LOWELL -- Three weeks ago, John Prendergast was arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C., with other human-rights activists and politicians. Days before, he had returned from a mission in South Sudan with actor George Clooney and testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about the atrocities witnessed there.
On Tuesday, Prendergast, a human-rights activist, was at UMass Lowell in his new role as the school's Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, speaking to students about Africa and why he is "wildly optimistic" about the continent's future.
Prendergast has worked in Africa for more than 25 years and co-founded the Enough Project, an advocacy group that conducts field research in countries plagued by genocide and crimes against humanity, and develops practical policies to address those crises.
Prendergast said he came to UML because the university's commitment to service is a natural fit for what he does.
"What really excites me about learning about where this university is going, where it wants to go, its administration, its faculty, its student body, it has more deeply committed itself as a university to service and making an impact in the community," said Prendergast. "Then the work that I'll do coming here and being able to talk to students and being able to think through ideas with them will actually have some value because all the students, or many of them, are trying to do something in the world or in the backyard or in the local community."
Professor Robert Gamache, co-director of UML's Peace and Conflict Studies Institute, said he nominated Prendergast for the position to the Greeley committee, which consists of members of the Greeley Foundation, whose endowment funds the scholar position.
"I have been following the Enough Project for two or three years now and I have been very, very impressed by the work that John and his people are doing," said Gamache in an interview. "We all agreed he would be an excellent choice."
The scholar gives lectures and visits classrooms to educate and motivate students, faculty and the community.
Prendergast is scheduled to go to Lowell High School next week and meet with groups from Big Brother Big Sister.
Prendergast's lecture to more than 100 students and faculty yesterday during the university's 17th annual "Day Without Violence" focused on challenging stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood that the situation in Africa is hopeless.
"As someone who's been working in the field of war and peace in Africa for more than 25 years, I feel like Africa's capacity for transformation is limitless," he said.
"Africa is not only full of hope, Africa isn't all that different from the rest of the world's history," he added, noting that countries in Europe and the U.S. had fought wars in the early stages of formation. Most African countries are only 50 or 60 years old due to colonialism, he said.
Prendergast's talk then focused on the potential of people's movements to help contribute to ending genocide and human-rights atrocities in African nations.
Prendergast spoke about the viral video "Kony 2012," that has more than 86 million views on YouTube, in which he appears. The video and campaign by the San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children is aimed at bringing attention to the brutal Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court but has evaded capture.
Prendergast said the millions of young viewers who have seen the video are part of an effort to bring about the political will in the U.S. to end the crisis in Central Africa, where an estimated 9 million people have been murdered in Sudan and Congo, he said.
"What we have here is a situation, this extraordinary movement of young people, of 13 and 14-year-olds to people in their early-20s who are having an impact directly on legislators and U.S. congressmen and the president himself to give them the political urging and political will to act," he said.
Prendergast encouraged students to take action, solicit the help of friends and family and to turn to social-media outlets, where they will be heard.
"The voice you have today matters more than it ever did before and what we can do is raise our voices for the things we care about collectively," he said.
The community is invited to attend a screening and discussion of one of Prendergast's films on Monday from 7-9 p.m. at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.