By Molly Majewicz
As a first-time attendee of the Social Research Social Justice Conference at Muhlenberg College, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first session I attended focused on fat-shaming and body image; the second session I attended focused on China and human rights policies; the third session I went to was centered around political power and change; and, finally, the fourth presentation was focused on media coverage and activism. To say that these topics were all different is an understatement. However, they were all, surprisingly and refreshingly, related to the topic of social justice.
My favorite panel was the Political Power and Change session. Matt Dacher, a senior at Muhlenberg College, presented first on the deception of development in Bangladesh and how NGO’s undermine their state’s capacity and growth. He discussed how the country of Bangladesh is described as a weak state with a strong society because of the non-governmental organizations in place—they’ve essentially formed a parallel state. The democratic government hasn’t grown stronger or more stable since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. There are no state laws and although the state has the capacity for various services, like medical care, etc. no one uses them. In fact, the government has the highest rates of corruption in the world. NGO’s in Bangladesh are currently gaining legitimacy as a “government” because they are doing more people than the state is and, therefore, is inhibiting the state from developing; the government is distrusted and citizens aren’t participating in democracy. At the end of his presentation, Matt asked a couple interesting questions: Is a weak state/strong society an option for other countries? And do we really need a central government?
Next, Christian Paris, also a senior at Muhlenberg College, presented on the topic of peaceful protest methods and their development, specifically in Tibet post-2008. He mentioned groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress and their movement for total independence from the People’s Republic of China (they’re actually directly sponsored by the Dalai Lama). Christian talked about their Active Non-Violence Education Center that is teaching methods of non-violence and persuasion. Another movement he mentioned was Gu-Chu-Sum. This movement focuses on the power of the narrative, telling stories of Tibetan survivors and preserving the Tibetan identity through such stories. The group he most passionately discussed was Students for a Free Tibet. Their peaceful protest methods included interconnectivity, creative and innovate approaches through outlets like art and music, and the emphasis that redirection must be reimagined. Having studied abroad in Nepal, so close the country of Tibet, Christian was able to integrate personal knowledge into his presentation.
Following Christian’s presentation, Nick Mastria of Lafayette University presented a comparison of the peaceful protest tactics used in the 1978 Iranian Revolution and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. He noted at the beginning that nonviolent movements are significantly more successful, historically-speaking, than violent movements. Both of these revolutions were successful because of their diversity of participation, diversity of protests (dispersion and concentration), their persistence and resilience, and inevitable back-firing and loyalty shifts. One notable difference between these revolutions was the use of social media in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution that helped participants mobilize quickly.
During the question session, I specifically asked Christian and Nick their opinions on “slacktivism” the idea of using social media to bring about activism as a peaceful protest method, and is it effective? Does it bring about actual change? Nick responded quickly saying that social media is indeed helpful and used the Orange Revolution as his supporting case. He continued on to say that even here in the U.S., using social media to spread awareness is always helpful. In a brief rebuttal, I asked if sharing a video on Facebook, for example, was as effective as staging a sit-in or peaceful march? Christian responded to that question, stating his opinion that slacktivism is not actually as powerful as being on the front lines of a peaceful protest, or even sharing the narratives of those effected by a movement.
I enjoyed the stimulating questions and answers that followed the panel. Throughout the day, I was thoroughly impressed by the participants’ knowledge on their research topics. I am interested in attending again next year, and maybe even presenting.
For more information on the conference, see my full length article: Social Research Social Justice: The Wide Variety of Presentations in 2016