Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 2, April 2008

International Justice Week: "Stunt" or Beginning of a Change?

Sarah Alibabaie


When I think about International Justice Week (IJW), I do not say that it is something that I “did”; I say that it is something that I went through. It’s more than a clever quip—IJW dominated my thoughts and actions for months, and even after it was over I found it hard to stop relating things to the issues it explored. It made me cry, laugh, think, and, when I slept, it took over my dreams. Why did I devote so much of my time, energy and self to co-coordinating IJW last year? A large part of it was that IJW was something I could take on naturally through my interests and work as a Community Diversity Assistant. It soon moved beyond this, however; IJW surpassed anything that had been done before at Bryn Mawr. It was exciting to be part of its creation, to discover and test the limits of student organizing on campus, both in terms of what students could pull together and in terms of what the campus was willing to take, over what turned out to be a period of nine days. IJW events focused on the issues of Darfur, education, environment, North Korea, Palestine, poverty and sex trafficking. I think the overarching importance of IJW, for me personally and for the campus as a whole, was learning about boundaries—and breaking some boundaries—as well as creating new linkages and spaces for knowledge.

IJW developed out of a club discussion and the realization that we at Bryn Mawr could benefit from learning about global realities from perspectives other than the U.S. media or academic classes. Previously, Bryn Mawr’s social justice events included academic lectures, movie screenings, discussions—and small crowds. Our vision of a cohesive week’s worth of activities and action for the community was based on the confidence that other students would not only want to pursue such awareness and change, but that they also could provide innovative ways of effecting it. Many meetings and exchanges took place to brainstorm how people and groups could be involved and what we could achieve—a fun and heady stage where ambition knew no bounds. The activities were wide-ranging in structure and style, as well as at various times throughout the day, since we sought to present the issues and insert them into as much of the Bryn Mawr community as possible. In addition to movie screenings, presentations and discussions, we organized intentionally atypical events: stick and sheet tents on Merion Green, a mock checkpoint at Pem Arch and a mock funeral procession. We wanted people to get a taste of a new idea or message without committing to attending something. Events were not only organized by extant student groups, but also afforded space for individual students to come forward and work together, which proved very productive.

Of course, there were obstacles and challenges from beginning to end. There was the challenge of getting people to commit and follow through or to sell ideas to people in various capacities, from the administration to the faculty to busy students. Moreover, the aspects of IJW that departed from the norm in content or in form drew extra fire. General reactions were skepticism and reticence about the week. Out of actual and potential mistakes, but also for no good reason, we were blamed and patronized by people in the administration and campus offices, it seemed simply because we were students. As IJW drew nearer and came to pass, there was discontent and hostility from individuals and student groups. Some objected to specific events; others found the week as a whole to be “a bad approach” and too “in your face.” Flipping through editions of The Bi-College News and the college news from last spring and listening to different people’s stories can demonstrate well enough the contention we encountered.

In a survey my co-organizer and I conducted, one person responded, “In high school we would have been expelled for such a stunt” as putting bomb threat signs on building entrances (with disclaimers, of course) to simulate the reality of the danger of girls going to school in Afghanistan. In some ways, discontent with the aspects of IJW that clearly departed from campus norms extended to questioning even the more conventional things that were a part of the week, such as a movie being screened in the Campus Center main lounge.

In high school, I myself did not imagine that I would be in the position of defending such “stunts,” but back then I also did not imagine what it would be like to have my ID card determine where I can or more likely cannot go, as is done in the Occupied Territories. In all honesty, I did come through the semester with a more confrontational attitude toward the community’s usual level of responsiveness, communication and cooperation. As much as I would like to promote continuing to confront the status quo, I would like instead to pass on the value of working in coalition with others to address issues. Through the course of planning and implementing programming, IJW’s co-coordinator and I discovered many contacts and resources at the College that we had no idea existed before—and now as former co-coordinators we do our best to share lessons learned. A large part of the mission of IJW within Bryn Mawr was a focus on students as organizers and the campus as a whole as a consumer. One of my favorite things to do is refer or link up one student to another, knowing that they might find a way to work with one another. I hope that very soon the information about resources at Bryn Mawr—where to go, who to see, what to ask for—as well as information of past involvement or initiatives from students will be compiled and available for all on campus.

I would argue that IJW simply presented a different approach, rather than an inherently bad approach, to doing things on campus. As organizers, we simply wanted to be creative, to support students, and to show that we do care about these issues. Although I did not expect to encounter so many boundaries when I first began with IJW, as long as it provoked and will continue to provoke thought, discussion, collaboration and action, then it was worth it. Ultimately I believe that IJW was important and useful; I am glad that it happened and that I went through it. It really was only the beginning of a change in me and in the way we learn and work with each other on campus.

Sarah Alibabaie ’09 is working towards an A.B. in anthropology at Bryn Mawr. She and Jenny Kim ’09, who is pursuing an A.B. in sociology, co-coordinated the spring activities of the first annual International Justice Week in 2007.