Students Fight to Free Prisoners

(My essay in the Sunday Providence Journal, June 3, 2018)

By now, many millennials and members of Generation Z are accustomed to being labeled as lazy, entitled, self-absorbed. But as we conclude another graduation season here in Rhode Island, I’m reminded that those generalizations overlook the idealism and drive, the passion and compassion of the young graduates I see crossing the stage to get diplomas.

Case in point: Roger Williams University students are taking on the hard and thankless task of challenging totalitarian governments by advocating for scholars who have been thrown in prison or otherwise silenced for daring to speak their minds.

For seven years now, students in an RWU advocacy seminar have been working in partnership with the nonprofit Scholars at Risk Network. And in the fall, RWU will assume a leadership role in New England, helping other colleges to undertake this unheralded research and advocacy work.

This is a far cry from the facile image of teenagers snapping selfies, seeking instant gratification. This is detailed, long-term organizing work that involves conducting research, gathering signatures on petitions, meeting with federal officials, launching social media campaigns and trying in any way possible to break through the cacophony of daily news to let the world know about little-known academics locked away in far-off lands.

This is also a far cry from the stereotype of ivory tower isolation. This is the essence of RWU’s purpose: To strengthen society through engaged teaching and learning.

For example, RWU students have been advocating for Ilham Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing who is serving a life sentence in China for speaking out against the religious and cultural persecution of the Uyghur people, in the country’s northwestern region. He has been called “China’s Mandela.”

Tohti started writing about the tensions in that region in the 1990s, and he set up a Chinese-language website, Uyghur online, to mediate differences between the minority Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese.

In 2013, the police detained him at Beijing’s airport as he prepared to leave with his daughter, Jewher, to become a visiting scholar at Indiana University. And in 2014, he was arrested by Chinese authorities and sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism, sparking worldwide condemnation.

RWU students collected signatures on petitions calling for Tohti’s release. They launched a #FreeTohti campaign on social media. They traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with officials from the State Department. They met with key supporters, such as U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, both Rhode Island Democrats. And they accompanied Tohti’s daughter as she testified before Congress.

Cuban journalist Normando Hernández González also was freed, and, while behind bars, he was heartened to hear that advocates were calling for his release.

“When he was in jail in Cuba, he knew we were working on his behalf,” said Adam Braver, the RWU associate professor of creative writing and University Library program director who runs the advocacy seminar. “He told us it gave him hope in a way he hadn’t had before, and he got treated a little bit better because they know people are watching.”

By advocating for imprisoned scholars, students aren’t just learning the fundamental skills involved in research and advocacy. They aren’t just learning the intricacies and vagaries of international relations. They are learning to be citizens of the world.

This world needs people of good will who are committed to sustained action. We need people undeterred by the frustrating scarcity of easy solutions or quick results. We need people devoted to defending freedom of expression and fighting for freedom from oppression.

At a time when authoritarian rulers are clamping down on dissent, we need the next generation to shine a light in the darkest corners. In an era of rampant cynicism, we need a youthful burst of energy and optimism.

This is the generation the world needs now. And it gives me hope.