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MELA Event Highlights Social Justice Issues

SOA Watch representative Tammy Nguyen speaks with her cohort during the MELA Event. Photo by Annie Steimel/Foghorn

The Indian Student Organization threw their third annual event, MELA: A Celebration of Social Justice, on Friday, March 5. The  event was organized in collaboration with eight other student clubs and organizations. The night was complete with performances by the Hawaiian Ensemble and music by junior Ravi Amarawansa Jr. who played the plucked- stringed sitar, an instrument used in Hindustani classical music. The event was a tribute to recognize all the different social justice issues that USF clubs and organizations stand behind to bring awareness. It was also a representation to show that the USF community has the power to come together and acknowledge social injustices, according to ISO member Shelley Saini.

“MELA in the Indian culture is supposed to be like a carnival,” she said, “where people just listen to music, listen to speakers. It’s like a replica of that and it’s a very strong thing in our culture.”

The nine clubs and organizations represented their own social justice issues, illustrated by poster boards lining the back wall of McLaren. This year ISO decided to bring awareness about the law passed in India last year that criminalizes homosexuality. Other clubs, like Not For Sale, focused on their fight against modern-day slavery and human trafficking, a large movement that works closely alongside other branches of the nation-wide Not For Sale Campaign.

A few tables down the School of the Americas Watch, a club that actively works to close the highly controversial School of the Americas, brought awareness on the coup d’état in Honduras. The issue they presented was in correlation with their “Future of Honduras” event on March 9, a presentation and lecture by Andres Conteris. Conteris was one of the last American journalists in Honduras during the coup, and came to speak “on how the media plays into what’s going on social justice wise and all over America and all over the world,” said SOA Watch member and freshman Marissa Howser.

ISO invited Dr. James Taylor, USF politics professor, to give the key note speech. Professor Taylor had also spoken at the MELA event two years prior. “I was driving across the Bay Bridge trying to get here and I was thinking—this is amazing, because I can’t wait to get here and meet the young people who are spending their Friday night doing this rather than being at the bar,” he said.

“It’s really impressive with all of you,” he said to the nine clubs present. “You give us hope, and I think that the world can be a better place, and it has a great potential to be a better place.”

In his address, Professor Taylor talked about the 1960s Black Panther movement in Oakland, and how it was a group of young people who were committed to serving their community, just like the USF student clubs and organizations. Professor Taylor said that Huey P. Newton, a founder the movement, came up with a political philosophy 30 years ago called Revolutionary Intercommunalism. Because of the strong forces of capitalism expanding globally at a fast rate, Newton assured that ordinary people must come together from the ground up to respond to capitalism’s devastating effects on people, such as the increase in poverty. “The boundaries of nations would be eliminated and the world becomes a kind of community where people will need to respond intercommunally in order to respond to capitalism,” Professor Taylor said.

“I’m really proud of you and thankful that you are committed and are serious about this work. I don’t imagine that you’re playing around with it, or are you?” Professor Taylor joked. “I can hear, ‘Hell no! We’re not playing around!”

Freshman Marissa Kerum of AIESEC, an international student organization that promotes cultural understanding and global peace by sending students abroad, said “It definitely made me feel not special persay but kind of like we’re doing something right while everyone else is going out and partying and kind of having fun. I feel like I’m very passionate about it… so it’s definitely empowering.” AIESEC helps students through their entire process of going abroad, including finding the “perfect” internship or immersing students in the new country. “The reason why we’re here today is we’re focusing on Africa and HIV Aids awareness and education. We’re giving students the opportunity to go to Africa on an internship and educate pretty much everyone about HIV awareness because it is such a big problem,” Kerum said. Being a part of AIESEC, Kerum said that she really feels she’s making a difference, by giving others the opportunity of a lifetime to study abroad and helping them along the way.

Professor James Taylor, right, gave the keynote speech and spoke with students afterward. Photo by Annie Steimel/Foghorn

Professor Taylor said that students are now rising up all over the United States. He mentioned Bill Clinton’s visit to UC Berkeley two weeks before, and Clinton’s talk about how the world is hurting and students need to be committed to communalism. “Those were his words, and I was like ‘Wow, Bill Clinton used the word communalism!” Thereafter, the fastest growing minor at Cal became Global Poverty and Practice, with 350 students in its first semester.  Professor Taylor hopes USF catches on to do the same thing. “They have 350 students already doing much of the kind of work that students over here [at USF] are already doing. I really hope we can put a minor like that here at USF.”

Professor Taylor encouraged students to continue their work even if they are not able to complete it in their lifetime. “I think it’s arrogant for any of us to think that we have to fix the problems that we’re fighting for in our lifetime,” he said. “Whether it’s through Latin America, whether it’s in Africa, whether it’s in India…every bit of contribution you make, other people will come along behind you and continue to knock down these boundaries, knock down these walls and continue to humanize people.”

According to Professor Taylor, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest speech was called “The Time to Embrace Silence Beyond Vietnam,” given on April 4, 1967—exactly one year before his death. King’s message was that the U.S. must become more committed to people. With all the evils of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation, the country still has the potential to be liberators.

“The only thing Martin Luther King talked about that’s really relevant to the way the world is today, we knocked out all the bad news and we still have some major challenges,” Professor Taylor said.  In the speech, King talks about the exploitation taking over the country. “Capital has taken over the soul of the human being. Our Supreme Court is out of its mind, I mean the U.S. Supreme Court has made a ruling that a corporation is a human being, and we don’t even take care of the human beings among us, but we’ll take care of our corporations, this is sickening! And im glad that each one of you are committed and fighting…I hope that you continue to fight and I hope that you continue to make a difference in the lives of people.”

Finally, Professor Taylor brought up President Barack Obama. “I’m sure you are all excited about Obama like everybody else, but Obama’s not gonna transform this world. It’s gotta come from the people, it’s gotta come from the bottom up,” he said. “Now if you’re doing it, don’t think about one day I’m going to be. No, you’re doing it right now!”

Andrea Powell, sophomore and Not For Sale club member, said that she agrees with Professor Taylor. “People always say ‘Well, I’m gonna go do something when I have my degree, when I graduate.’  And it’s, ‘No! You can do it now.’ I think at USF we have an advantage over other universities because we certainly have opportunities for people to get involved.”

Professor Taylor encouraged everyone as student leaders to continue fighting, helping, and serving. “Keep on trying to make a difference so that other people can have as good as the life that you have been afforded in this great country.”

The nine participating student organizations were AIESEC, the Culturally-Focused Clubs Council (CFCC), Delta Zeta Sorority, the Indian Student Organization, Invisible Children, Lambda Theta Nu Sorority, Inc., the Muslim Student Association, the Not For Sale Club, and SOA Watch.

Profile: Darrell Red Wing Grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation

Junior computer science major Darrell Red Wing embraces life at USF, but remembers fondly his life on Pine Ridge Indian reservation. Photo by Cass Krughoff/Foghorn

Millions of people each year make the patriotic pilgrimage to see Mount Rushmore, a monument made in celebration of U.S. history. But few are aware that within 100 miles of this attraction there exists a reminder of the darker side of that history, a side that most Americans would rather forget.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to members of the Lakota Sioux Native American tribe. Over a century ago, European settlers slaughtered the Sioux’s ancestors in gruesome battles. The settlers made treaties and broke them, leaving reservations of land for these native people. Over a century later, the reservation system still stands. One product of this system is USF Junior, Darrell Red Wing who calls Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home.

Growing up on the reservation, Red Wing experienced what most would consider a hard life. Surrounded by poverty, with 49% of the population below poverty level according to the 2000 U.S. Census, Red Wing said the reservation felt like a third world country. “It’s one of the ugliest kept secrets in America,” he said. “I knew people without phones or electricity. I knew a family that slept on the floor. And they didn’t even have a floor, it was just dirt.”

The Lakota Sioux seem to never have fully recovered from their unjust past. Pine Ridge is the poorest of the Indian reservations, located in the second poorest county in the United States. Its unemployment rate hovers around 80%. It is plagued by the problems of poverty, such as gangs, drugs and violence. “We’re a broken tribe,” Red Wing said as an explanation for these troubles. “We’ve lost touch with our culture.”

Red Wing saw many of his childhood friends give in to the dominant lifestyle of dealing and using drugs and joining gangs for protection. Though he got in the occasional scuffle, for the most part Red Wing steered clear. “I just grew up with a good sense not to do all that,” he said. He attributes his success to the strong role modeling of his mother and grandfather, who didn’t do drugs and made sure he didn’t either.

Staying clean paid off for Red Wing. After two years in Oglala Lakota College, a school located on the reservation, Red Wing was able to transfer to USF with full scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

People who identify as Native American make up the smallest minority at USF, at about 1% of the student body. This is in line with the national average. According to the American Indian College Fund, the number of Native Americans earning bachelor’s degrees is growing, however they are still underrepresented.

Red Wing chose to come to USF because he wanted to experience city life, but also get the natural beauty of the beach and Golden Gate Park. He also enjoys USF’s campus. The most memorable part of his first campus visit was the high tech computer science lab, which he now spends a lot of time in as a computer science major.

But attending USF has broadened his horizons beyond the world of computers. “Since coming here, I’ve gotten to take a lot of other classes like philosophy and sociology,” he said. One of his favorite classes he is taking is Contact Improv, a modern dance class in which partners work together to improvise a dance. “I like not knowing what you’re going to do next,” he said.

As in dance, Red Wing does not know what life holds for him next. He may go to graduate school if he can secure funding and considers staying within the computer realm, or he may do something else.

For now, he is content just to be here. Red Wing said he feels a great sense of community at USF. “The people here are somewhat close, like the tribe,” he said, “And everyone’s really nice. Here, you don’t always have to watch your back.”

Red Wing said at the reservation, you had to always be on alert. So much as look at someone the wrong way and they might want to pick a fight. Despite all this, Red Wing still misses the reservation and thinks of it fondly. “I miss the family and the closeness, and the culture. Even though there’s gangs and fighting, the people you connect with are like your brothers and sisters,” he said.

“Even though it is how it is, I still love it with all my heart.”