CHANGE Leader gains global perspective in Senegal

By Dominique Jenkins
Martin Williams, beneficiaries of Initiative Change Oxfam America en 2008

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Martin Williams, a 2004 Oxfam America CHANGE Leader, recently visited Senegal while researching his graduate thesis in African Studies and Development Economics at Oxford University. Williams stopped by Oxfam's West Africa regional office in Dakar to talk about the global student justice movement, the impact of gold mining on Senegalese communities, and the one piece of advice he would give to today's student leaders.

What are you currently researching, and how is it linked to Oxfam's work?

I'm researching the impact of gold mining on governance—government policy, taxation, and expenditure—as well as community marginalization.

In Senegal, the gold mining sector was formerly an economically and politically marginalized area, and now it's captured the interest of the government and large corporations. I want to identify how things have changed since then, in order to better understand the difference between non-mining marginalized communities and those that are now experiencing the interest and investments that come from gold mining.

There are many communities all over the world that lack power and significance in the world economy simply because they are geographically isolated. Oxfam's work on oil, gas, and mining has shed light on how these communities are affected and what they can do to empower themselves. It's central to my current research and the type of work I want to do in the future.

Tell us about your previous visit to Senegal.

I spent my junior year at Williams College studying abroad in Senegal, where I worked with a group called PEACE (Platform of African Students for Fair Trade) to plan a student conference based on Oxfam's CHANGE training. I also participated in their activities during Trade Justice Week.

The entire experience in Senegal enhanced my perspective on how others live. By learning to speak Wolof I was able to have a closer relationship with my host family and the people in my community, and understand what was going on in people's daily lives.

Also, working with student activists allowed me to see trade justice and globalization from a different and compelling angle. I realized that development is not just a technical issue for bureaucrats and technicians to solve. It's political and social, and involves the empowerment and engagement of communities and countries. There are people all over the world working towards the same goals of justice, fair trade, development, and responsible political representation... [and] American students should understand that they have a lot of power to call on their governments to make positive changes. Collaborating with activists in developing countries makes their work more powerful.

How did the CHANGE Initiative shape your involvement with the student justice movement?

Prior to CHANGE, I had not been very involved in activist movements, but as a result of the training, activism is the way that I've learned most of what I've learned outside the classroom. CHANGE was the catalyst, and provided a network of people and opportunities to take my passion for social justice and channel it into something concrete'like the student justice movement and my current studies.

How can a movement like the CHANGE Initiative educate the American people about global issues?

CHANGE provided me with a greater appreciation of the role of power and the impact of inequalities, as well as the issues of economic development and commerce that economists don't really talk about. These are issues that the average American may not know about or be interested in; but through our foreign policy we have a great impact on the rest of the world, so it's important that Americans be more informed.

How do these issues affect the US presidential election?

Everyone in the world follows American politics. My experience is that people get the message when the American government administers policies that are harmful, but they also hear when Americans are speaking out for justice. In this election year there is a really big role for Americans as citizens to let the world know that they are trying to change their country for the better, and that they understand that America has a very big impact on the world.

What advice would you give to current and future CHANGE Leaders?

Learn by doing; get involved in justice activities and take action. If I had sat back and waited to learn everything in the classroom before becoming active, I would have missed a lot. It's important to be aware of how much you know and don't know, and understand that you will make mistakes, but you will also learn a lot along the way.

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