Q&A: Alizza Punzalan-Hall, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg

83D: What is the Plight & Promise of Africa Initiative?

APH: It is a yearlong effort by Eckerd College to raise Africa's profile through academic studies, activism and community awareness featuring lectures, panel discussions, photo exhibits, films, theater, dance, you name it, across the spectrum.

83D: Where did the idea to do this initiative originate?

APH: It stems from a March 2009 visit to Eckerd by John Prendergast, human rights activist and co-founder of an anti-genocide project called Enough. He spoke to students about the situation in Darfur in western Sudan and what happened there in 2004. Usually when a guest lecturer visits, they talk, they leave we move on. This time it was different. Our students, who are very socially conscious, were exceptionally moved, intensely interested. They said to him, "Please don't tell us about this horrific tragedy and leave us hanging. Help us know how to react, to do something.'' That's what John Prendergast did. He left five or six things that you can do. So we decided to bring him back.

83D: Then what happened?

APH: Bill Felice, chair of Eckerd's International Relations & Global Affairs program, and I next sought approval to bring John back for two weeks in March 2010. The idea soon blossomed into more. We started thinking about doing a week-long focus on issues affecting Africa -- genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity. Then we started talking around campus about what other departments were doing regarding Africa: history classes, students coming together to talk about Africa issues, groups planning visits to Africa. It didn't take long to see that there was a momentum already beginning. It was a matter of pulling it together. Then we started saying, what about doing a semester? What about a whole year? We finally decided to focus on Africa from January 2010 to January 2011 spanning two academic years. And once we got the greater community involved, it really mushroomed.

83D: Can you give me an example of one of the challenges you faced and how you overcame it?

APH: When we decided to go down this path, it was the middle of spring semester, toward the end of the academic year and people had other things on their minds. Planning for the next academic year isn't easy when you have to grade exams or take tests. So we started with leadership. President Don Eastman and Dean Lloyd Chapin of Academic Affairs. Once we got their buy-in, that gave us motivation to meet with the faculty leadership to talk through the idea of a cross-disciplinary approach. Our student body president (Lauren DeLalla) got involved. We had about 100 conversations by the end of summer to get lots of perspectives. I didn't want to be in my own little dream sequence.

83D: What has been the highlight of the initiative so far?

APH: Number 1 certainly was the visit by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel in a joint talk with John Pendergrast called "From the Holocaust to Darfur: If We Had Only Learned Our Lesson.'' It was a free event held at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. We gave out every ticket; one-third were given out in a two-day period. We had such an incredible response from people from all over the state, but especially from high school teachers, counselors and students who had been studying the Holocaust. People recognized Wiesel's appearance here as an opportunity of a lifetime.

83D: Is there anyway for people who missed his visit to see it?

APH: We're going to make parts of his appearance available on our website using Vimeo.

83D: Any other top events?

APH: The Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert -- 1,500 came out for that. We have so many really heavy academic parts to the initiative that we wanted to balance that with something that would have a broader appeal in the community.

Also, in terms of substance and meaning, the appearance by New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof was big. We partnered with the Florida Holocaust Museum, the Poynter Institute and Studio 620. Kristof talked about his book, "Half the Sky'' at an event at the Palladium Theater. All 850 seats were full. He also did a Q&A earlier in the day with our students. They had a lot of questions about conflict in the eastern Congo where sexual violence and rape make it most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman or a girl. With the immediacy of the earthquake in Haiti getting so much attention, there were lots of questions about why the Congo conflict that's affecting 500,000 people doesn't get more attention. To have this journalist come and give his insights was just tremendous.

And for fun and creativity, the three photo exhibits: Congo/Women Portraits of War; The Forgotten Children of Ethiopia by Eckerd student Bradley Ennis; and Darfur/Darfur at the Florida Holocaust Museum.

83D: What are the must-see events yet to come?

APH: Julie Livingston, a professor from Rutgers, will be talking about cancer as an emerging epidemic and the affects of that in public health in Africa. And Edward Kissi, a USF-Tampa professor, will be talking about the role of the United Nations in genocide.

We're also bringing in Author Dave Eggers, who wrote "What is the What,'' a novelized biography of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. We have assigned it as summer reading for incoming freshmen. It's an extraordinary story about Valentino Achak Deng's journey from Sudan to Ethiopia to Atlanta and back to Sudan where he helped build the first school in his village. Deng will also be here with Eggers in September.

83D: Have there been any surprises, pleasant or otherwise?

APH: Yes, Bill Felice and I were invited to present at The Africa Network conference. Attending were administrators and faculty from liberal arts colleges across the nation. We didn't realize how little support exists for African studies departments at small liberal arts colleges. We were invited to present before the initiative even started. They were excited by the concept itself. The feedback has been incredible. We've received wonderful compliments and met so many people who want to replicate what we're doing.

83D: So what's the next initiative?

APH: The question I get asked most frequently is, "Are you going to take on Asia next?'' We're not sure yet. Doing the initiative has made us think harder and more critically about what value this brings to Eckerd. What does it mean for retention of students, for recruitment, for engagement of alumni? For this initiative, interest has spiked in all three of those areas. So many alumni say, "Wow, thank you so much for giving us ways to attend and engage the community.'' Students on campus are already talking about hosting a peace conference in the spring. We're discussing bringing John Prendergast back. And we'd like to invite speakers from nonprofits, different advocacy groups, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch. This time we'd like to expand to invite other colleges from across the state to join in. Florida International University has already expressed interest in being our public university partner. We'd like something that is statewide and that breaches the borders within Florida. Wouldn't that be ideal? That's the activism piece of raising the Africa profile.

Diane Egner, 83 Degrees publisher and managing editor, shares insights from thought leaders by conducting interviews and editing their answers for succinctness. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is the publisher and managing editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. 
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