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May 2011 Archives

By Allison Whittier

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Pretoria, South Africa--As Simmons Professor Dan Connell described the long history of unrest in the northeast African country of Eritrea to students from across Africa here to study human rights at the University of Pretoria Law School's Centre for Human Rights, many seemed distracted.

Some texted on their cellphones. Some peeled oranges and examined their yield. Many took trips to the bathroom. Others flipped through articles and clamored on their laptops.

As I sat there observing my African peers, I felt like I was thousands of miles away in a ty
When the question and answer portion of the talk came around, I was shocked by the engagement of the students. Those who had been working on assignments or texting on their phones were actively and intelligently participating in the conversation.

After the lecture and discussion, I questioned Ugandan student Sylvie Namwase about the level of activity during class. She chuckled as she said they all had an assignment due the following Monday and had been frantically working on it since the previous week.

Even African students procrastinate - another unsuspected commonality.

Perhaps I assumed that African students would be held to a higher standard by their professors or would have a greater respect for class time and material. Maybe I, like many others, fall privy to overly criticizing American youth.

Despite my assumptions and criticisms, however small and perhaps superficial these shared traits may be, it is endearing to know that American students and African students are not so different.

By Tammy Ford

PRETORIA--The classroom is full to capacity. The pungent smell of bodies cramped in the small space thickens the air. The subject is human rights in Eritrea. The lecturer today is Dan Connell.

The room is decorated with posters displaying human rights issues and announcing a yearly competition called the Moot Court. This is a course for Africans from 19 countries intended to strengthen their research and documentation skills. The nine Simmons students there are also guests for the day, as are five Eritrean refugees who live in South Africa.

Professor Connell stands at the lectern in jeans and a black sweater with a gray collar peeking through the opening in the neck. It is his signature look. His hands clasped in front of his chest, his passion for human rights spills from his lips, as he describes the tyranny in Eritrea.

In the 20 years since it gained its independence from Ethiopia, the acting president, Isaias Afwerki, has refused to implement the constitution or hold national elections. Ruling as a dictator, he keeps a tight reign on the country.

The only way for people in Eritrea to receive independent information is by radio as all other media are controlled by the government. Professor Connell says foreign journalists are not welcome within the borders of Eritrea either. He was tossed out in 2002 for criticizing the president's human rights record.

Michael Asfana, an Eritrean refugee who has been in South Africa for six years, says he feels the pain of no communication between himself and his family. He is a political refugee and he, like Connell, is not allowed within the borders of the country.

After the lecture, Asfana sits at a table in the bustling student center with the smells of ethnic foods permeating the air. Twisting his straw as he talks, he says the Eritrean government doesn't "give a damn about their people," and he hasn't seen any good leadership there.

People disappear and end up in prison and no one even knows where they are, he says. The government carries on surveillance on anyone they consider dangerous, just as the government did in South Africa during the apartheid era.

Asfana says it would be helpful if Eritrea had a good leader like Nelson Mandela who used forgiveness instead of revenge to bring the country together.

By Taylor Barge

"No Bigots, No Racists, No Homophobes," says the sign on the door.

This is Love & Revolution, a small cafe in the heart of the Melville district that provides a safe space for activists, hippies and others from all over Johannesburg to relax, eat healthy food and talk about the hot issues of the day.

On entering, a group of Simmons students is warmly welcomed by store-owner and gender rights activist Ishtar Lakhani.

The menu posted on the wall includes sandwiches, snacks, pastries and smoothies. Most are described as "organic." Many are vegan.

"Without many vegan friendly options for milk in Johannesburg, it is a breath of fresh air to be offered soy," says Crystal Rizzo, a Simmons grad student in South Africa for the first time. She calls her vegan brownie "scrumptious."

Besides offering snacks and coffee, the cafe is a safe space where young people come to express their feelings on issues affecting them. A discussion breaks out among them and the Simmons visitors on human rights in the LBGT community here.

Feisal Desai, 51, a make-up artist, stylist, charity worker and openly gay male, who frequently hangs out at Love & Revolution describes an incident of police brutality during a Gay Pride event in Johannesburg. He says he is saddened by actions against the LBGT community.

"We're following a path for disaster," he says, adding that things must change. But he criticizes his peers for having a "culture of blame." There is constant "pointing of fingers" with very little accountability.

"Legally, we're awesome, but the implementation is lacking," says Lakhani, telling her visitors that it is up to our generation to spark further change in human rights.

Desai says he thinks it's up to everyone. "We've become a bunch of numb souls and we need to shut up and do something," says Desai.

By Crystal Rizzo

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In the center of downtown Melville nestled between the Melville Cafe, a local eatery, and Eclipse, a small boutique, lies Love & Revolution: Where Change Happens--a vegan-friendly lesbian owned cafe.

Filled with curiosity, a group of Simmons students tiptoes into the café where we are welcomed with a big smile by local gender activist and co-owner, Ishtar Lakhani. With her short dark hair and attractive butch style, Lakhani invites us into the little haven for eclectic, progressive-minded, open-hearted folks.

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The walls are covered with archived newspaper headlines--"Boobs and the Economy," "What Would God Tweet," and "Winnie in the Poo." There are comfy couches, too, where visitors snack on vegan brownies amidst lots of laughing and animated conversations.

Lakhani says she was inspired to open Love and Revolution with her TV producer girlfriend Jasmyn Asvat after both women took separate trips--one to New York and the other to Mumbai--where they each frequented local bookstores and cafés that catered to a young, liberal, artsy clientele.

The cafe encourages a myriad of discussions about local social and political issues. Asvat and Lakhani say they are working to create a safe space for people to come to that is free of bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of discrimination, and they hope to inspire individuals to go out and make change in their local community.

By Maddie Eagan

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In the heart of Soweto, between two streets of honking cars and crowded township houses sits Diepkloof Extreme Park--a meticulously kept city park, filled with colorful swing sets, healthy trees, and smiling faces.

Waiting for us when we arrived in our 15-seater minibus, still a little dazed with jet lag, were Kogie Moodley from the Johannesburg City Parks Department's Environment Education project and senior horticulturalist and Diepkloof Park manager Mmamoleme "Mamu" Rakoso, holding a stack of wide-brimmed hats with the City Parks logo for the visiting Simmons College group. The bright, unexpectedly warm sun shone on our faces as we sat down on the dark green benches to hear the story behind the park.

What used to be a dumping site is now a government-sponsored "extreme park" that was built in merely 24 hours, said our hosts. It was inspired by the U.S. reality television show, Extreme Home Makeover. But it took much longer to plan, design, organize resources and find external sponsorship for it to arise from just an idea on paper.

The park cost R10 million ($1.3 million) to make and R10,000 ($1,350) per month to maintain. Mamu said the budget and funding were constrictions in its development, but they are committed to keeping it up and running for years while continuing to build more such parks in other parts of the city. One way they do so is by soliciting support from South African businesses in exchange for advertising space.

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CellC, an internet company, is prominently displayed beneath the large television screen that broadcasts Bugs Bunny cartoons for the children and sports events and other programs for adults. The sponsorship companies are featured on an 18-month rotation, with billboards elsewhere in the park, but not so intrusive that they take away from the overall environment.

Most importantly, the community has taken ownership of the park, according to parks officials. They respect it, and rarely litter or vandalize the area. "They are happy to have this," said Moodley.

The city park caters to adults and younger children through their divided sections. The children's section includes benches, a soccer field, play structures and a court to play ball. Young girls descended the slides with joy in their eyes and waved to us for attention. The relaxed adult section contained more open space with people sitting and chatting.

Although we were not there at the park's busiest weekend time, it still seemed quite popular as students walked home from school in their uniforms and stopped for a quick game of ball or to catch up with friends.


Simmons College reporters at the Hector Pieterson Museum commemorating one of the first and the youngest casualty in the 1976 Soweto student uprising that reignited the antiapartheid struggle across South Africa./Dan Connell

By Rubby Wuabu

Madeline Egan, a public health major with a psychology minor, says she transferred to Simmons from the University of Connecticut wanting to study abroad but also to graduate early. This presented a challenge until she learned about the Human Rights in South Africa course.

"This travel course was the right match, because it is during the summer, so I don't have to give up a whole semester, which would have hindered me from graduating early," she says.

Madeline says she plans to focus her research on health education in South Africa and hopes to discern how it has evolved since its creation, asking: Is it still successful? And what can be done to improve it?

"Most importantly, I want to enrich my knowledge in public health outside the U.S.," she says. "This will enable me to compare and contrast with the system in the U.S. system. It will be good to have diversity in my experiences."

"I am worried about the emotional rollercoaster that we will experience as we travel from community to community. But it will be a great experience to learn and to explore," she adds.

Asha Nair Noonan graduated this year, majoring in communications on the integrated media track and minoring in political science. "Last summer I did an internship with the democratic national committee, which reminded me how much I loved politics, so I decided to minor in political science," she says. "I am taking this class to fulfill my minor as well as because I love to travel."

The description of the course attracted her, she says, adding that she feels prepared because she has taken media courses and read a lot on South Africa.. Although she has yet to narrow it down, she says she wants to research something about the arts program. However, she worries about having to interview people there because she is shy

Taylor Barge, 21, is an Africana Studies major. She says she cannot wait to travel to South Africa, both to expand her undergraduate experience and because as a black woman from a wealthy community, she has never felt like she belonged anywhere.

Barge was one of six black students in her graduating class of 60 at a private school in Stamford, Conn. She says she was shocked when she was met with rejection at Simmons because she did not match what others considered a black woman should be, so traveling to South Africa will be personal journey to explore her own identity. She also hopes to learn more about apartheid and to compare it with the civil rights movement in the U.S.

By Tammy Ford

Despite the cancellations of many study abroad programs at Simmons this year, nine women are headed to South Africa--one of the few 2011 travel courses not limited to Europe or United States. And we are excited about it.

Freshman Ava Salitsky is one of them--the youngest in a group whose members are drawn from many academic disciplines and social backgrounds. Salitsky is in the honors program majoring in political science. She took an African politics and government class with trip leader Dan Connell last fall. His passion for Africa was a huge influence in her decision to travel.

Although she is excited about the itinerary, she says she is unsure what she expects to get out of it. "I've taken so many classes on Africa. I'm afraid it will be nothing like it," she says.

Taylor Barge, a rising senior majoring in Africana Studies, says she loves to travel, her anxiety about the food and flying notwithstanding. Her eyes sparkle as she describes how college has ignited a passion for her African American cultural heritage. She is unsure where her original ancestors are from, so she wants to understand what it means to be "black somewhere else."

After seeing an advertisement for the study abroad trip in the hallway between the Fens and the Bookstore on the Simmons campus, Barge was hooked. She applied online immediately.

Classes she took with the second faculty advisor, Africana Studies chair Janie Ward, also helped Barge with her focus on race. She says she would like to compare apartheid to segregation in the U.S.

Asha Nair Noonan, who graduated this week with a communications major in integrated media and a political science minor, has a different reason for going to South Africa--she needed one more class to finish her minor.

Noonan says her first choice was Egypt, but with the violence that has erupted there she decided it would not be a wise choice. At that point, South Africa became a viable option. Her grin spreads across her face as she says that she knows now that South Africa is "just as good if not better than Egypt."

Not all the students are undergraduates, however.

Crystal Rizzo is a grad student in Gender and Cultural Studies. Her excitement about the trip spills into her words: "I was a teacher's assistant in a Nelson Mandela program, and it really sparked my interest." Her focus is on South Africa's progressive constitution and on international relations.

All say they are excited to be learning about the culture and about the current state of human rights in South Africa--the focus of the course and what all will write about while there. And they say they expect this trip to give them a significant amount of personal growth.

"It is a great opportunity," Barge says.

On May 22, 2011, nine Simmons students and I will depart Boston for a three-week tour of South Africa that will take us from Johannesburg to Durban and Cape Town. Our purpose is to look into the state of human rights there, two decades after the walls of one of the worst systems of racial domination ever constructed--apartheid--began to come down and 17 years after South Africa's first ever multi-racial, democratic elections. We'll share our impressions with you through this blog.

Stay tuned!

--Dan Connell, Professor of Journalism and African Politics

Darcie Guilbert, Communications, class 2011 and MCM, class December 2011 has just won the competition to be the undergraduate commencement student speaker. She was selected from among 15 who tried out in front of a panel of judges including the Dean for Student Life, the registrar, the CAS Dean and both the class president and vice president. When asked if she was nervous about this role, she replied "not at all, I love public speaking. I'm thrilled." She wouldn't reveal her topic for the tryout as it is the same one she will use for the real event.

The rules for trying out stated: "You will be judged on timing, content and delivery." Her selection shouldn't surprise those in the Communications Department; but her family shouldn't be surprised either.

When asked "How did you learn to do it so well?" the answer was as modest as she always is in person.
"You know, I'm not sure! I've enjoyed it since I was a young girl and I'd always practice with my dad. He's a phenomenal public speaker. He'd give me advice and we'd practice again and again. Ultimately, he taught me to love it. I remember him saying, 'If you do what you love, then you'll be good at it.'"

And When Guilbert was asked "why you like public speaking?" she replied:
I don't just like public speaking, I love it. Public speaking is a chance to SHOW the audience why they're watching and listening, instead of them reading the information independently. With that said, delivery can make or break a speech, and in a strange way, I like that pressure. I like being responsible for making the words on the page come to life.

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BOSTON - Ten communications students learned how a major concert is put together Tuesday March 1, 2011 during a special daylong internship with the Bon Jovi Circle Tour at the Boston Garden.

"We got to watch the preshow production, listen to the sound check, tour the backstage areas, and photograph in the pit," said Lydia Hardy, senior graphic design student. "I don't think life will get much better than that. Definitely the highlight of my senior year."

The opportunity came about when Bon Jovi's VIP Experience Manager, Mike Savas, contacted Communications Professor and Communications Honor Society Advisor Marlene Fine. In college, Savas was inducted into the National Communications Honor Society, and as tribute, he invited students of local chapters.

The six senior members of the society had first privilege to participate in the internship, but only three accepted, so the other seven positions were opened to other communications students.

"We had short notice, so we were in hyper mode to prepare for it," said senior graphic designer Nelinda Levy.

Students met with faculty on Monday afternoon to get advice on how to photograph and film the event. "Be sure to get distance and close ups, actions and stills, interesting aspects and definitely not posed," said Judith Aronson, communications professor and professional photographer.

The day started at 9 a.m. at the Garden with a tour of the production (lighting, audio, and video) with Savas. Backstage passes were issued right away. Students then interviewed Bon Jovi's right hand man, good friend, and production manager, Jesse Sandler.

"I'd say that 95 to 99 percent of the time everything is smooth sailing," said Sandler, who spent over two hours with the students, answering questions and giving a tour of backstage and onstage.

"We got to touch Jon's microphone stand," said Steph Paulovich, senior integrated media student. Sandler took students to the various backstage offices, such as management, video, finance, catering, and dressing rooms.

"I cannot believe we got to go into Jon's dressing room. His stylist was so sweet and showed us his [Jon's] wardrobe and told us what he did when he got there," said Levy.

"We knew what he was going to wear for the concert before anyone else."

"She [Jon's stylist] even showed us a note to Jon from his daughter Stephanie. They seem like a great family," said Hardy.

"Since it was Jon's birthday the next day, we asked if we could make him a video for his birthday that he could watch when he came into his dressing room the following night before his concert in [Washington] D.C.," said Heather Campos, junior integrated media student. "His stylist said yes, so we put one together of us singing happy birthday, and then we filmed the tour crew saying happy birthday, too."

"We took so many photos and tons of footage," said Levy.
Students were allowed to go in the "pit" to photograph the first three songs, according to Levy. The pit is the area inside the circle of the stage (about 15 feet from the band).

"We were with the professional photographers," said Quinn, senior graphic designer. "We were so close. I took about 100 photos in the 15 minutes we got to stay there."

"You're only allowed to say for the first three songs because Jon gets sweaty and doesn't want close ups taken of him," said Savas.

As part of the internship, students attended the concert as Jon's guests. The seats were located center stage about 100 feet from the stage, according to Campos.

"We stood for most of the concert. The performance was amazing, and Jon was really interactive with the audience," said Hardy.

"What a full day," said Levy.

"It was amazing what they accomplished in such a short time," said Quinn. "When we left for lunch, the lights were still on the ground, and the stage was being built at the other end of the Garden. When we got back, the lights were suspended and the stage was in place. It was unbelievable."

"We were also put to work," said Paulovich. "We had to hand out PR material. There was a flyer and gift card for 35% off online merchandise purchases. We were located in the concourse area and it took about 40 minutes."

"Our press badges were awesome. We could get through everyone," said Campos. "People were wondering why we were special."

"It was truly an inside look of a major event. I've always been curious what goes on behind scenes," said Quinn.

The Communications Department wants to get as much leverage from the event as possible, said Andy Porter, communications professor. Commtracks, the annual Communications magazine, has decided to dedicate a whole spread to this event. Videos and photographs will also be added to the website and a radio show will cover the event.

"Talk about a once in a lifetime experience," said Hardy. "I'm so grateful I got to be a part of it."

"I was pretty much shaking when I found out," said Quinn. "I couldn't breathe. I thought it was a joke."

"I spent three hours in the fetal position. I grew up listening to Bon Jovi every Saturday while cooking with my mom," said Levy.

Students returned home with an understanding in concert production, hundreds of photos, hours of video, some contacts, and not only humming but also livin' on a prayer.

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