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ASU students seek meaningful change in Africa

November 18, 2009

The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.
- British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Feb. 3, 1960, in remarks to Parliament of South Africa 

The wind of change British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke of nearly 50 years ago in an address to the Parliament of South Africa is still in the air, and half-way around the world, three Arizona State University students are feeling it, thanks to a recent weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., and the Ron H. Brown African Affairs Series.

The series is focused on the role and responsibility of today’s youth in Africa’s future. The students, all enrolled in African and African American Studies program in ASU’s School of Social Transformation, have returned with a greater focus on the roles they might play in effecting meaningful change across Africa and an enthusiasm to match. 

Senior Lafayette Newsome, junior Tabitha Sarabo, and sophomore Briana Tyson participated in a wide range of leadership forums, roundtables, panel discussions and one-on-one meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus; African political, NGO and civic leaders; and other series participants. 

The students were joined on the trip by Lisa Aubrey, a political scientist and associate professor who teaches courses on politics, foreign policy, democracy and development, Africa and its Diaspora, race, and gender in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Aubrey, a former Fulbright Scholar doing work at the University of Ghana, has led students to the Brown Series the past two years.

“This was again a wonderful opportunity for a select group of students to see on-the-ground manifestations of the theoretical debates they read about, while also helping them realize they are empowered to learn and act,” she says.

“By being able to participate in the discussions and deliberations allows them to not only utilize their knowledge and skills, but also realize that someday they can be local, national and global leaders in their own right.”

Upon their return from the nation’s capital, Newsome, Sarabo and Tyson presented a forum on their experience to faculty, students and community members at the Tempe campus. Newsome, a first-generation student from Elizabeth, N.J., who also majors in political science, says the trip was both re-energizing and important.

“The trip, for me, was life-changing and has continued to add gasoline to a fire already lit,” he says. “I have a strong desire to see humanity live up to its potential, as well as a strong desire to improve the current conditions in Africa and the conditions here in America and beyond. The RHB Series was a way for me to build bridges with people committed to improving conditions.”

At the forum, Newsome presented an argument against the corporate and private intervention in Africa he believes is self-serving and destructive rather than beneficial.  He notes that oppressive conditions half a globe away should be of interest to people in the Valley community and that, without the proper commitment and the right strategy, the wind of change is little more than a 50-year-old promise.

“Challenges in Africa impact me because I have a conscience. I care about people not only in my community, my state and my country, but everywhere. It is important that we are informed about issues in Africa because it is up to us to put pressure on officials and decision makers to improve the conditions. Without that pressure on officials and corporations, it is ridiculous to think they are going to change their behavior.”

Sarabo left her native Guyana, South America, in 2007 to attend ASU where her father, David Hinds, is an assistant professor in the School of Social Transformation. 

A member of the Golden Key International Honour Society and a mentor to freshman recipients of financial aid through the university’s President Barack Obama Scholars Program, attended last year’s conference, which she was an “appetizer” to this year’s meeting.

“Last year’s conference encouraged me to pursue my current goals, which are study, study, study, and go to graduate school,” she says. “I am passionate about Africa and the African Diaspora political and economic progress. This conference opened my eyes to past and current issues faced by both Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora, and the various strategies being used to combat those challenges.”

The two conferences have helped her identify the continent’s challenges and how they might be resolved.

“I think the greatest challenge of most African countries is holding onto and asserting their rights as sovereign nations. Countries need to ensure that their leaders are not self serving, but are there to help progress the development of their countries. Also, these leaders must assert their rights and ensure that the profits gained from their countries’ natural resources are predominantly going to further develop their countries, and not leaving the country.

“Endogenous and exogenous forces have to be set in place to effectively address the challenges. On the continent, civil society has to demand that its leaders end the corruption, and govern in the best interests of the people. Everyone has to challenge the U.S. president and Congress, the international financial institutions and the corporations to ensure that their engagement with African countries is one that would lead to sustainable development in Africa.”

For Goodyear, Ariz., resident Briana Tyson, the series represented a chance to learn more about Africa and the African Diaspora, as well as meet people intimately involved in the discussion. A National Honors Society graduate of Agua Fria High School in 2008, Fria High School in 2008, and a member of the of the National Society for Collegiate Scholars, Tyson liked the learning experience of the week in Washington, D.C.

“The trip has helped me grow by informing me of the issues in Africa, as well as hearing different perspectives on how to solve the different problems.  It has helped me to refocus my career aspirations by making me want to be more active on issues in Africa and possibly join some NGOs (non-governmental organization) to help make a difference.

“I believe I have grown a lot for the series; I am more informed.”

She sees the challenges in Africa as a matter of control.

“The continent’s biggest challenge moving forward is other countries trying to control Africa, as well as the huge amount of debt Africa carries.  This is a problem because African countries cannot support their citizens properly because of the influence of other countries and the massive amount of debt they are faced with.”

While Aubrey’s students consider Africa’s past, present and future, and the role they and Africa’s Diaspora may someday play in finding solutions, the former research associate at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, says the Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series moves students from classroom experiences to real-world applications.

“This series represents a unique and educational experience for our students,” says Aubrey, who received her doctoral degree from Ohio State University. “The fact that students are learning more about a place, a people, and its progeny helps them to better understand African peoples in a historical context, as well as in contemporary world systems.

“It sharpens their perspectives and inspires them to bridge what they are learning in the classroom to the real world.  It feeds into their scholarly experience here.”

Aubrey and students Newsome, Sarabo and Tyson are currently working on an African Diaspora summit through which they will stay connected to colleagues and cohorts they met while in Washington, D.C.