John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group (left) and Zachariah Mampilly, a UCLA graduate student, joined the discussion March 18 at a K-12 teachers' workshop on 'Children's Rights as Human Rights.' (All photos by Jonathan Friedlander.)

'As a Teacher, I Have Power'

W. Michael 'Jelani' Hamm, the Coordinator for the Social Justice Magnet at Crescent Heights Elementary, discusses his experiences at a two-day K-12 teachers' workshop on the plight of African children.

As an elementary school educator, I think about the children I teach. I simply cannot fathom any of them taking up arms and going off to war like some of those we heard about in the workshop. Children around the world are used as soldiers.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of California or its affiliates.

By W. Michael "Jelani" Hamm (in photo below, center)
Coordinator for the Social Justice Magnet at Crescent Heights Elementary, LAUSD

ONCE AGAIN, something in me has been stirred at the end of the teachers' workshop on children in Africa. Perhaps it was the Africa in me, or maybe it was the spirits of the children I've met on my trips to Africa over the years. During the two-day workshop on Feb. 25 and March 18, 2006, the discussions were compelling and had me hanging onto every word; and when it was all said and done, I felt rich. I walked away from with a wealth of emotions and information and a true image of Africa.

[The Social Justice Magnet was co-sponsor of the workshop with the UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center. The first session took place at the elementary school; the second at UCLA.]

At the Feb. 25 session on debt relief, speakers from the American Friends Service Committee connected the dots between the policies of global financial institutions, such as the World Bank, and the deplorable conditions faced by children growing up in Africa. While many champions of justice stand tall in the new Africa, many of the policies from colonial days still haunt the continent. During this workshop, I was struck by the modus operandi of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its similarity to institutional barriers that many hard-working people face in the United States. These barriers prevent them from playing on a level field. As one workshop participant passionately noted, "This is a matter of justice!"

Ironically, however, Africa is not poor. Diamonds, rubber, oil, coltan, cooper, coffee, and cocoa are exported from the continent every day. Yet, the people never benefit because of past debts they did not create. Meanwhile, money and resources needed for education, food, health care, and AIDS prevention are blocked.

During the session, my mind kept recollecting the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and the unjust debts that hang over the heads of the DRC's children. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Léopold of Belgium secured this massive area of land as his own personal property. He was able to accomplish this because of his leading role in the European Scramble for Africa that was formalized at the conference. Léopold's International African Society, a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, was a mechanism for forcibly extracting rubber, cooper, and diamonds from the Congo. Those Congolese who did not assist in his pilfering were subject to abuses such as amputation and arbitrary killings. It is estimated that between five and 15 million people died during Léopold's reign in the Congo. Today, Léopold is chiefly remembered for unleashing an era of indescribable atrocities and mayhem tantamount to genocide.

The paradigm of exploitation introduced by Léopold is still present in the DRC. During the Feb. 25 session, when the presenters talked about institutional problems that plague countries like the DRC, I thought about how the World Bank and the IMF, similar to Léopold's company, put money in pockets through the exploitation of a mineral-rich yet cash-poor country. Today, the people of the DRC live with massive debts that they will never be able to repay. What happened in DRC is also happening in poor communities all over America. It struck me how the paradigm of international banking is the same all over the world, trapping the poor far behind the starting line.

As a participant in the session on debt, I felt moved to truly educate the students whom I have an obligation to teach. I felt a passion to pass on a message that would pull the children away from the strong and constant campaign of distraction waged by the media. What moved me most about the workshop was the many a-HAs that I had. The information that I heard there is never mentioned in mainstream media. Gaining this knowledge is the thing that makes me feel rich. When you are not aware of a system of disempowerment, you are not able to stand up to the injustice. Only after learning the game can you play it. These workshops gave me the power and insight to know the game. Now, I can teach the children. As the other teacher said, "This is a matter of justice."

Children in and at War

At the second workshop session, on children in war zones, I was once again compelled to draw a parallel between Africans and the children I teach. This investigation of children as warriors started with an analysis of conflict. That day, I thought about how policies of kleptocracy and division have served the elite. Katanga, one of the DRC's richest provinces, led by Moise Tshombe, resisted unification of the DRC after the anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba had led a campaign of independence from Belgium. In resisting unification, the immense country was plunged into a civil war which has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, billions and billions of dollars worth of resources left the country. Of course, Tshombe took more than his share. He was a tool for the political elite.

All over Africa, these divisive practices have left the continent open to theft and pillage, and the people are blamed. One can find the same policies of division in the recent histories of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast. In some cases, race and religion have provided the line in the sand. Although many warring groups have lived side-by-side for years, the political elite has exacerbated and fueled conflicts to enrich itself. In other cases, elites have manufactured reasons for separation, as we saw in Rwanda. More recently, we saw this in the Ivory Coast, after a discovery of oil there. We also recently learned that Margaret Thatcher's son was involved in a scheme with mercenaries in Equatorial Guinea, a country rich in oil.

As an elementary school educator, I think about the children I teach. I simply cannot fathom any of them taking up arms and going off to war like some of those we heard about in the workshop. Children around the world are used as soldiers to fight for the political elite. They give their lives fighting for wars that neither serve them nor protect them. The children that I teach face different battles. At the workshop, I thought about how the policies of divisions play out in their lives. Recently, we learned about the gang violence that erupted between browns and blacks in some California jails. The media insisted that this clash would filter down to neighborhoods and school. The underlying message to children is to fear differences. Like all conflicts, where there is division, the people can be conquered. Nowadays, I have learn to ask myself, "Who benefits from this division?"

As an elementary school educator, I have power. Whereas the media might have a message of division and fear, I can teach a message of unity. I am always amazed to see our campus filled with children of many different hues, religions, and native languages, playing together. I imagine a world in which they grow to play together and to be amazed and fascinated with our world with so many differences between us. I hold the vision that these children will not be hypnotized by the paradigm of division and separation.

Another compelling part of the workshop was the talk by two of the "lost boys" of Sudan (from left, Alephonsion Deng and Reec [Joseph] Hol Ayii), who in 1989 fled the destruction of their village by the military and began an odyssey, much of it on foot, that ended in San Diego, Calif. As I left the car, I thought about bringing in my copy of their book, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, for them to sign. But, I did not want to appear to be a groupie. When they walked into the room, I was reminded of the documentaries I have seen on their triumphant journey. I smiled inside as I remembered their arrival in the United States and how they learned to navigate a world so different from their own. I remembered the inspiration they evoked. At the workshop, I felt like I knew them. Therefore, I did not need their autographs. I hung onto their words. I tried to imagine how wars in the Sudan had killed more than 2 million people. Behind the separation of race and religion, the political elite has allowed this atrocity to happen.

Finally, several young students from UCLA who were key players in persuading the University of California Regents to divest from several companies doing business in Sudan sat in the audience. I remembered my days as a UCLA graduate student, when students protested at noontime rallies for divestment in South Africa. I thought about the euphoria when Nelson Mandela came to Los Angeles a few years later. I felt like a part of history. I wonder how long it will take for the world to wake up to Sudan.

I also thought of efforts by a previous coordinator at the school where I work to empower students to make a difference globally. In her first year, she helped to organize a student boycott of chocolate because of the slave trade in the cocoa fields of the Ivory Coast. That year, the students wrote letters to the big companies to ask that they only use fair-trade cocoa. I wonder if those children will be the next generation of UCLA students who will lead a protest—like the students protesting South Africa and now the students protesting the policies in Dafur.

As a teacher, I have the power. The elementary standards might not address the specific history of Africa, but what I teach can certainly be a foundation for a peaceful and more just world. As an elementary educator, I can teach children how to value who they truly are in spite of the constant barrage of negative messages from the corporate media. I can help these young children to learn to take their turn and to see that there is enough for everyone. These simple rules of life sometimes get lost in a world where some political elites are so addicted to money and power that they are willing to instigate the deaths of millions.

Also at the March 18 workshop, I thought about Rwanda and how our government stood by and did nothing because the conflict did not appear to affect our immediate interests. I thought about Katrina and the people of New Orleans. Saving lives did not appear to be a priority for the current U.S. administration. Or perhaps its interests are better served with deaths, destruction, and displacement of thousands of people. As an elementary educator, I can plant the seeds of taking care of our neighbors around the world despite the messages from the political elite. I have the power because I teach.

The next K-12 teachers' workshop at UCLA related to Africa begins on July 22.

Published: Wednesday, July 05, 2006