That Guy: Sulaiman Bah
April 6, 2007
During springtime at the College, philanthropic aid organizations and events are as thick as the pollen that covers sidewalks, street lamps and slow-moving squirrels. Even those of us only marginally interested in philanthropy feel the tug of the greater good, and perhaps this is why the unflinching, unflagging work of our peers is so admirable. As a force for change at the College, Sulaiman Bah is unstoppable. His leadership and passionate belief in the responsibility of everyone blessed with a voice to act inspires and expands our awareness of how we can and should do right by one another. That Guy talks about STAND, the right to vote and his hope that our generation is active.
p. **What is STAND?**
It’s Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, basically started at Georgetown University by 10 students in a basement. They decided that they could not do it alone. In any field of activism, the work should not be done by or based around one person. For example, the civil rights movement wasn’t just Malcolm X, he got taken out; it wasn’t just MLK, he got taken out. Hopefully you can take out a person but not take out a movement, if you’ve built a good movement. At Georgetown, they wanted to expand, and because they were so creative at getting students involved in advocacy and activism, they won a grant from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation of $50,000.
p. That summer, they organized a national conference inviting students — both high school and college — from all over the country to Georgetown to help them kick it big. That August, I was in D.C. already doing an internship with an author on Middle Eastern oil politics. On my own I’d been looking for organizations to work with in D.C.. At that point, the crisis in Darfur was picking up in international news, but not national news. So I get this information that they’re going to be hosting all these students in late August, right before we go back to school, and I decide okay, I’m going to this. I signed up and went to Georgetown and while we were there we slept in a makeshift camp outside instead of in a dorm. I guess they wanted to give students a feeling of what refugee camps feel like. Coming from Sierra Leone, West Africa, I already knew what a refugee camp looks like — I haven’t lived in one, but I know what they look like. So, I thought it was very interesting that students were trying to do this, and I thought that maybe I shouldn’t lose hope, that our generation isn’t just into MTV’s “Real World” and “Lost.” This looks promising.
p. The second part of the Georgetown conference was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We talked about how to make a national executive body that would streamline this national organization, and every delegate was responsible for going back and starting a chapter of their own.
p. We came back here — me and Karen McClellan, who was a senior in 2005 — and we decided to do this. We didn’t go through the official channels at first because we felt work needed to be done now and that could happen later. So we actually weren’t an official organization until spring 2006 because we needed to rent out vans.
p. We tried to raise awareness through unorthodox methods. For example, we brought students out to the UC Terrace to demonstrate with a “die-in.” Each person that lies down represents a number of people who have died in Sudan. By doing it in a high-traffic area, we got people to stop and say, “Hey, the Terrace was empty and now I can’t pass unless I step over these people.” That’s exactly the point — you’re stepping over these bodies and you need to do something, right? We started being called the people who laid down on the UC Terrace. Someone took a picture for the front page of The Flat Hat, and people started asking who we were.
p. In the fall, hurricane Katrina distracted a lot of people from giving money to STAND. That hit very close to home, so people were donating to reconstruction in the South and taking trips to do relief. All of those are great works, but I felt that it shouldn’t have distracted people from Darfur. People can give a dollar to Katrina and still give a dollar to Darfur. They are different situations. Katrina was a natural disaster and Darfur is a man-made one. But people don’t see it that way.
p. **This past Friday the Reves Center hosted a screening of Adam Shapiro’s “Darfur Diaries,” and John Prendergast, an activist working in Darfur, came to speak as well. Did you have a role in this?**
p. We were very grateful that we had an opportunity to have John here to speak on Friday. I believe that everyone has a gene for activism. The cause, what they are interested in, differs, but something will happen in a person’s lifetime that will spark their interest in activism. Once that gene is sparked, it shouldn’t turn off. That’s the biggest struggle of STAND right now — getting people to stay involved.
p. I saw both John and Adam at a session in D.C. about the Middle East, and they complimented each other very well. John is very policy-oriented, and Adam is closer to our age and just felt the need to do something. I wrote to them separately. Each told me they were going out of the country but might be available in March. I spoke to Professor [Laurie] Koloski, who is now the head of the Reves Center, and told her that I had contacted these men. STAND is an organization that doesn’t have any money. Every dollar that we raise I am proud to say is given directly to Darfur Peace and Development Organization. That is an NGO that will put the money towards building a school, paying a teacher, getting supplies and guaranteeing children at least one meal a day while they are in school. Every dollar that we raise goes to that organization; we pay for flyers out of our own pockets. So even if we did have $4,000 lying around to sponsor these speakers, I don’t necessarily say we would spend it on them — we’ve raised the money for Darfur. The Reves Center was generous enough to take on these speakers as part of the America in the World course, so it worked out perfectly.
p. **In what other events have you participated?**
In April, we host Bowling for Darfur, which is another fun activity to raise awareness and some funds. Not only do we send that to DPDO but, for example, last April we went up to D.C. for an activism weekend. There were two big events, one for the Invisible Children of Uganda and a rally for Darfur on the National Mall. So many people were there from all over the United States. George Clooney and his father were there, Senator Barack Obama was there, Elie Weisel was there — all these people from different walks of life talking on one stage for one cause. STAND spoke too, and we slept out on John Marshall Park for the night.
p. Here, more so than in other countries, officials are always thinking about their necks and how to get re-elected, and that’s the advantage that young people have. That’s why I feel sometimes we take things for granted, in that so many young people are in a hurry to get to the age of 21 for the sake of buying alcohol legally, but not in a hurry to get to the age of 18 to vote legally. So many people died for you to get that vote. That apathy is another thing I’m going to dedicate myself to fighting. I’m not a U.S. citizen, so I can’t vote, but I will push others to do so — vote for me, at least.