Hundreds of Teens March to Demand Intervention in Darfur
It started last year with three Montgomery County high school juniors talking about issues that mattered in the world and how they might make a difference. Yesterday, it culminated with several hundred teenagers marching to the Washington Monument with a call for ac- tion in Darfur.
With cheers and chants, they moved from the Sudanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue through Dupont Circle, gathering at the Sylvan Theater on the Mall for speeches and music by high school bands. The march, called Steps 4 Darfur, was organized by students at Northwest High School in Germantown.
They called for the U.S. government to stop the killing in Darfur, a region of western Sudan where conflict between rebels and Sudanese government-backed militias has left hundreds of thousands dead and several million people displaced.
Marches in Washington are hardly unusual, and almost any spring weekend brings a confluence of protesters in support of one cause or another. Among yesterday’s topics were climate change and globalization. What was different about the Darfur march was that the overwhelming majority of participants were high school students, with only a sprinkling of adults thrown in. Perhaps more
striking, the march was entirely organized by the students.
“It has been an amazing undertaking. I’ve been teaching 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Robert Travers, 41, an English teacher at Northwest and the faculty sponsor for the student club that organized the march.
“So often, you’ll see kids having big ideas — ‘We have to have a march!’ — and it turns out to be pie in the sky,” Travers added. “I’ll be darned if they didn’t do it. I’m stunned.”
Planning began in November as an outgrowth of meetings of the school’s Issues for Society Club. Three juniors, Maria Sebastian, Hiral Padia and Molly Mazuk, were outraged at the deaths in Darfur, coming on the heels of mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s.
“It’s a genocide, and 450,000 people have been killed,” said Mazuk, 17. “If this was in America, everybody would be outraged. Every single time, we say never again, and then two or three years go by and it happens again.”
The girls decided to organize a march. “It kind of coalesced into a schoolwide project,” Travers said. “Molly, Maria and Hiral are so passionate about the subject.”
They began making phone calls, but nothing happened. No one would respond to messages. The girls persisted and gradually made headway. “They went through mountains of red tape,” Travers said.
It took months to negotiate a permit from the National Park Service. Another permit had to be obtained from the D.C. police.
“Of course, being a teenager comes with the stigma of being naive, not being able to put together such a large event,” said Padia, 17. “But there are people who respect teenagers. Being a high school stu- dent has been an advantage in disguise.”
They designed and obtained a copyright for a Steps 4 Darfur logo, and they raised $3,000 by selling Tshirts and wristbands. They used social networking Web sites to spread the word to other schools.
Yesterday morning, students from Northwest, Walter Johnson, Montgomery Blair, Clarksburg and Quince Orchard high schools in Montgomery gathered in front of the Sudanese Embassy, while others came from Fairfax County and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
District resident George Ripley, 58, who described himself as a social activist and came to express support for the protest, marveled at the the demonstrators marching down Massachusetts Avenue. “It just makes my heart sing,” he said. “These are all kids — this is amazing.”
As the event wrapped up yesterday afternoon, Padia said she was “surprised by the amount of people that came up and supported us.”
Added club secretary Nari Lee, 16, “Especially since we’re teenagers.”