I firmly believe that knowing a city requires exploring it by foot. Fortunately for me, one of my class’ first activities in Buenos Aires, Argentina was a downtown walking tour. This tour completely altered my first impression of a city with a European look and feel, which was formed by a bus ride. Walking on sidewalks and approaching buildings and graffiti up close uncovered a characteristic that was truer of the city: one of political charge and change.
No place in downtown could better sum up Buenos Aires’ political tension than the Plaza de Mayo, a public space nestled among symbols of government power like City Hall and the Casa Rosada, home to the federal executive branch. A tall, black wire fence divided the plaza into two halves. One side boasted beautiful green grass, colorful flowers, and water fountains. Around lunch, unashamed young couples, students with books and iPods, and financial district workers congregated here. The plaza half was picture perfect and government controlled.
On the other side of the fence, policemen in riot gear were situated. Scattered patches of dead, brown grass, pigeons, and street vendors littered the public space, through which hundreds of pedestrians stampeded to and from work. The lack of visual niceties was made up for by an overabundance of passion represented by an incredible history.
My friend Grace, a political science major from Swarthmore, immediately sensed this energy. She had worked with non-profit organizations in Washington D.C. and of everyone I knew, she had the strongest sense of social justice. Grace pointed to a white scarf painted on the ground. “Can you believe it? We are actually where Las Madres de La Plaza de Mayo began!” she said.
These were her heroes: a group of mothers and grandmothers who began weekly Thursday marches of protest around the plaza when their children were abducted by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo successfully brought attention to the Argentine government. The white scarf initially symbolized peace, but now it and their organization are internationally recognized for human rights activism. Physically being where they brought about so much change was overwhelming and inspiring.
Buenos Aires wasn’t the only city where we encountered motivating advocacy. The Environmental Support Group (ESG), a pro-environment activist group, hosted us in Bangalore, India. ESG spearheaded many citywide environmental campaigns, held public meetings, filmed educational videos, published reports based on independent research, and had considerable courtroom and media presence. They were well known, successful in their attempts (after many failures, I’m sure). Their members included some of the most passionate people I’d ever met.
Something about activism seemed to resonate with us idealistic, slightly naive, yet increasingly aware twenty-somethings who were trying to make sense of the world and our role in it. The advocates we had learned about and knew personally were few in number. They were unhappy with the status quo. They took peaceful action that directed attention toward the wrongdoers. They took part in difficult yet rewarding work. They were regular citizens who successfully brought about change from the grassroots level, one step at a time.
If I cannot speak for everyone, at least this was the case for me. I admit that I can become incredibly absorbed in life at MIT, which can sadly be defined by schoolwork, problem sets, and on-campus activities. It’s an insular, perhaps semi-selfish lifestyle. During the term, keeping up to date with important news is difficult when I’m studying for an exam that is bigger in my mind and heart than the global food crisis, for example.
If anything, studying abroad made me more aware that life goes on outside of MIT and that this life isn’t going well for many. Extreme poverty and hunger continue to exist in the world; millions of people and infants die of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Development is destroying the environment. Women continue to be subjected to gender inequality. Human rights continue to be violated. Primary education is still not available for so many.
This bigger picture exposed me to the problems and to the courageous individuals who were on the frontlines, in the trenches, and on the ground addressing these issues. The seeds of caring about injustice and oppression were already in me; my trip abroad confirmed them and watered the soil through discussions with my professors and classmates and plain experience. But what would happen when I return to my old habitat of MIT? Would the plant grow?
I think that it will, especially given the work of student groups that are changing the campus climate. When I returned to MIT in the spring, I was very pleased to learn about the work of MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative. Two weekends ago, they hosted the inaugural Millennium Campus Conference that spread the word about international development issues. Famous names in the field attended, including public health practitioner Dr. Paul Farmer and economist Jeffrey Sachs.
The conference was incredibly inspiring. After feeling burdened by academically studying international development issues in 10 weeks of classes, I was refreshed and renewed with enthusiasm, passion, and idealism. Just like the mothers in Buenos Aires who fought for human rights and my hosts in Bangalore who advocated on behalf of the environment, we students want to be and will be the change of this generation. To steal a quote from the Global Poverty Initiative: Will you be a part of it?
If you’re interested in international development issues, try visiting http://gpi.mit.edu for more details about the MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative. In the press section, there is a fantastic resource manual that outlines the important issues facing our generation and compiles international development-related MIT activities, classes, and funding opportunities. I also recommend looking at Jeffrey Sachs’ End of Poverty, Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, and Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty.