Watch a Clip from 'Darfur Now'
Since February of 2003, the massacre of African Muslims by Arab Muslims in Darfur has resulted in over 400,000 deaths and 2.5. million displaced people. Nearly five years later, the senseless violence has continued, but now everyday people--and celebrities--are stepping up to the challenge of being activists. UCLA graduate Adam Sterling is one of those people.
After reading about the genocide, he committed himself to affecting change by heading up the Sudan Divestment Task Force. Since then, he has been on the fast track to humanitarian success pairing up with celebrities such as Don Cheadle and George Clooney, securing meetings with state and local government officials in California—including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and going before the U.S. Senate to testify as an expert on divestment.
Sterling spoke to Beliefnet about how he got started, what motivates him to keep fighting, his experience working with Cheadle on the "Darfur Now" documentary, and how anyone can lend a helping hand.
When did you know that Darfur was the cause that you needed to get involved with?
I was a student and in one of the courses I was taking, we looked at what happened in Rwanda in 1994, where close to a million people were killed in less than 100 days. I couldn't believe that this had happened in my lifetime.
Timing was strange. Right then I got an email from someone. Someone had sent me an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He had just gotten back from a refugee camp in Darfur, and was talking about one of the major problems that rape is used as a systematic tool.
He was speaking with a young mother and he asked her, "If every time you send your daughter out to collect firewood she's raped, why don't you send your son?" The mother's response was, "Well, if I send my son, he'll be killed. If I send my daughter, she'll only be raped."
I just couldn't fathom having to make that decision on a daily basis, and [and the fact that] thousands of people do that every day.
At that moment, I knew that there were no excuses. We often look for excuses not to do things, and in my mind I had run out of excuses. So it was full speed ahead.
How much has your grandmother's life experience of fleeing the Nazis shaped you into the activist you are today?
I think it gave me the backdrop. I grew up knowing about the Holocaust. To me, genocide meant the Holocaust.
When I learned about Rwanda, I just started learning about other genocides, in Armenia, in South Sudan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. And there was a common theme. After each one happened, we would look at it and say, "Never again." [But] what was missing was a response and an effort to stop it while it was still happening. What's the point of knowing and learning about history if we're just going to let it happen again and again and again? And so, it angered me to grow up with that and then to be faced with it right now. And to not do anything just wasn't an option.
Where do you see God in the situation in Darfur?
It's a tough thing. And I think that's one thing I've always battled with in my own beliefs is that, if God does exist, then why would, he let--you know, I mean, when you see children suffering, that's such a hard thing to deal with. But then, when I started taking action and getting very involved, I realized I have been given the tools.
I found myself committing my life to it. And I know that something was there that gave me those tools to do that and gave me the voice to respond. I think that's why Darfur is so special, in that I think, it's humankind's worst, but it's the best that's fighting and responding to this.
Spirituality definitely plays a role in that. I mean, the various communities that have been involved and the inspiration and feeding off one another.
What role do you believe specific faith communities--Jewish people, Christian people, Muslims--play?
Collective action is so much more powerful than individual action.
By being part of those communities, that collectiveness is there, and so it's [about] tapping into it. There's no question it's groups, churches, temples, and mosques that are leading the charge in Darfur, those are the loudest voices.
So I think one of the hardest things is finding a community of like-minded individuals to speak up with you. And by being in that community, it's there. All you have to do now is speak and open your mouth and you have all these people there to do it with you.
The question is, Are you going to use it? And I think the film provides hope. But the goal now is to turn that hope into action. And the great thing with those communities is you've got that collectiveness built in.
Do you believe Jewish people are more concerned about the Darfur situation because of the Holocaust?
I don't think so. My experience is it's really across the board with faith groups in general leading the charge.
Before Darfur, there was a war in the south, which many thought was genocide. And the leading group was Christian groups here in the U.S. that led that charge.
I think there's a lot of folks in the Muslim community that have been concerned because both groups that are at war in Darfur are Muslim. So again, it's, you know, Muslim perpetrators, but Muslim victims and Muslim refugees and survivors.
So, I think the answer is that the Jewish community has gotten involved [with] Darfur, but I don't think at a level that is more representative than any other faith community.
As the director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, you are responsible for helping people, corporations, and states divest from Darfur. Can you simplify what it means to divest?
Well, I'll keep it real simple. The Sudanese-genocide is expensive. And Sudan is a poor country--$600 a year is the average salary. Yet the Sudanese government brings in billions of dollars a year in oil revenue. And all of that money doesn't go to development or infrastructure, it goes to Sudan's military.
Now, Sudan controls the oil reserves, but they don't have the money or the expertise to turn those reserves into revenue. So, they bring in these foreign oil companies who then provide Sudan with the capital and make this whole thing possible and provide all of this revenue.
These companies then get their money through stock exchanges and have investors through our state pension funds, through the mutual funds that we own and we give these companies the capital that they need, to go do business in Sudan.
As shareholders, as an owner of stock, you're a partial owner in that company. So, using our leverage as shareholders, speaking with our wallets, we're saying, "No, you're not going to use these investments to finance genocide. And if you don't change your behavior, we're selling our investments in your company."
Do you believe that divestment is the most important way that people can help?
I think it's an effective way, where people can see an impact. Because companies have responded and you can get legislation through on a local level. But I think what I would say is get involved in the way that best suits you. Be creative.
Our parent organization, The Genocide Intervention Network, recently launched a hotline, 1(800)GENOCIDE. Anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, you call it and it's no charge. It asks for your zip code and it then tells you the update of the situation. It connects you to your local lawmaker and gives you talking points of what to ask for. It's a phenomenal tool.
You don't really hear a lot of U.S. presidential candidates talking about Darfur. Should they be talking about it?
Absolutely. It's something we've been working on. Earlier this year, we launched www.askthecandidates.org, a great new website where you can go in and interact with the candidates on Darfur.
We've been engaging with communities in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire. [We've] been going to presidential events. We've got shirts that say, "I vote for Darfur." And Senator Obama, Senator Brownback and a few others, have personally committed to divesting their own assets.
So they have been engaged, but we just need to push them further on it.
What has your experience been like partnering with Don Cheadle in this?
I can't speak highly enough about Don, because I think he's gotten nothing out of this. If anything, you could say it's maybe, hurt his career because it's tough to be taken very seriously.
We came together well before the film. He came to speak at a rally at UCLA that we had and there were six of [us] there, two of us being Don [and I]. Now we go to speak and there's thousands.
I think the other unique thing is when we think about celebrities getting involved we kind of think, "Oh, they don't know what they're talking about."
Don and George, know what they're talking about. They've been to the region many times, have testified at the UN, Congress. It's really great to see people get involved and take it so seriously.
What are you hoping people are going to get out of it watching the film?
I hope my role in the film inspires people and shows that it doesn't take an expert to make change.
We've premiered the movie in Toronto. And after the premier, different types of people came up to me and said, "I saw myself in you."
What's motivates you to keep going?
There is a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. "Be the change that you want to see in the world."
And I think what keeps me going is a combination of inspiration of those I work around. Every success that I have had, I've had 10 committed people working with me. And again, that's that idea of collective action.
And it's partly guilt. 10 years from now when they make "Hotel Darfur," and I don't want to look back and say I didn't do anything.