Just a few years ago, the small Goldstein Lounge in the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center would have been overflowing with supporters for a Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition event.
This past Saturday, the space provided room to spare.
“I think the presentation was excellent and clear and the people there were small in number,” said PDEC Coordinator David Rosenberg, “but I guess that’s part of the issue that we’re addressing — how to sustain people’s interest in the crisis over a long stretch of time.”
Author and journalist Rebecca Hamilton spoke at this final event of the year. She touted her new book, “Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide.” Seventeen people turned out to hear her speak about the history of the “Save Darfur” movement and its impact, both positive and negative.
The citizen-led movement began in late 2004, on the heels of the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that genocide had taken place in Darfur, a little known region in western Sudan. His intent was to encourage the United Nations Security Council to take action.
“What it did do, and this was not the plan on the part of the Bush administration, was to galvanize ordinary American citizens, and it was this sort of unlikely coalition that really shook up the U.S. political system on this issue,” said Hamilton. “Because of the outcry of citizens, they managed to keep it high on the agenda of the U.S. government for a number of years.”
Darfur shifted the nation’s focus away from the fragile peace agreement between North and South Sudan, Hamilton explained, and simplified the conversation to enable “mass movement advocacy.”
Both the Pittsburgh and Jewish communities were early and strong supporters of “Save Darfur,” holding rallies, writing to politicians, and donating money and time. The impact was powerful.
“The question, though, is what did all that mean to Darfur,” said Hamilton. Although the volunteers and others involved had good intentions, she explained, they stopped paying attention to that question, and were basing their interventions on what might have been more helpful in Rwanda.
“The difficulty was not only that Darfur was not Rwanda, but perhaps even more so, the world in 2005 was not the same world as we were in in 1994.”
She explained that in concrete terms, the movement certainly had a positive impact between the money raised and the amount of lives saved. But now that the focus has shifted, the future of the movement here in the United States and in Sudan is uncertain.
The national “Save Darfur” movement expanded its mission from ending genocide in Darfur, to ending it worldwide, and now operates under the name “United to End Genocide.”
This has left the few local organizations across the nation devoted to Darfur confused and feeling stranded.
Bob Goode initially got involved in the movement years ago through the Church of the Redeemer, where he belongs. He, like many others, has struggled to stay involved with it and is uncertain of what he should be doing.
“I was looking for a prescription,” he said of his hopes for Hamilton’s talk, which she was unwilling to provide. As a journalist, she maintained that was not her role.
“I’m a little confused,” Goode said.
(Ilana Yergin can be reached at email@example.com.)