multi-racial election was held. People stood in line for days to cast their vote, to influence their future, to make their voices heard. Again, I know where I was on this day – a young teacher in class, teaching my students the call and response of “Amandla, awetu.” Power to the People.
As painful as April can be, it reminds me of the importance of my voice, and the hope in my heart.
Posted by Matt Whipple | STAND for Peace Founder and teacher at Glenbrook South High School
On April 24, 2014, Matt received the Museum’s 2014 Power of One Award during a special program, Rwanda in the Aftermath of Genocide: A Twenty Year Perspective. Matt received the award for his dedication to raising awareness about genocide and human rights abuses amongst his students and community through his work as a high school teacher and activist. Matthew has inspired hundreds of students year after year to lead action projects that speak out against human rights issues. Through his diligent efforts, Matthew has shown the power of one person to make a difference in the lives of many.
Photos | Ron Gould Studios/Chicago