Student panel reviews year's political and social issues
The International Affairs Association hosts Talk of the Campus 2012
April 27, 2012, 5:34 pm·
Trayvon Martin, immigration rights and the racial profiling of Muslim students — the Penn community has involved itself in some of the biggest national stories this year. As the semester winds down, the International Affairs Association brought together student leaders to discuss the year in review.
The Talk of the Campus 2012 panel took place in Stiteler Hall’s Silverstein Forum noon today.
Four student leaders — Wharton sophomore Tania Chairez, College junior Mak Hussain, College junior Aya Saed and Wharton senior Prameet Kumar — discussed the big political and social issues they were involved in on campus this year. They first shared personal stories and experiences and then fielded questions from a small audience.
Hussain, the president of the Muslim Students Association, recalled the days after the Associated Press broke news about how the New York Police Department secretly monitored several Muslim Student Associations in east coast universities, including Penn’s MSA.
The MSA had expressed its disappointment in the University’s official response following the news, which they believe should have more strongly supported its students. Hussain said that while his initial response was to release a statement, he decided to take action because the entire community was affected by it.
In late February, the Muslim Student Association held a demonstration on College Green to protest the NYPD’s actions and raise awareness about racial profiling. Students held manila folders with personal facts — their “NYPD file” — to show that there was more to them than their religion. Hussain said he didn’t expect to find out how many people cared about the issue. “People want to hear about it from a personal angle,” he said.
For Chairez, an undocumented immigrant and co-founder of Penn for Immigrant Right, her activism, too, stems from her own life. “I couldn’t sit in class and pretend everything was okay,” she said. “I was speaking from personal experience.” In October, Chairez came out about her status as an undocumented immigrant in a Daily Pennsylvanian op-ed.
Since then, she has devoted herself to the immigrant rights cause, founding the Penn for Immigrant Rights organization on campus and being an active member of DreamActivist Pennsylvania, an organization that advocates for the rights of immigrant communities. “I thought I had left all of the racism behind in Arizona near the border where it all started,” she said, “but it is still in South Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia — all around us.”
On March 14, she was arrested after taking part in a protest outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Center City. “The biggest shock I came across was people not understanding,” Chairez said. Many students don’t understand what it means to be undocumented, but she has noticed people are willing to learn more.
Saed, the UMOJA Planning Chair and DP columnist, spoke in depth about her activism around the Trayvon Martin incident. The death of Martin, who was shot and killed by a local neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, has received more press attention than the presidential race.
Saed organized Penn’s own Million Hoodies March last month, where nearly 200 students marched from Du Bois College House to LOVE Park to seek justice for Martin’s death. Speaking about hardships she encountered, Saed said, “It was really difficult to realize that even though the march happened, there are still people who are really critical about it.”
Finally, Kumar, a city politics beat reporter and former DP opinion editor, commented on the rewards and challenges that come with covering controversial issues as a journalist. “When you put a human face behind these things, it becomes more real for people,” he said. At the same time, he explained it is vital to keep an open mind. “You can’t report with preconceived notions whatsoever.”
According to Talk of the Campus 2012’s Facebook event page, the panel had originally included a representative from JStreet, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, to discuss the Penn Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference that was held in February. According to a statement by College senior and IAA Director of Academic Affairs Sarah Ahmed and outgoing IAA President, College senior Zachary Stone, PennBDS had also received an invitation to the panel.
But with two representatives speaking about BDS at the panel, the Executive Board of the IAA thought the discussion would skew towards that one topic. “The conversation was turning more to a debate about the legitimacy of PennBDS and less about the [overall] student experiences,” Ahmed said. The Board ultimately decided to remove BDS from the panel entirely.
College sophomore and Deputy Director of Academic Affairs Alice Xie added that she learned a lot dealing with the controversy. “This is finals week and people still took the time to write us essays about their positions,” she said.
For Ahmed, the panel connected her more to both the panelists and taught her more about their causes. “I realized that it is very easy to take student leaders and their causes for granted and simplify them,” Ahmed said.
After the event, students stayed to speak even further with the panelists. Wharton sophomore and IAA member Yadavan Mahendraraj said he didn’t come to hear a specific speaker, but came for the entire event. This was an opportunity for students to talk about their experiences as opposed to just their causes, he said.
This article has been updated to correctly reflect what Mahendraraj said about the panel. He said it was an opportunity for students to talk about their experiences as opposed to just their causes, not that this event “brought people out to talk about their causes.”