Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Darfur Heroics: Chatham MA Prom $ to Darfur?

Chatham Man Organized ‘No Prom’ Night To Benefit Darfur Victims
by Debra Lawless
Raising awareness and money to fight the mass slaughter of ethnic Africans are the twin goals of a new local chapter of the national student group Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND), advised by English teacher Jeff Howell of Chatham.
Last fall at Dennis-Yarmouth High School, where Howell teaches, STAND posed a provocative question: Is it more important to attend your high school prom in high style, (which costs on average up to $600 per person), or to give the money you would have spent to fight genocide in Darfur, an African nation you may never have heard of? High school students Cape-wide will struggle with this question come prom time this spring, thanks to STAND.
On Friday, March 9 at 7 p.m., Howell’s students and the Human Rights Commission of Cape Cod will sponsor a three-hour No Prom For Darfur dance at Cape Cod Community College. Tables will be set up in the upper commons so students can break from dancing to write letters and sign petitions against genocide. A video crew and local politicians have also been invited to the event. “We’ll see who shows up,” Howell says.
To explain to the community what this is all about, several of Howell’s students will join Dan Millenson, executive director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, in conducting a program at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Chatham on Sunday, Feb. 18 during the 10:30 a.m. service, and again at 2 p.m.
Darfur is a nation in the western Sudan torn by war that began when Africans rebelled against the Arab-dominated government in February 2003. The rebellion has turned into a mass slaughter of Africans. Estimates of the number of dead vary, but Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has been studying the conflict almost since its beginning, estimates 450,000 are dead and 2.5 million more displaced from their homes.
It must be said up front that while the original, perhaps idealistic, idea was to schedule the No Prom For Darfur dance (which is “come as you are” and costs $25) on the same night as Dennis-Yarmouth’s junior prom, the two dates no longer conflict. So while juniors can attend both events, scheduling an alternate dance on the same night as the junior prom did bring a lot of attention to the cause.
Kids who didn’t know about the genocide commented, “why are we missing the prom?’” said Dennis-Yarmouth senior and STAND member Ross Desmarais. “We decided on an alternative just to have people attend. We can raise the same amount of awareness and money.”
Desmarais believes that while students will still attend their proms, which he describes as “the major high school spectacle” looked forward to by both genders, they may not rent that Hummer limousine or buy that $1,000 dress.
“We’re not on the same night as any prom,” Howell says. “We’re not taking attendance at any prom. It’s the concept that’s important. We’re inclusive.”
Most significantly, students Capewide attending 16 public and private high schools are invited to No Prom For Darfur. Howell expects at least 200 students who are “energized by the issue” to attend.
In a nutshell, here’s how this came about.
Last spring, Desmarais and his classmate Zak Jason, who had just taken their advanced placement exam in U.S. History, needed a project related to current events to complete the semester. The pair settled on raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur, an atrocity about which most students knew nothing. Desmarais and Jason also wanted to raise money for humanitarian aid to Darfur, and after tacking up posters they designed around the school and giving a Power Point demonstration, Desmarais and Jason asked for donations in the cafeteria.
They raised $700 in two days, Desmarais says. “We sent it to the Save Darfur Coalition.”
The project took on a life of its own, with about 50 more students, including junior Jen Pimental, who is now president of STAND, becoming involved. Last fall, Reeves, author of a forthcoming book about the genocide “A Long Day’s Dying,” spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Five kids piled in my Ford Freestyle and we headed up there,” Howell says. Reeves concluded his talk by saying that in 12 months another 500,000 people will be dead in Darfur. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘no way. We have to do something,” recalls Howell.
The “no prom” idea evolved one day during a casual hallway conversation at Dennis-Yarmouth. While Howell expected some flak from the many florists, hairdressers, limousine and tuxedo companies that make money on proms, he has been surprised to get phone calls from such businesses supporting his efforts. Chatham’s Monomoy Community Services also contacted him with the message that his students were spreading faith for the future of the world and pledged $350.
“People are just waiting for you to scratch the surface to find out what a good person they are,” Howell says.

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