Class Activism

This weekend marks the end of the 40 days of Grassroot Soccer blitzes. These e-mails (and those Mailer-Daemons!), while numerous, were, it seems, incredibly effective in mobilizing campus-wide support for the event. Regardless of our respective soccer skills, I believe that a good portion of the Dartmouth student body genuinely cares about the cause. However, it is undeniable that supporting the fight against AIDS in Africa is in vogue among the country’s elite. Would we show the same outpouring of barefoot support for, say, fighting poverty in the Upper Valley?

I want to qualify my indirect accusation that Grassroot Soccer is only a fad. It is not; in fact, it is a remarkable organization dedicated to educating kids in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia about HIV/AIDS. Professional soccer players, coaches and other mentor figures are committed to a “culturally sensitive and fun HIV/AIDS life-skills curriculum,” according to the organization’s website. Not only does the money that the Dartmouth chapter raise fuel the success of this program, but the program itself inspires college students across the nation.

Take a second to browse the Grassroot website, and you will find it inspiring. The fact that a young doctor from Dartmouth started the organization is empowering, as is the idea that I, as a Dartmouth student, might be able to, in turn, empower kids fighting an insidious epidemic halfway across the world.

Earlier this month, I was excited to attend a panel discussion featuring Dr. Paul Farmer, a prominent leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It is inspiring that Dartmouth attracts leaders such as Farmer, and those leaders choose to speak to Dartmouth’s dynamic, talented student body.

It should be obvious by now that I do not dispute the value of initiatives like Grassroot Soccer and Farmer’s Partners in Health. I am amazed at the accomplishments of these two men, and would love to follow in their footsteps. I worry, however, that local causes get lost in the shadow of large, noble ones in the developing world like HIV/AIDS. I am just as guilty — as I believe most of the audience at the panel discussion that night was — of impatiently waiting for Tom Ketteridge, director of the Upper Valley Haven, to finish talking. After all, as the prelude to Farmer, Ketteridge spoke only briefly; and, no offense to Ketteridge, it would be difficult for anyone to compete with Farmer’s easy stage presence. Farmer’s wit in conjunction with the infamy of his subject dimmed much of the audience’s memory of Ketteridge’s talk, judging by the fact that an overwhelming number of the audience’s questions were for Farmer.

The Upper Valley Haven, located in White River Junction, however, is no less of a big deal. For 25 years, it has provided shelter as well as food, clothing, and support to families in need. Earlier this fall, The Dartmouth printed an article about the Haven’s efforts to build a new shelter for single adults (“Legislators to Debate Local Homeless Shelter,” Oct. 26). The building plans face opposition from a group of White River Junction residents protesting on the grounds that a new shelter will attract drug addicts and other criminals to the neighborhood. Ketteridge identified this argument as discrimination based on social class, and I agree with him. Saying that all homeless people are drug addicts is akin to saying that all Africans with AIDS are overly promiscuous, a blatantly biased observation that blinds us to the real issues. It is scary to think that Dartmouth students’ choice to be activists in high-profile international causes is its own form of class bias. Why should an Ivy League student devote herself to the tired cause of rural American poverty?

Dartmouth students are in fact involved with the Haven; I happen to be a volunteer tutor at the Haven Homework Club, which meets most days after school with kids who live at the Haven currently or who have lived there in the past. Many of the kids in Homework Club are also in Dartmouth programs like DREAM. Obviously, there is strong student interest in helping the less fortunate in the surrounding communities. Members of organizations like Dream have stories that can inspire us just like Paul Farmer’s . Imagine what could be accomplished if Dartmouth gave the older, less flashy cause of rural poverty the same mass support that it gives exciting initiatives like Grassroot Soccer. Just something to think about on Saturday.

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