Take a STAND Canada!
An interview on the Darfur advocacy group's path
with director Ben Fine
When I went to meet Ben Fine, MIT Masters student and the director
of Students Taking Action Now, Darfur! (STAND) Canada, it was at
a bustling corner in Toronto on the 30th of May 2006, a day of record
breaking heat. To be honest, he was the third person I had approached
and I was starting to see my error in choosing the U of T campus
as a rendezvous point for a meeting with a student subject when
he strolled up. Thankfully, he was on time and matched the photo
I'd googled earlier in the day and we were soon hunkered down in
the cool, dim, relief of an air-conditioned pub to discuss his organisation
(founded in 2005) and the story behind its success.
LSB: So STAND has received an incredible amount of press lately.
Did you anticipate such a great response to your Queens Park action?
Why do you think the media was so attentive?
BF: When you plan a rally, it's always a bit of a crapshoot
because you're asking people who don't necessarily know much about
the cause to show up and you're hoping that people will take notice.
It's not the only thing that STAND does but, it was an initiative
that some high school students came to us with. Given the date we
might have had some media coverage- there was a peace deal had to
be signed by that night - but once we knew Irwin Cotler, David Kilgour
and Jack Layton would be attending the rally and speaking on behalf
of the cause we were pretty confident that we would get support,
both in terms of people being there to scream for Darfur and in
terms of media attention.
LSB: I know you are one of the co-founders of STAND Canada.
What was your inspiration? How did the group come to be?
BF: I started doing Darfur activism/advocacy at the University
of Western Ontario in the fall of 2004. I'm not an activist, I've
never been somebody who, you know, gets crazy about an issue and
strips off their clothes and runs around naked in order to gather
attention for some injustice but, there was something about Darfur
that got me going. I guess the spark was January 2005 when I went
to a Canadian Federation of Jewish Students Conference and it just
so happened that there was a speaker who had come from Sudan, Dr.
Acol Dor. Dr. Dor told the story of Darfur and after the speech,
the other co-founder got up and said "I think we all agree
that we need to do something about this." So about 30 of us
decided to meet and plan some sort of campaign. From this group
we had of students on different campuses, and did some thinking
and did some strategizing and said "Ok How do we connect students
from across the country concerned about this issue? How do we provide
people with the resources, the tools and the experience that is
out there? And most importantly how do we focus the message? We
wanted to make sure that we were calling for the right things...
LSB: So it started out with this conference, how did you maintain
a united front across a country that is so big, and that has so
many diverse interests?
BF: Right, so the first campaign was a petition campaign.
We sought to gather 10 000 signatures on a single petition. So I
mean, if we're talking about message, it's one petition, across
the country, probably eight universities participated and a couple
of high schools, in gathering signatures from about March or February
'til mid April, we were emailing, calling, communicating, motivating.
So, there we had a focussed message we had all these students from
across the country all saying the exact same thing, we had something
specific to advocate.
LSB: So, in terms of uniting Canadian students what do you think
was your best tool? It's obvious that the message was important,
but what else helped? You use the Internet right?
BF: The Internet is a fantastic tool for our advocacy. Our
national and campus groups are from campuses all over the place
so it's difficult to communicate any other way. It most importantly
is the medium through which most people find us, especially for
our target audience which is students. For students, the internet
is the place you go when you hear about something and need to find
out more. So if you google Darfur Canada right now, it's not ideal
but, we'll come up first. standcanada.org is a place where, people
can come educate themselves, which is our focus, to give students
tools to take real action.
LSB: Right, so would you say that some of the reason you are as
effective as you have been is because you have focussed so much
on the student population and that you've really taken that fine
BF: I think we've achieved success in our target market
because that's what we've stuck to. Our students are in specific
places, they're on a campus. We understand the ways of getting to
them, through the media, through events etc.
LSB: Ok so, what is the next step? Where do you see STAND over
the next sort of, six months to two years let's say...
BF: OK, so good question, obviously our ultimate goal is
still and always has been to push the Canadian government to take
concrete action to bring about an end to the conflict in Darfur.
The Canadian government has resources that apply, diplomatic, humanitarian
and military, quite frankly, to bring an end to the conflict. And
most importantly our goal is to motivate the government to take
the lead internationally because one of the main reasons that Darfur
isn't addressed is because nobody's made it their baby. Canada's
seen as a peacemaker and a humanitarian and just a good global citizen.
To come out and take a lead on this cause would certainly galvanise
some allies into taking more concrete action... In terms of our
model on the grassroots level, we're always trying to expand on
the new campuses, we're always trying to come up with new campaigns
with the purpose of everything being to get people plugged in and
get them connected.
LSB: Now this is also an article to give other people who are looking
to get into activism some pointers. So what advice would you have
for students and pressure groups that are small but widespread,
working to change circumstances far from home?
BF: The key message is that, no matter the cause, be it
abroad or close to home your ability if you're committed to it,
and you're willing to put in the work and it's something that you're
passionate about, you can make a difference because who was I, or
who was anybody in this organization 18 months ago? A bunch of idiots
on campus who went drinking every weekend and one day we decided
that this is something we want to do, Darfur struck us. If you break
it down in to small steps and you aren't afraid of taking that leap
and saying Ok, I'm just gonna write this letter, Ok I'm just gonna
call this meeting... If you're not afraid to do that then you've
crossed the biggest hurdle. You've crossed that barrier of indifference
that prevents others from making their own difference, whatever
LSB: At what moment did you feel most powerful while working
BF: Most powerful? like as an organization?
LSB: most powerful, like most like you were making a difference?
BF: as an organization?
LSB: No, you as an individual, you as one person who is actually
doing something to affect change in the world...
BF: I get those a lot, kinda... *laugh* but the biggest,
for sure or one of the biggest, or the biggest was sitting face
to face with Prime Minister Martin. I can remember it now vividly...
I remember telling him that we're talking about taking leadership,
that Canada's commitment to the cause is only dictated by what's
going on on the ground, and if more resources are required its not
necessarily up to Canada to commit them all but it should be up
to Canada to take a lead, rally our allies, rally like-minded nations
together to provide what's necessary to bring an end to the conflict.
So I mean, sitting in the Prime Ministers office and giving him
a piece of our mind on Darfur is pretty empowering. You know, the
rally was a big one. Every person we get involved in the cause is
- that's why we target students- every student that you get involved
is a potential me, is a potential any of the other leaders of this
organisation. You can spark any of them, give them the same thing
that we went through and you could have a dozen STAND-like organisations
for the cause. So while action is our focus, any time we can inspire
these people to become involved it's always the potential for something
big. We have a lot of faith in the ability of students to really
make a difference if they want to.
STAND Canada's website can be found at www.standcanada.org
Laura Stavro-Beauchamp is a student in her final semester of
a Political Science degree. She is an avid creative writer and an
intern at Connexions.org. She lives in Toronto and may be reached
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