Finding a Niche in Atrocity Prevention

25 Jun

*This post originally appeared on The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s blog.

I got involved with STAND during my freshman year at Swarthmore. The experiences I had and the people I met through that organization have motivated me to work professionally on atrocity prevention. I graduated from Swarthmore last Sunday, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect, not only on my time in STAND, but also on what my experiences mean for others who could follow a similar path.

I came into college vaguely knowing I wanted to do something with social justice and international issues. Growing up with stories of my family’s experience during the Holocaust had sensitized me to notions of human rights. Still, I ended up joining STAND, in part, because Swarthmore didn’t have an Amnesty International chapter, and at first I didn’t see my participation in the organization as potentially transformative.

A few months later, I went to my first of many national conferences in Washington, D.C.  That conference, and subsequent ones I attended, were important for a few reasons. National conferences, for me, were always times to meet new people and reconnect with old friends who shared my interests. There’s never much sleep involved, and while conferences are nominally about atrocity prevention, they were also the most intense social periods of my college experience. Although the social aspect is the most apparent in the moment, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that it was not just the people but the opportunity to engage intellectually with new ideas that made conferences such landmark experiences. Before that first conference, I had never encountered so much in-depth information or such a myriad of opinions about atrocity prevention. That exposure prompted me to learn more about these issues so that I was better able to participate in debates on policy options and advocacy strategies.

The creation of a social network and the exposure to new ideas through conferences were the first steps in my involvement with STAND, but a few other developments led eventually to my membership in STAND’s national managing committee. First, I happened to develop social relationships with many of the students in STAND leadership roles and found that I often had a lot in common with them. So, in a way, becoming a part of STAND’s leadership was a social endeavor. Within this social network, I was also fortunate enough to find a few mentors, particularly former national director Daniel Solomon. These mentors not only steered my engagement with STAND; they also helped expose me to the broader intellectual and organizational landscapes of the atrocity prevention community. Finally, my Swarthmore education increasingly provided me with the ability and the interest to evaluate policy and advocacy-based arguments and come up with ones of my own.

During my junior year, I applied to be STAND’s student policy analyst and was, fortunately, accepted. In this role, I created my personal blog, The Widening Lens, for which I’m still writing today, and was compelled to create a Twitter account. These two platforms allowed me to formulate in-depth opinions and to communicate with a much wider audience than I had previously within STAND.

The summer before my senior year, I interned with the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, which gave me my first real exposure to academic research on mass atrocities. I also served that year as STAND’s national policy coordinator. I learned quite a bit about the professional atrocity prevention world, how to manage a task force, and the challenges of creating long-term strategies for an advocacy organization.  Because of the interest I had cultivated (with the help of others) in atrocities prevention, I decided to write my thesis on civilian self-protection during mass atrocities. While the thesis itself is finished, I hope to continue working on this aspect of the issue in the future.

It would be easy to look back on my journey from a college freshman who enjoyed learning about international politics and human rights to someone intending to work professionally in atrocity prevention and see a path that was practically predetermined, but college could easily have had a different effect on me. Certainly, certain factors predisposed me to atrocity prevention work. I am from a highly educated family with a social science focus and went to an elite school. My family history gave me a personal connection to the issue of mass killing. And I had enough time between work and school to participate deeply in STAND.

Still, other things could have easily derailed this progression. Without conferences—and Swarthmore funding to get to them—I would not have had ready access to such a range of people and ideas. I also quickly ran up against a lack of realistic engagement opportunities in STAND. Organizing events on Swarthmore’s campus didn’t create change, and I could lobby members of Congress, usually unsuccessfully, only so often. Had mentors not provided an intellectual outlet for thinking about long-term atrocity prevention, I probably would have lost interest. Finally, if my involvement with STAND hadn’t put me in contact with individuals and organizations working professionally on atrocity prevention, I still would have enjoyed my time in STAND, but, like so many other things, I probably would have seen it as an activity that ended at graduation.

Lots of students are drawn to organizations focused on human rights or international affairs, but that interest doesn’t always lead them to pursue related careers. Many slip through the cracks. I sincerely believe this doesn’t have to be the case. I was fortunate enough to have people like Daniel Solomon in STAND and Shervin Malekzadeh at Swarthmore identify me as a dedicated individual and help foster my intellectual maturation. STAND is already shifting toward increased intentionality in moving students up the ladder of engagement. If professional organizations working in this field want a larger population of well-qualified potential employees, they should look to do the same.

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