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Student Forum explores social concerns in D.C.


Members of the United Methodist Student Movement Steering Committee prepare the altar for opening worship at Student Forum 2008 in Washington.
UMNS photos by Vicki Brown.

By Vicki Brown*
June 12, 2008 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

More than 400 United Methodist students, campus ministers and young adult seminarians scattered across the U.S. capital during Student Forum 2008 to learn how they could use their voices to fight for just public policies.

From a panel on the racism of mascots held at the National Museum of the American Indian to an Anacostia River boat tour focusing on the environment, the students met with lobbyists, legislative aides, United Methodist agency officials and a tenants' group that works for equitable housing.


Students visit a "green" building during
an immersion trip focusing on
environmental issues.
  

The forum is an annual leadership development event for United Methodist college students and is sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and organized by the United Methodist Student Movement.

Students attending the May 22-25 forum said 11 immersion trips included in this year's event were eye-opening.

"I didn’t even know what the terms that are used for mascots really meant," said Heather Haauk, a University of Washington student who attended the panel discussion about legal efforts to cancel the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins National Football League team.

The panelists told the students that the word "redskin" refers to the red blood on the skins or scalps collected by bounty hunters, not skin color.

"These images are doing emotional violence to our people. We are not going to be at all polite about it," said Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee tribe, who was one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit.

The United Methodist Church has declared the use of Native American names and symbols for sports teams dehumanizing and racist.

Harjo said more than two-thirds of the Native American mascots have been eliminated in American sports. "There are about 900 left, but there were over 3,000 when we started this work," she said.

Immersion experiences

Besides the "Racism of Mascots" trip, students attended immersion experiences on poverty and homelessness; immigration; HIV/AIDS; gentrification; the environment; faith and politics; civil rights; children's rights and public education; women's rights; and health care and the living wage. Campus ministers attended a separate immersion trip aimed at engaging student leaders in change.

While Student Forum is held in a different location each spring, holding this year's event in the U.S. capital provided the opportunity for a new and different kind of leadership development experience, according to Jen Heald, the new chairperson of the United Methodist Student Movement Steering Committee.

Heald praised the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Washington-based social advocacy agency of the church, for organizing the trips and called the experiences a gift "difficult to measure."


Jen Heald leads a procession carrying planks of wood for the altar
during opening worship.

"We are not often able to focus on changing the system that is responsible for putting people in unjust situations." said Heald, a graduate of the University of Maryland who is entering Emory this fall.

Student Courtnika Hudson of Paine College said a highlight for her was the environmental immersion experience. She said the boat tour of the polluted Anacostia River, the visit to the Sierra Club, and a tour of the green building of the Friends Commission on National Legislation gave students a chance "actually see what’s going on."

Hudson was especially impressed with the presentation by Christina Yagjian of the Sierra Club. "She really pushed us to listen and to think about things we should do," she said.

John Opoku-Aush, a student at the University of Hawaii, said the tour of the U-Street Corridor, where much property was burned during riots in the 1960s, was informative. "Now the subway has come in and there has been an influx of well-to-do people, so the prices of the homes are going up," he said.

Craig Stephenson of the University of Missouri was particularly interested in the presentation on rural schools in South Carolina, along with a presentation by Jill Morningstar, education policy adviser for the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor. "She talked about what to expect in No Child Left Behind," Stephenson said of the embattled 2001 U.S. education law. "I’m a political science major, and education is my passion."

Prominent speakers

The Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Student Ministries, Vocation and Enlistment for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said many prominent people made an effort to take part in the immersion trips because they felt strongly about speaking to young leaders of the church.

"We wanted to take advantage of the location to provide a different kind of leadership development experience, and the work of others in the United Methodist connection allowed us to do that," Lassiat said. "We are so grateful to all the church agency staff who put in so much time organizing the trips and working directly with the students."

The immersion experiences included participants from other denominations, as well as United Methodist agency staff such as Jim Winkler, top executive of the Board of Church and Society, and Suanne Ware-Diaz, a staff executive of the Commission on Religion and Race. Staff from the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries, Bread for the World, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Children’s Defense Fund and many more organizations took part.

"Our hope is that every seminar will lead to some action," said Susan Burton, director for seminar design at the Board of Church and Society. "We try to encourage critical thinking about how these issues can be resolved. One of the most exciting things is to see young people use their voices, to equip them with the tools to move deeper, to work on changing the systems."

The students did take action by writing nearly 200 letters to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder asking him to change the team’s mascot.

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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