Students Explore Social Justice through Colombian Prism
May 8, 2009
With the help of 3 gifted speakers at this year's Robbins Memorial Symposium, Exeter students explored the challenging theme of Colombia's long and ongoing struggle for social justice.
"The Symposium opened my eyes to the lack of understanding most Americans, including myself, have about the nature of this conflict," says Ilana '09, who is taking Exeter's course Contemporary Latin America. "It showed the humanity of a country too often maligned as a hopeless gulag of drugs and violence."
This year's 2-day Symposium was wide-ranging in scope, beginning with the colonial struggle for power and independence, which ultimately planted the seeds of the civil strife of modern Colombia.
The Symposium Committee carefully chose speakers whose perspectives would enrich the discussions:
- Margarita Martinez: an AP reporter in Bogota and director and producer of La Sierra, a film set in notorious Medellin, Colombia
- Silvana Paternostro: journalist and author of several books on Colombia, including My Colombian War, a memoir of her return to her childhood home
- James Henderson: professor of international studies, author, academic, and Peace Corps veteran
The Symposium kicked off with a viewing of Martinez's film, La Sierra, which documents the violent struggle among gangs in the barrios of Medellin—a struggle which is an extension of the competition for power between leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary groups. Her film follows the tragic experiences of 3 barrio youths caught up in the battle.
"Although I had heard briefly about the paramilitary-guerilla fighting in Colombia, La Sierra humanized the events, and gave me an invaluable look at what kinds of conflict the Colombian drug trade can fuel," says Willem '09, who is also taking Contemporary Latin America.
Ilana had a similar reaction. "The raw manner in which it was presented gave it a real resonance. I came away with a new understanding of the nature of the Colombian conflict. The film's unflinching documentation of the lives of young adults forced into violence showed that the grave effects of the war extend well beyond the fighters themselves."
During the student assembly, Henderson spoke about the historical development of the demand for drugs, particularly in the U.S. Paternostro told of her quest to understand her privileged upbringing in Colombia. She related stories of her return to Colombia, which allowed her to see that the wide disparity between the wealthy elites and the many poor who support them was a key cause of civil strife in the country.
In the open-ended discussion that followed assembly, students asked the guest speakers many questions, including:
"How can you prepare yourself for the Peace Corps and what benefits might it have for learning about other cultures?"
Henderson discussed the importance of language skills. Anthropology Instructor Don Foster added, "Not only do you have the chance to experience a new culture while in the Peace Corps, volunteers often stay involved in public service after they leave the Peace Corps."
"Can you explain the different goals of the competing leftists and rightists to help me better understand the conflict?"
A lengthy discussion followed, centered on the lack of state services. Paternostro summarized the problem as "the absence of state," particularly in rural areas, which leaves the door open for the guerrillas to gain influence by providing services such as schools and clinics and financial support by purchasing coca.
"Is there anything that students like us can do to help reduce the conflict or improve life in Colombia? Is it hopeless?"
Martinez said that students could get involved with charitable networks that provide aid. For example, by donating books, crayons or other school materials targeted directly to a specific local community or village.
At the end of the discussion, Paternostro asked how the Symposium had changed students' understanding of Colombia. "I had usually thought about this problem in relation to its effects inside the US," said Willem. "I now see clearly that the root of the drug problem—as well as many of its negative effects—lies in Colombia. And this is where we must start when thinking about solutions."
The Robbins Memorial Symposium was established in honor of the late David C. Robbins '78. Robbins went on to Brown University, where he did extensive research on the problems of developing countries. He was also a research assistant in the Institute for East West Securities. Robbins researched—academically and through travel—the roots of poverty, famine and revolution. Each year, speakers have been invited to campus to speak on such diverse topics as globalization, poverty, the United Nations and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Interested in learning more?
To find out more about Martinez's film, see La Sierra.
For a review from salon.com of Paternostro's book, My Colombian War, on her experiences returning to her homeland, see book review link.
For descriptions of Exeter courses in History and Latin America culture, see courses link.