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Speakers challenge the mind

July 7, 2008

Speakers tell PLU audiences to reach outside themselves

Rich, diverse and often divergent voices came to PLU over the last year to challenge our outlook on life and our choices.

Should one eat meat, or not? What of world hunger, the environment, corporate greed, genocide and women’s rights? What can one person do to address these issues? All speakers stressed that individual choices and actions do matter – even when faced with problems on a global scale.

Last fall kicked off with world-renowned philosopher Peter Singer, who is credited with launching the animal rights movement 30 years ago with his book “Animal Liberation.” He challenged students to think about what they eat, how their food was raised and how the animal was treated before it was killed for food. He also challenged ideas on giving money to panhandlers, or not.

“I’ve talked with panhandlers before and they’ve told me that just giving them money doesn’t do much,” Singer said. “They like people to notice them, even with a smile. The worst reaction is when people pretend that they don’t exist.”

The theme of individual responsibility reappeared this February during the Wang Center symposium on global health. Stephen Lewis challenged his listeners to not become hardened against the daily news feed of children dying, women being mistreated or the desecration of the environment.

Lewis is the former United Nations AIDS envoy to Africa. He is currently the professor of global health to the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an AIDS advocacy organization.

Speaking to a packed auditorium, Lewis recounted the defining moment in his career. It came while touring a pediatric AIDS ward in Africa, where he noticed every crib was filled with three, four, five babies, most infected with AIDS and clinging to life. Then a shriek made him freeze and snap his attention to the corner of the room.

A young mother was wailing. Her child had just died. This happened every 10 minutes in this ward. Given that the transmission of AIDS from mother to infant is entirely preventable, Lewis said he was disgusted that this scene, played out ever day, was allowed to continue.

On top of the AIDS pandemic, 10 million children under the age of five die each year of entirely preventable diseases. That’s 27,000 children a day.

“Has the world gone mad?” he asked. “How is it okay to live with this?”

Even before the recent crisis of rice shortages around the world, Lewis noted in February that major food programs have had to halve their allotment of food to developing countries. He cited a  lack of interest or support from developing nations, including the United States.

One of the most important issues facing the world today, Lewis insisted, was gender equality.

Around the world, women lack schooling,  are forced into marriages as young girls, endure genital mutilation and face systematic rape and butchery in places like the Congo. This mistreatment of women can be tied back to poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, he said.

Women’s rights and women in power were also addressed by such speakers as Brenda Miller, who read from her book “Season of the Body,” and a brash talk by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner on her  push to secure rights for working mothers.

Sut Jhally, the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, urged men to seriously consider how male gender roles can contribute in violence against women. Jhally spoke at PLU’s first Men Against Violence conference.

Those who would have us think about economics also visited campus. UCLA professor Naomi R. Lamoreaux spoke on how corporations can be destroyed by greedy managers, while “the father of supply-side economics,” economist Arthur Laffer, talked in March about his views on the current climate of recession, deficits and tax stimulus packages.

On Earth Day, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver remarked she could count on the PLU audience to appreciate her sense of humor, even though she’d encountered audiences in other states that did not. She pushed her listeners to think and not sleepwalk through life.

Bookending the year, speakers again focused on the clout of the individual.

In early November, Peter Metzelaar talked about choices his mother made in the winter of 1944 to escape the Nazis and lead her son to safety. The two first hid in a cave and then a room in Hauge. When his mother discovered informants were planning to disclose their whereabouts,  she disguised herself as a Red Cross nurse and led her son to a new safe house.  Metzelaar recounted his story at the first Powell and Heller Family Conference in Support of Holocaust Education.

The year wrapped up in April with a talk by Carl Wilkens, the only American to remain in Rwanda through the 1994 genocide that claimed one million lives. Wilkens discussed the choice he made to stay, even as other relief and aid workers fled.

During the three months of violence, Wilkens helped save 400 orphans targeted to be hacked to death by local militia bands. He stressed that relationships and the willingness to stand firm helped him survive the horror and be at peace with his decision to stay.

“You need to realize the potential of taking that first step,” he said.