Student activists hear the voices behind the issues

By Anna Kramer
Tutu Alicante, director of Equatorial Guinea Justice, speaks to Oxfam America student leaders about the need for increased transparency around oil, gas, and mining revenues.

Slim and animated, wearing a green dashiki over jeans, Tutu Alicante didn't look much older than the college students he was about to address. But he spoke with the authority of his role as executive director of Oxfam America ally organization Equatorial Guinea Justice.

"I feel privileged to be here," he said. "To bring together 50 smart, energetic young people to talk about injustice: where I come from, that doesn't happen. It could never happen."

Alicante had come to Eastern Nazarene College, just outside Boston, to speak to the newest participants in Oxfam America's CHANGE Initiative. This national program transforms US college students into social justice activists by providing them with the tools to implement Oxfam advocacy campaigns on campus. At the start of each year's program, a week-long training helps the students (known as CHANGE Leaders) hone their leadership skills, advocacy skills, and knowledge of Oxfam's work. During sessions like Alicante's, they have a chance to meet the real people behind the issues.

The resource curse

Alicante began by describing his home country Equatorial Guinea: a small nation in west central Africa, rich in oil but suffering some of the world's most intense poverty. He contrasted photos of the degraded living conditions in the capital, Malabo, with the president's fleet of private planes and multi-million dollar California estate.

In Equatorial Guinea, he said, the vast majority of the country's oil wealth flows into its leaders' pockets, while its people lack adequate schools, sanitation, or healthcare. Kept in the dark about oil profits, the people have no way to claim their fair share.

"My country defines the term 'resource curse,'" Alicante said. "We're rich in resources, but we see few of the benefits."

Growing up, Alicante saw the government use intimidation, kidnapping, and even murder to keep people in line. When his family's home was destroyed, his father told him that there was nothing they could do about it—they just had to go on.

"That's when I realized I didn't want to live in a country where there's nothing you can do to change the situation," Alicante said. "I came to the US to mobilize. Things have got to change."

The power of the pen

For two years, Alicante said, his organization has worked with Oxfam and like-minded groups on the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act. Now introduced in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6066) and Senate (S. 3389), this piece of legislation would require oil, gas, and mining companies registered in the US (including the oil companies operating in Equatorial Guinea) to disclose the amount and type of the payments they make in the countries where they operate.

"People need information about what oil, gas, and mining companies are doing in their communities," Alicante said. "If I know how much money is coming in, I can go to the local chief and ask, where is the money going? How does it meet our needs?"

Now, Alicante said, the CHANGE Leaders would help make this legislation a reality by writing letters to their legislators urging them to support the bill. "We're asking US students to express this injustice," he said, "and show the connection between my country and yours."

"Your representatives will decide the fate of this bill, and we know that they read handwritten letters," added his co-presenter, Oxfam organizer Paul Bugala. "Nothing replaces the power of the pen."

The students bent forward and began to write?hesitantly at first, then with growing confidence.

From talk to action

As they wrote, students received encouragement from 2006 CHANGE Leader Lisa East, a recent graduate of Tennessee Tech and a facilitator at this year's training. East urged the students to host their own letter-writing parties on campus.

"It's important for us students to be political," she said in a strong, clear voice. "Don't be afraid to talk to your representatives; make them accessible. If you're disillusioned about the political process, then take it back."

Afterward, East emphasized the importance of the CHANGE Leaders in showing other students how to make a difference.

"Students always sit up in their dorm rooms late at night, talking about issues, about injustice—but there has to be a next step," she said. "If you're willing to talk about it, but you're not ready to go out there and take action, you're still within those four walls."

Alicante, who has accompanied Oxfam on several campus speaking tours, agreed with East's assessment. "Students sometimes come up afterward and ask: 'I live in Texas; what can I do there to help?' I know the message has reached them when they realize that their actions matter—even to communities on the other side of the world."

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