Letter to Liz Walker, host of Sundays with Liz Walker on CBS/4
I imagine this story will be dear to your heart.
I'm working on an initiative to rally the entire town of Needham to raise public awareness of the atrocities being committed in the first genocide of the 21st century, that being in the Darfur region of Sudan. The idea is to blanket the town --- its houses of worship, its businesses, its schools and its homes --- with a consistent visual image, the result of which would be so noteworthy that it would attract not only local, but also national media attention. Needham would be unique in the whole of the U.S. as rallying around this humanitarian cause. This could lead to a "tipping point," i.e. the idea could spread and take hold in other places.
The project has many potential benefits. Even if no specific impact is made at the policy level, consciousness will surely be raised locally. Needhamites will feel rightly proud of their center-stage position in this effort, as the whole town will be unified around the simple humanitarian theme of saving lives. Young people will learn that individual initiatives can indeed be effective, sometimes powerfully so.
The visual image would come from large banners that could be draped on buildings or staked into the ground, as well as smaller versions that could be used in window displays or as lawn signs.
The banners and signs themselves (which come from the Save Darfur Coalition in Washington, D.C.) will be provided at no cost (I'm bearing the cost personally for the time being), as the main idea is only to raise awareness (which must necessarily come before money or action). The message will not be political, but rather purely humanitarian. Contribution possibilities will be mentioned, but only after-the-fact.
As to the current status of the project (which began only one month ago --- the week after the Passover seder which sparked the idea):
I'm communicating with all of the houses of worship in Needham through the Needham Clergy Association. So far, besides meeting with the Clergy Association itself, I've met with a number of Outreach Committees and did a few board level presentations. Two synagogues and three churches have already expressed their approval and support of the program. (Three banners are already on prominent display, with the other two going up within a couple days.) And I'm still slated to speak at two more outreach committees.
The business community appears ready and anxious to participate --- several businesses are just waiting for their signs/banners to arrive. I've been invited to speak at an upcoming Rotary Club luncheon and the Needham Business Association has committed to provide active assistance.
Students at the World Peace Club at Needham High School have committed to distributing packets (including lawn signs, explanatory literature, etc.) to Needham's individual homes. Paul Richards, NHS principal, is strongly supportive of this initiative, as it takes the students out of pure fundraising mode (they had been selling candy bars and bracelets, with the proceeds going to a worthy charity for the cause of saving children in Sudan), and it puts them into a more active communications role.
Besides the High School, I'm now in touch with the principals of all the other schools in town.
The Needham Times, our main local newspaper, started covering the story in their May 11 edition. The story included a photo of the first banner going up --- facing the main entrance of Needham High School. The initiative also was highlighted in the "thumbs up" piece (first position) on the editorial page in that same edition. The Needham Cable Channel featured the project (very nicely) on their May 18 news show.
The "spiritual guidance" introduction of the May 8 session of Needham's Town Meeting, by Rabbi Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah, I think took the assembly by surprise (this has now been confirmed by hearing it from a few Town Meeting members) by speaking of the Torah portion of that week: (roughly) "thou shalt not stand idly by when harm is being done to your neighbors," a brief history of the word genocide, a brief summary of the situation in Darfur, an exhortation to action in general, and a specific mention of our local example, in which he urged Town Meeting members to participate in the program when they're approached.
The Massachusetts Save Darful Coalition invited me to present the project at their upcoming meeting on June 6. Based on our experiences in Needham, I think they'd like me to lead a broader state-wide effort.
The story has several potential angles. There's the question as to why so few people are even aware of the situation in Darfur. There's the question as to whether a single individual can really make a difference (which is what we were discussing at our seder with respect to Darfur). There's the story of how a whole town, its religious institutions, its businesses and its citizens can become unified around a humanitarian theme, and feel good about itself and its role in consciousness raising, first locally but then possibly much more broadly. There's the "money angle," i.e. by taking away the request for or expectation of a contribution, people appear to be more willing to visibly express their feelings in support of their fellow humans. It's like free catharsis. There's the story of who actually benefits from an iniative like this --- is it really the people of Darfur?
I know you'll give the idea of producing a segment on the "Needham Darfur Initiative" serious consideration, for which I thank you. If the story develops as expected, it will be programs such as yours that propel it onto the national stage. Even if it doesn't, the local benefits are already tangible, and you might be interested in that.
I'm keeping a blog on the project which you'll want to take a look at if you're interested in going further. It's at: http://NeedhamDarfur.blogspot.com.
I'm anxiously awaiting your reply.