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DECCA Raises Darfur Awareness

They didn’t raise a cent. They never intended to. But an initiative that started in a Westfield High School classroom as a marketing project and went all the way to Capitol Hill raised something far more important: awareness.

Ten student representatives from the Westfield chapter of DECA, an international association of high school and college marketing students, appeared at a press conference on Capitol Hill Nov. 14 to discuss their efforts in raising awareness about genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

THE EVENT, which hosted reporters from several major metropolitan newspapers, was the culmination of a project conceived just months earlier in the classroom of marketing teacher Brian Thompson.

“The students in my advanced marketing class choose the topic and plan a public relations event for our DECA chapter and the issue they select,” said Thompson, the school’s primary DECA advisor. “The students in my class overwhelmingly chose Darfur.”

The group chooses multiple chapter projects each year and participates in competitions with other high school marketing students. Along with Darfur, the students chose three other causes, including Operation Provide Safe Hardware, which raises awareness and supplies for women and children in Uganda.

The Darfur project got underway in early October when DECA members — of which there are more than 300 at Westfield — began brainstorming for ideas on how to best educate people about the issue. The effort began as a school-wide campaign, with DECA members making and distributing fliers, pictures, and green-and-white ribbons to their classmates.

They presented their cause over the morning announcements and visited 50-75 classes with a Power-Point presentation. The students were encouraged to use their knowledge of marketing and public relations techniques to best dispense their message.

The Internet was also a huge tool for the students, who created both MySpace and Facebook pages for their project. About 300-400 students were informed about the cause using online avenues.

“Using the Internet was a unique aspect that a lot of other projects would not have thought to take on,” said Cameron Lisse, a 16-year-old junior, who, along with two others, served as project manager for the “Save Darfur” campaign.

Korina Fino, an 18-year-old senior and co-project manager, said that the best ideas were those that could reach their peers the easiest.

“We thought about our age range,” Fino said. “These days, Internet was our main way. The class presentations were great because we spoke to [the students] directly.”

WHEN NOT getting their peers involved, the project managers were eliciting the help of local lawmakers. On Oct. 31, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-10th), spoke to an auditorium full of Westfields students about his experiences visiting Sudan and his work as co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Wolf has spearheaded the campaign to enact divestment legislation at the state and federal levels that would discontinue the funding of the Sudanese government by American companies.

The efforts of Westfield’s DECA students, which lasted six weeks and included the circulation of about 5,000 green-and-white ribbons, all lead up to “Darfur Awareness Day,” held at the school Nov. 11.

The event hosted approximately 250 participants and included two live bands, 15 sponsors, a speaker from the Save Darfur Coalition, and an information booth where people could sign a petition supporting Wolf in his efforts in Congress.

However, the main event was a walk around the school’s track to raise awareness about the issue of the day. In all, participants walked more than 1,700 laps around the track, equaling 410 miles, or the approximate distance across the Darfur region.

The students’ dedication to their cause earned them an invitation to Capitol Hill three days later, courtesy of Wolf and Congressman Donald M. Payne (D-NJ). Ten students, including Lisse, Fino, and their co-project manager Loren Monk, appeared at the press conference, with Monk speaking on the chapter’s behalf. Representatives from Langley High School also participated.

“I talked about student activism,” said Monk, a 17-year-old senior. “And how students can help to stop genocide.”

WHILE DIVESTMENT has been largely unsuccessful thus far on the national level, six states have enacted legislation and 25 others — including Virginia — plan to consider the topic this year. The DECA students have aimed their efforts at the Virginia legislature as well, and have seen those efforts pay off. Students participated in a web conference set up by Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37th), who is leading the charge on the state level.

“Virginia was really responsive,” Monk said. “They were really trying to get it through the Senate, and it passed unanimously.”

The bill, formally called SB 1331, passed the Virginia Senate Feb. 6, and will now move on to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Now that their planned activities have concluded, the students have begun compiling their project manual, which they will present at the state-wide DECA competition March 9-11 in Norfolk.

“My students have shown me their diligence, dedication to a cause, intellect, organization, and leadership skills throughout the process,” Thompson said. “They also learned all about the legislative process, media, press releases, and all issues surrounding the genocide in Darfur.”