Adrienne Wooster (AW): What first prompted you to work with students to advocate for threatened academics at Sarah Lawrence College? What have been your greatest challenges and successes?
Janet Reilly (JR): It was actually my contact with Scholars at Risk (SAR) that motivated me to do this kind of work with my students. I wasn’t aware that this kind of advocacy was a possibility before that. [In the past] I have worked in refugee protection – it’s my field – and I teach human rights, but I had never done human rights advocacy with students. It was at a presentation made by SAR representatives at Bard College while I was at a conference there as part of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education about a year ago that I first became aware of SAR’s work. During the presentation, the SAR representatives mentioned the work that they do with student advocacy seminars, and I immediately thought that it was an amazing opportunity to be able to involve my students in that kind of work. I was also moved by the work that Scholars at Risk was doing on behalf of imprisoned scholars. Afterward, I followed up with Dan Munier and Margaret Coons [of SAR’s Advocacy Team] and was pleased by and appreciative of the support that they provided. It is my first year running an advocacy seminar at Sarah Lawrence College. I integrate the advocacy work into a year-long course I teach on forced migration and refugee issues. Prior to establishing advocacy for imprisoned scholars as part of the course, I had some concerns about how [the course would be formulated]. I spoke a lot with Margaret, who recommended presenting my students with cases from Venezuela. I thought these cases would be a good fit for my course, given the evolving situation with Venezuela and the fact that, unfortunately, a lot of people are currently being displaced.
AW: This semester, your students are working on the case of Venezuelan scholar Santiago Guevara. What types of on-campus advocacy have your students conducted?
JR: My students have split into different groups to conduct their advocacy. In addition to creating a lobbying group that prepared for advocacy in D.C., we conducted social media outreach, petitioning, and table events [on behalf of Guevara]. Student signatures for the petition were collected and brought to D.C. The social media group has put together a Facebook page and Twitter account – they have been re-Tweeting activities and developments related to Guevara’s case. There is a writing group which has been working on a couple different pieces for the campus magazine. There is one piece already published of an interview with one of the students in our class about her work with SAR. The writing group is also working on a couple of pieces that haven’t come out yet. [Additionally], there is a group working on putting together a panel about academic freedom and restrictions to academic freedom in Venezuela scheduled for April 20th on campus at 5:00pm. The panel is bringing together Dr. David Gomez Gamboa who is the director of an NGO called Open Classroom (Aula Abierta Venezuela) in Venezuela, Venezuelan professor Dr. Angelina Jaffe Carbonell, and Laura Cristina Dib Ayesta, a Venezuelan lawyer and human rights activist who is currently studying for her master’s in international human rights law at the University of Notre Dame. Professor Jaffe has come to our class to speak, and Laura Skyped in from Notre Dame to speak with us about her work in Venezuela. Furthermore, last summer, my colleague Mara Gross (the director of Sarah Lawrence’s Office of Community Partnerships) and I organized a program for refugee and immigrant families with the goal of supporting local refugee resettlement in Westchester and building community among the families, and the college faculty, staff, and students. At the program, I met Niurka Melendez and Hector Arguinzone who are Venezuelan asylum seekers and the founders of an organization called Venezuelan Immigrants Aid. Both Niurka and Hector have done wonderful work organizing and welcoming new arrivals from Venezuela to New York, helping people get acquainted with the city, and connecting them to organizations and services. They have come to our class and are coming to the panel as well. All of our classroom guests gave us a lot of information, but we thought we should share our knowledge more broadly – allowing our guests to have a greater impact speaking to a larger audience. My students are doing all the organizing [of the panel] in terms of making reservations, interfacing with the panelists, and advertising on campus and in the local community. We had one other small group of students who were working on a documentary film. They were trying to link together different news clips with a voiceover, however, they may need to redirect their focus.
AW: You and your students were present at SAR’s Student Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. on March 9th and advocated for Guevara on Capital Hill for the duration of March 10th. While advocating, who did you meet with and what were you hoping to accomplish?
JR: D.C. was an amazing experience. My students met with, I believe, fourteen different staffers for legislators. The lobbying group was in charge of putting those meetings together. They targeted representatives from both the local [NYC area] and also the individual representatives and senators for [each of the students’ home districts]. We were fortunate to bring [eleven out of fourteen] students down for the day. I have two students from Brattleboro, Vermont who were unable to schedule a meeting with Senator Leahy’s office prior to D.C., but were welcomed into his office while on the Hill. I also have students from Florida who were able to go to Marco Rubio’s office. I was impressed with the way that my students were able to work out a schedule that determined which constituents would meet with their representatives. They were very coordinated and received positive responses. They brought their petitions, a fact sheet about Guevara’s case, and a letter for legislators to sign on behalf of Guevara that would be sent to the Venezuelan ambassador. All but one of the legislators’ offices responded positively to the [students’ requests]. Legislators were fairly knowledgeable about the situation in Venezuela and were supportive in a bi-partisan way. Students were able to use one legislator’s enthusiasm and willingness to sign-on to the letter to fuel motivation for advocacy in others – it was kind of a snowball effect of positive responses that students could use to solicit more support. My students sent emails to staffers, thanking them for taking the time to meet. All staffers wanted digital copies of the fact sheet, letter, and petition. I think that my students have asked the offices of Rubio, Tsongas, Menendez, and Booker to sponsor the letter. The one disappointment was that we couldn’t get a meeting with Senator Elliot Engel, our local representative for Bronxville. What students have decided to do is try to get a district meeting with him instead.
AW: Do you have any advice that you would like to share with other student seminars and advocates?
JR: I feel that I have benefited so much from advice from students at Roger Williams University, SAR, and other groups that have done advocacy work before. I would just say if you’re thinking about conducting this advocacy work or recommending it to a faculty member – do it. I’m really amazed that this opportunity exists, because I am passionate about integrating theory and practice. [Working with SAR] was a new way of giving my students the means to engage in very meaningful work. We are honored to be part of this network. It has been an amazing learning process. So yeah, do it!