Skip to Main Content

Activist Speaks of Optimism and Hope

Greeley Scholar Tells Students: Get Involved

John Prendergast speaks with students
"Your voice makes a difference,” John Prendergast told students at the Day Without Violence. He is UMass Lowell’s 2012 Greeley Peace Scholar.

By Sandra Seitz

John Prendergast has seen a lot of heartache, yet his message to UMass Lowell students was full of hope and empowerment.

“Now more than ever, your voice makes a difference,” Prendergast told students at the Day Without Violence, where he spoke as UMass Lowell’s 2012 Greeley Peace Scholar. He joins a distinguished list of former scholars, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee.

Prendergast has worked for 25 years to stop human rights violations and foster peace in Africa, serving with the Clinton administration, the Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Institute of Peace, among others. He is co-founder of the Enough Project, an initiative affiliated with the Center for American Progress that seeks to end genocide and other crimes against humanity, including use of child soldiers. He appears in “KONY 2012” to help raise awareness of Invisible Children’s efforts to bring Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, indicted for war crimes, to justice.

But Prendergast is enthusiastic about Africa and optimistic about its progress. 

African Nations Doing Well

African nations are making good progress, when compared with the United States and Western European countries in the early periods of their own independence, argued Prendergast, although “the process was delayed by colonialism and complicated by dealing with the consequences of advanced weapons technology.”
His optimism flows from several sources. People’s movements have been extraordinarily effective in ending conflicts, such as in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola. Bringing international pressure against “blood diamonds” took the profit motive out of violence in those countries, opening the way to conflict resolution by the nations themselves.

The development of civil society groups is encouraging. Just like in the United States, the growth of service groups, advocacy groups and non-profits in developing nations shows that people are seizing the initiative to deal with problems and needs.

Also, regional organizations and coalitions of governments within Africa, including the continent-wide African Union, have begun to intervene in international crises. Such groups can impose sanctions or send in peacekeeping troops.

Three Steps to Get Involved

Prendergast called on students to get involved, to whatever degree they are able.

“With just a few minutes a week, you can join a group, be on a listserv,” he said. Such groups provide study guides and event alerts, like visiting a legislator. 

“If you can, take the extra step to make a personal connection, like the public school classes that are partnering with children in refugee camps,” he said. “That puts a human story and a human face in front of you, instead of it being an abstract issue of justice.”

With more time and effort, UMass Lowell could become a “conflict-free campus,” said Prendergast. “This is an expression of will and hope that urges corporations to take into consideration the sources of raw materials that they use in making products, that the materials do not come from conflict areas.” More than 60 campuses are involved so far in a college consortium.

“Social media magnify student voices,” said Prendergast. “The Obama campaign includes an office to monitor social media of students. It’s obvious how much influence you have.”

Tells Students, Go Abroad

Prendergast answered students’ questions with care, asking questioners about their own opinions, their plans and dreams.

Sophomore economics major Jim Titus of Westboro asked how he could pursue his interest in Africa.

“Get experience, even if it costs you money,” Prendergast told him. “Take advantage of any program to study abroad, work as an intern, or just go and volunteer if you have to. Being involved, learning for yourself – that’s part of your career development, building your resume.

“And don’t lock in on your end game,” he added. “Let your experience and understanding of the world alter what you choose to do. Let yourself evolve.”

Liberian-born senior Hawah Randolph, a political science major, is aiming for law school and would like to help in her country of origin.

“You have the tremendous advantage of having family in Liberia,” said Prendergast. “Use that network to support your volunteer work in human rights there.”