Former student activist seeks to inspire 'social entrepreneurs,' stop genocide

Monday, March 12, 2012 | 11:36 p.m. CDT; updated 6:48 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 8, 2014

COLUMBIA — One article sparked it.

Sitting in the cafeteria at Swarthmore College eight years ago, then-college senior Mark Hanis opened The New York Times to get his pick for March Madness. Instead, he found a story about Halima, a 16-year-old girl in Darfur. He was shocked to learn how she was brutally raped and orphaned in the genocide in the western region of Sudan.

Genocide in Darfur

Since 2003, about 300,000 people have been killed and at least 2.7 million people displaced by state-sponsored violence perpetrated in Sudan's western region of Darfur, according to United to End Genocide.  

"What can I do as an average student in the United States?" he said he asked himself.

So he skipped class and headed to the library to look up Sudan and Darfur on Google. It became a pattern, and in 2005 he helped start an influential anti-genocide advocacy organization. 

He shared his experience with MU students and faculty Monday night to inspire them to "engage public policy" with issues relevant to them.

The Genocide Intervention Network — now renamed United to End Genocide — seeks to "empower Americans with the tools to prevent and stop genocide" through education, advocacy and donations, he said.

With about 1,000 student chapters and the 800-GENOCIDE lobbying hotline, United to End Genocide has an annual budget of about $2.5 million. It passed legislation nationally and in 27 states to pressure companies to stop funding the violence in Sudan. 

At one point, Hanis said, the organization's efforts were so successful that members of Congress were calling him to ask what they could do to get their constituents to back off.

Hanis said he was fortunate to have a network of supportive professors to help him; anyone looking to make an impact should be aware of the resources out there.

"You're not alone in doing this — there's an ecosystem to help you," Hanis said.

Hanis is considered a "social entrepreneur," or someone organizing people in a new way. He's been named a fellow at — and has been funded by — Ashoka, Echoing Green and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.

Hanis said there are three things you can do to get started working on the issue you care about:

  1. Understand the issue "really, really well." As a young person, he had to counter the perception that he didn't know what he was talking about. He said he would read every human rights report or government document on Darfur. He would even cold call Congressional offices to learn the details of relevant legislation in the works.
  2. Look for other people and organizations working on the issue. Approach existing organizations, either to join them, or at least to understand who is doing what.
  3. Create a strategic plan. When you have limited time and resources, you need to know what you will do, but also what you're not going to do. The Genocide Intervention Network decided they would not fund field research on the conflict in Darfur, because there were already others who went there who they could learn from instead.

Roshani Mahadevan, a master's student in public affairs at MU, was in the audience and said after tonight, she's rethinking what she'll do after graduation in May.

"This lecture helped re-inspire me," she said.

Mahadevan started the group Step Up! Mizzou after traveling to Rwanda and hearing women describe how they survived the 1994 genocide. Now the organization tutors refugees in Columbia from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo and educates the campus community about the genocide.

Mahadevan said she has been looking for jobs in nonprofits and keeping her work on Rwanda separate. Now, she said she's thinking how she can incorporate both into a career.

"It's making me realize I can blend the two together," she said.

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