January 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 1

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Public Sociology

Sociology translates to public action

This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Johanna Olexy (olexy@asanet.org, 202-383-9005 x312) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

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Genocide—It IS My Problem

by Ellen J. Kennedy, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota

For several years I have taught a sociology course about the genocide in Rwanda. I am also fascinated—and appalled—by the fact that coffee is grown in some of the world’s poorest nations for consumption by people in the richest ones.

Two years ago I met Greg, a coffee importer in Minnesota, who mentioned that he was going to Rwanda. He had invested money in a small coffee cooperative in the Lake Kivu area, where death and destruction had been particularly horrific during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Prior to the genocide, Rwanda’s economy was almost entirely dependent on coffee and its economic decline in the early 1990s was an important factor contributing to the genocide.

Although I had been teaching about Rwanda for a while, I had never been there. My combined interests in the genocide and coffee were too much for me to resist; I asked Greg if I could join him on the trip. He said yes, so I spent two weeks in Rwanda in the summer of 2005, which changed my life.

A student from Rwanda’s national university accompanied us as our translator. Alice is the same age as my daughter Louisa. Alice and Louisa are a lot alike: they both love studying other languages, they like school, and they enjoy travel. That is where their similarities end.

Alice is Rwandan. One day in 1994, Alice’s mother sent her to the next village on an errand. When Alice returned, she discovered the mutilated bodies of her mother and father, her grandparents, her 12-year-old sister, and her 9-year old brother. At the age of 14 she became, quite literally, all alone in the world.

One day Alice and I went to a memorial for those who had lost their lives in the genocide. Behind the memorial was a Quonset hut. I walked in and saw a single room with a large table. The table was covered with skulls with machete marks. These were victims’ remains that had been found in the nearby forest and had not yet been properly buried.

The rawness of the brutality that had occurred, and Alice’s presence as testament to that loss, completely engulfed me and I broke down. Alice gently put her arms around me and quietly said, "You don’t have to look at this. This isn’t your problem. This is our problem." Her words haunted me for months.

Alice asked me to tell her story when I came home; she said it was the only way she could feel that her family didn’t die in vain. I passed her story on through talks about the Rwandan genocide at Rotary clubs, synagogue groups, university classes, and people would listen. I continued to teach about that genocide in my sociology classes.

Turning Teaching into Action

One day, Ina, a student, approached me after class. We had just finished reading Philip Gourevitch’s brutal account of Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. I had shown pictures from my trip and had talked about Alice. The class also had a service-learning partnership with a school for immigrants and refugees, many who had fled from similar atrocities in their countries of origin.

Ina asked me, "What are we going to do about this?" Her question troubled me greatly. I had no reply. I honestly thought I was doing something: teaching and educating about genocide—in my classes and in the broader community—and encouraging people to learn more about the world and to become better global citizens.

Ina’s question suggested two things. First, education alone was not enough. And second, she expected that I’d have an answer. I had no answer. At least not for a long time.

While reading a newsletter from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, I saw a small notice about the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net), an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the current genocide in Darfur. GI-Net was founded at Swarthmore College by Mark Hanis, the grandson of four Holocaust survivors.

I made a few calls and decided that perhaps the GI-Net might answer Ina’s question. I organized and distributed notices for a meeting of interested students with no idea what to expect. At that first meeting we had 17 students, but GI-Net now operates at the state level and has more than 800 people involved and has raised more than $100,000 to improve security and safety for women and girls in Darfur.

A Life Dedicated to Human Rights

Two years later, I left academia to become the Minnesota state coordinator for the Genocide Intervention Network. We educate people throughout the state about genocide and the Darfur crisis; teach ordinary individuals how to advocate with their legislators at city, state, and national levels; and raise funds to support the African Union peace-keeping forces in Darfur.

In Minnesota, public schools are mandated to teach about the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. I connect with teachers throughout the state to provide curricular materials and other support for their classroom activities.

I received an award from my city for my contributions to human rights. Students who work with me have been honored by the state for their efforts.

When I think back over my life, I was destined to head in this direction. Growing up as a Jew in a small northern Michigan mining town, I was keenly aware of my minority religious status. Growing up in the immediate post-World War II years, I had a fearful sense of the legacy of Nazism. More by coincidence than design, I have visited some of the sites of the world’s worst horrors: Cambodia’s killing fields, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Rwanda.

I believe that genocide is the most horrific of all crimes being perpetrated not on people but on a people, threatening them with extinction solely because of who they are—their race, religion, ethnicity, or national identity.

I define what I do as public sociology. As Michael Burawoy said, sociology’s unique contribution to social science lies "in its defense of human interests against the encroachment of states and markets."1I am committed to raising awareness about mass atrocities and to empowering individuals and communities to prevent or stop genocide. I work to encourage divestment from companies that support genocide. We lobby our officials in Washington to pass laws that will enhance security and aid for those at risk. We urge our national and world leaders to support a United Nations resolution, enacted in 2005, for intervention when nations are unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens against mass atrocities.

The defense of human interests is up to each of us. ASA members have passed resolutions decrying war, discrimination, and other forms of injustice. We can also take a stand against genocide.

For more information, see the Genocide Intervention Network Minnesota (www.mngin.org), the Genocide Intervention Network national site (www.genocideintervention.net), and Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota small_green

1 Burawoy, Michael. 2004. Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. Social Forces 82:4, June, p. 1603.

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