A guide to campus groups engaged in political advocacy
If you’re interested in getting involved in politics, there are a number of groups on campus that focus on specific issues. The Tech highlights six of them.
MIT Students for Bhopal
One of the newest activist groups on campus, MIT Students for Bhopal (MITSB) focuses on the chemical disaster that occurred in December 1984 in the Indian city of Bhopal. In the chemical gas leak, which was attributed to neglect of safety procedures at a chemical plant operated by the American company Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), tens of thousands were killed or severely wounded.
The group is a part of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which works toward three causes: health care for the victims, clean water for current residents of the disaster area, and justice and economic rehabilitation.
“Justice is for the corporations involved to take responsibility. Economic rehabilitation means that those who lost their livelihood are properly compensated,” said club president Karthik Shekhar G. “This agenda of the group coincides with survivor groups in India.”
Previous events have included a session with one of the lawyers representing Bhopal victims in a suit against Dow, participating in the “Walk Your Talk” campaign directed at Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by spelling out the slogan with their bodies in Lobby 7, and a recent conference for activists held at MIT. Last spring, the group displayed a photo exhibit in the Stata Center documenting the disaster and its aftermath. Group founder Leonid Chindelevitch PhD ’10 said MITSB also holds a public protest each year on the anniversary of the incident.
This semester, Shekhar says the group is trying to add a more centered public exhibit. “We are planning a social event for groups interested in corporate responsibility and student rights,” he added.
MITSB has also targeted the U.S. government on the issue; Chindelevitch wants President Obama to discuss the tragedy when he visits India next week.
Chindelevitch originally became involved through MIT Amnesty International, when Ryan Bodanyi, the founder of the International Students for Bhopal network, came to talk. Inspired to take action, he joined the Boston group of Students for Bhopal and worked with them for a year and a half before he started a chapter at MIT in 2008. The meetings for the campus chapter are held in conjunction with the Boston group.
In 2008, Sustainability@MIT (S@MIT) arose from the consolidation of different environmental groups on campus. The group aims to promote environmental sustainability, both locally and across the globe, promoting efficient use of natural resources.
“Our members have been involved on the academic side, campus greening and awareness, and also off-campus outreach, including some involvement with the Cambridge community and involvement with the World Student Community for Sustainable Development,” said former club president Aaron M. Thom ’11. The group also aided in the development of MIT’s programs for minors and certificates in sustainability.
S@MIT holds an annual MIT Sustainability Summit and Free Meet exchange event, where students can swap usable items. On Earth Day, there is a Bike Repair Event, which aims to encourage the use of bicycles. “We always emphasize the issues we’re working with when organizing events,” said Thom.
Campaigns done by S@MIT have gone beyond the local confines of the Institute. Thom and a few members travelled to Copenhagen, Denamrk, in 2009 to represent MIT and the World Student Community for Sustainable Development at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. While there, they organized an officially recognized side event, which, according to Thom, “discussed the relationship between youths in developing and developed nations in climate change action.”
Palestine@MIT formed in December 2008, following the start of an Israeli military offensive against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Frustrated by the lack of campus awarness of Palestinian issues, students came together to form the group. “We were all pretty shocked that no one had heard about this, and that was when we decided to start the group,” said Deema M. Totah ’12, the group’s current president.
The group aims to spread awareness of Palestinian political and social issues, both historically and at the present. According to Totah, the group does not support any particular political party in either the U.S. or the Palestinian territories. “It’s a very open group, and we are open to all political views,” she added.
The group is mostly concerned with human rights for Palestinians living in the occupied territories. “Any issues that we see as a violation of Palestinian human rights, we try to speak up against,” says Totah.
Every year, Palestine@MIT holds Palestine Awareness Week, where include a number of film screenings and lectures; Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky has been a featured presenter during the event.
The organization also helps out with Aspire, a volunteer program that ships textbooks to universities in post-conflict countries. Most of the fundraising efforts from the group go towards putting together events on campus, but Totah hopes to bring Kayan, a Palestinian feminist organization, to MIT next semester. She also plans on screening films from the Boston Palestine Film Festival, which takes place each October.
MIT Students for Israel
MIT Students for Israel (MITSI) is a group aiming to educate students and faculty about Israel’s culture and politics. Club president Rachel C. Bandler ’13 says that, in addition to Israeli politics, the organization emphasizes what they see as the value of reinforcing the American–Israeli connection. “We want to show the importance of America maintaining a strong relationship with Israel due to mutual interests and values,” she said. “As a democracy in the Middle East, Israel and America lie ideologically very close to each other,” she said.
The group was not as active for a couple years prior to Bandler deciding to restart the group last year. Bandler says that such a group is needed to provide a resource for students in search of information related to Israel. “People are going to have these questions,” she said. “If they have a specific issue or question, we want them to be able to ask us for historical or factual information.”
Bandler says MITSI also hosts booths in Lobby 10 where they provide information and answer questions about Israel. “It’s very personal,” she said. Last year, the organization brought in Israeli soldiers to talk about their experiences in Israeli military operations. This year, MITSI will be hosting an event with the Ayalim Association, featuring young Israelis involved in projects in the Negev desert.
MIT’s chapter of the worldwide human rights organization Amnesty International acts as an activist group, neither supporting particular candidates nor becoming involved in charged political discourse. Rather, the organization involves itself in politics by urging governments to take action against violations of human rights.
“For U.S. elections, we do a lot of letter writing to Congressmen regarding issues that are in or out of the country,” said Anahita Maghami ’11, co-president of MIT Amnesty International. The group is known for many letters to governments and organizations advocating human rights causes. MIT’s chapter of Amnesty International also holds screenings, organizes rallies, and invites speakers with experience in human rights.
In the past, Amnesty International had advocated for issues in Sudan, Iran, Burma, and Afghanistan; their focuses have included women’s rights, environmental issues, and the release of political prisoners. Maghami emphasized that MIT’s chapter encourages its members to pursue issues that most interest them.
“The most important thing about Amnesty International at MIT is that the issues raised really depend on what members want to do,” she said. “If they care about a certain issue, they go ahead and organize an event, invite a favorite activist or political figure. They educate and raise awareness.”
Maghami described raising such awareness as MIT Amnesty International’s “primary focus”, but the group also spends time fundraising for its causes. The group works closely with other activist groups on campus, including the Global Poverty Initiative, Women and Gender Studies at MIT, and the Technology and Culture Forum, who often co-sponsor events.
The group is open to all members of the local community and not just MIT students. “Some of our members are alum or people who are not even at MIT,” Maghami said. “We’ve had Harvard students coming; we’ve had MIT employees coming. Both the meetings and events are open to public.”
Science Policy Initiative
Centered at the crossroads of academia and policy, the Science Policy Initiative is an organization aiming to educate scientists about the decision-making process in Washington and how it can affect their research. “Our goal is to help grad students in the sciences and engineering be able to learn about what goes on in the policy world,” said group member Michael A. Henninger G. “We want to know how decision making in Washington affects us in the lab.”
The club grew out of a 2006 IAP class on science politics, run by several graduate students. The seminar, entitled “Science Policy Bootcamp,” aimed to introduce graduate scientists to the science policy-making process and how they could go into a policy–oriented career. The students received enough positive feedback from the seminar to officially register the group under the ASA.
In addition to running Science Policy Bootcamp every IAP, SPI also participates in Congressional Visit Day, during which anywhere between 15 and 20 graduate students are sent to Washington to visit their congressional representatives and advocate for science. Last year, students pressured congressmen to re-authorize the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which invested federal funds into science-related research and education. According to Henninger, MIT is one of few universities that actually sends students to Washington for the day.
SPI hosts Lunch Talks, where people involved with science and policy are invited to come speak, and monthly discussions on an issue the group deems significant to members. Students from other student groups as well as other universities attend these meetings.
Henninger believes that being aware of science policy is beneficial to researchers. “So much of the research that goes on here is funded by tax dollars,” he said. “We are all vaguely aware of that fact, but not so much of the process...that involves a lot of policy decisions, governmental machinery, and politics.”
“There are all sorts of fascinating dynamics. It’s enlightening to learn about those and it’s almost a responsibility to learn about those,” Henninger said. “The better we understand that as scientists, the better we can plead our case and see where it fits into society.”