In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Mickey Jackson, Student Director of STAND, the student-led movement to end mass atrocities. Jackson has been part of the movement since 2008, when he served as a high school outreach coordinator.
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Welcome. I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. With me today is Mickey Jackson, director of a student-led movement called STAND, which uses advocacy, lobbying, and other strategies to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities. Hello, Mickey. Good to have you here with us.
Good to be here.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about what STAND does and why it’s entirely student-led?
Sure. I mean what you just said in your introduction pretty much captures it. Basically, STAND is a student-run organization that seeks to build permanent anti-genocide constituencies on campus and in communities around the country. What we’re most interested in is really empowering students to take ownership of their advocacy, because we feel that by doing that we not only give students something to do while they’re in high school or while they’re in college, but we help develop them into lifelong leaders.
So we see ourselves not only as participating in anti-genocide advocacy efforts in the here and now, but we also see ourselves as developing the next generation of human rights policymakers, human rights organizers, thought leaders, and so forth. That’s why we consider it to be so important that we are student-led. Because obviously the best way of developing into a leader is to be a leader. So we feel that by giving students ownership of anti-genocide advocacy — not only at the local level, but at the national level as well — we’re helping to create that new generation of informed, responsible human rights advocates.
Are you optimistic from that, that there is a possibility maybe one day, maybe one day soon, that a really significant measure of U.S. national security interests can be shifted toward international human security interests instead?
I am optimistic, because I think over the last couple years we’ve seen that happening. We’ve seen the Obama administration explicitly identify atrocities prevention as a core national security interest of the United States, and I think that language is very important: that it’s not just a core moral imperative or a core humanitarian imperative — it’s the notion that it is actually a core national security interest of the United States. And that’s very important because I think we would all agree that while moral considerations are nice and humanitarian considerations are nice, when it comes to foreign policy governments ultimately act on the basis of perceived national security interests. So that to me is a reason to be optimistic. One of the challenges that I think will arise is making sure that that continues after this administration leaves.
I think that’s a very pragmatic and grounded approach to it. There’s been some serious criticism recently of the American anti-atrocity movements over the past few years, such as former activist Rebecca Hamilton’s critique of Save Darfur. How do you measure success in the light of these sorts of reactions?
Two things to that. One of the things that I’ve always found admirable in the students who are involved in STAND’s constituency is that they are very open to criticism, and in fact often they’re the ones doing the criticizing, and holding not only STAND as a national organization, but also I would argue holding STAND and the movement accountable. And I think what you see in STAND’s constituency is a willingness to question past approaches, a willingness to think critically about how successful we have been as a movement. So I think there’s very much the attitude that we shouldn’t get defensive in the face of criticism. We should listen to it, and we should try to amend our approach accordingly.
In terms of how we measure success, in one sense you can measure success very mechanistically in terms of the policy changes that the movement brings about. I think you could make the argument that the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board represents a discrete success of the movement. The progression over the past 10 years of the creation of a constituency that actually cares about atrocities prevention, and the recognition among policymakers that that constituency exists. We try to take a longer view as well, and recognize that in many ways our impact, at least if we do our jobs right, we hope that our impact will ultimately be in the leaders that we develop. Our impact, ideally, 20 years down the line, will be the creation of this next generation of informed, responsible human rights advocates and policymakers.
Do you think that — based on some of these criticisms, where the American anti-atrocity movements fall short — do you think that’s more due to a problem with public conviction, or do you see it more as a problem with the state’s ability to exert influence globally, like has been suggested?
You know, I think the obvious answer is that it’s some combination of both. I do think over the past couple years — between the fact that the financial crisis led to more of a focus on domestic issues, as well as the belief that our interventions, so to speak, in Iraq and Afghanistan largely failed, or at least can’t really be seen as unambiguous successes — I do think that sort of led to a skepticism among the broader public about this notion of atrocities prevention, and about the notion that the United States can or should exercise leverage to end mass atrocities, so I do think that’s part of it.
And I also think that the inability of the United States, and its Western allies in particular, to exert influence in certain conflict situations certainly plays a role in that as well. But there are things that the United States can do. The fact that we can’t do everything doesn’t mean that we can’t do something. And our attitude is, where there do exist opportunities for the United States to exercise a positive influence in ongoing mass atrocity situations, that there needs to be a constituency that’s pressuring our elected officials to take those steps.
Is it possible for movements like this, like yours, to ever be counterproductive? The Kony 2012, for example, anti-atrocity movement resulted in negative outcries, even in Uganda and east Africa. Is that an isolated incident, or is this something you need to be mindful of and concerned about?
It’s absolutely something that we need to be concerned about. I mean that’s — if we talk about responsible advocacy, and if we talk about wanting our advocacy to be effective — obviously it’s extremely important to be self-critical in that way, and to really think about whether what we’re asking for could ultimately end up having negative ramifications. I think Kony 2012 is sort of the go-to example for that, and I think Kony 2012 certainly raised — not only in STAND, but in human rights movements — I think it contributed to raising the consciousness among human rights organizers and activists about the need to be self-reflective in that way. So I absolutely do think it’s possible, and I think it’s something that we would always need to be careful of.
What message does STAND want to send to students who aren’t involved, who maybe don’t think that they have time, or don’t see how what happens on the other side of the world can affect their lives?
As far as the second question, about how it affects their lives, I mean, the simple answer to that is, in a lot of cases it doesn’t. I’m not going to pretend that what’s happening in the eastern DRC or what’s happening in Syria has much of a direct impact on the life of a typical American college student. But I would also say that ours is a generation that recognizes that it’s becoming a smaller world, and that recognizes that in the past the international community has failed to respond appropriately to morally atrocious situations. And among the students that I talk to — even those who don’t think that it affects their lives, or even those who don’t feel that they necessarily have a whole lot of time to devote to anti-genocide advocacy — it’s not a difficult argument to convince students that the pattern of failed responses to mass atrocities should not be continued.
If you think that it’s a problem that 800,000 people died in Rwanda without any kind of international response, then you should be interested in our movement, even if it doesn’t directly affect your life. No matter how much time you have to give, there’s some way for you to plug into a movement, even if it’s just picking up the phone and calling your congressional office. Those things seem small, but when they’re multiplied together they can lead to the types of policy changes that we want to see. And it can ultimately lead to at least progress toward that ideal of making “never again” a reality.
Some impactful words for the youth coming up today. Thank you so much, Mickey, for joining me today, and sharing what you’re all about.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Photo: STAND website.