Working to end global poverty and injustice may sound like a lofty task
best left to humanitarians in distant developing countries.
But creating a fair world starts at home. It includes the clothes we wear
and the items we purchase at the grocery store. That's because even the actions
we take at home affect the broader world.
Oxfam America works to tackle poverty, hunger and injustice. It promotes
fair trade, which means paying fair prices to producers in developing countries.
It raises awareness about climate change, the impact of industries like oil,
gas and mining, and more. And its causes are a huge draw for young people.
"It's just exciting work. Young people really care about the world today
and care about these bigger issues," says Alexander Nataros. He's a volunteer
youth director with Oxfam. "And Oxfam does take on a number of the issues
like anti-sweat shops, fair trade and women's rights -- issues people can
really connect with."
Founded in 1970, Oxfam America is an international relief and development
organization. It works in more than 125 countries. There are about 225 campus
clubs across the country. The average age for student volunteers is 18 to
20. However, there is no minimum age to join.
There are many ways for students to get involved with Oxfam. High school
and college students can throw hunger banquets at their school or raise awareness
about Oxfam's campaigns in other ways. They can take action online through
Oxfam's e-community, join or start an on-campus club, or serve as volunteers
at Oxfam's offices.
Oxfam America also offers an annual leadership training program to 50 college
or university students. The CHANGE program includes one week of intensive
training. Students gain leadership skills, learn about Oxfam's campaigns and
learn how to organize on campus. Then they return to campus as CHANGE leaders,
focusing on one or more Oxfam campaigns.
While helping the world, Oxfam volunteers learn to work well with groups.
They also gain leadership skills, event planning skills, lobbying and advocacy
skills, says Nessa Stoltzfus. She's the CHANGE coordinator for Oxfam America.
"Students are very aware of what's going on globally, and they want to
be active in making a difference," says Stoltzfus. "They study abroad. They're
communicating electronically with friends on the other side of the world,
and are seeing... the reality of what's going on."
One Friday evening, students from a Kentucky college crowded a small on-campus
cafe. Some squeezed two to a chair. Others sat on the floor. They had gathered
for an open-mike event called Coffee with a Conscience. They played songs,
read poetry and learned about Oxfam issues.
"It is a small coffee shop, but that was probably the busiest I'd ever
seen it," says Taryn Henning. She's a sophomore and sociology major at Berea
College in Kentucky. She's also an Oxfam CHANGE leader. She organized the
event to raise awareness about issues like fair trade.
"It's a small town. So there's not much to do on Friday nights. So this
was something fun," she says.
As her college's CHANGE leader, Henning also raises awareness about climate
change and the impact of mining on nearby communities. She works with a local
fair trade store and works to ensure that the coffee and chocolate sold on
campus are fair trade.
Not everyone shares Henning's passion, though. She finds people's apathy
frustrating at times. "They would just rather go off and have a cup of coffee,
do their shopping, listen to their music -- just stay focused in their own
world," she says. "You can't win over everyone."
When Henning started college, she planned to become a biology teacher.
Now, after working with Oxfam, she plans to pursue a career in social justice
"I just have this big feeling that as people we need to help each other
and look out for each other," she says.
As Oxfam co-president at Seattle University, Kraig Cook took a lead role
in organizing the hunger banquet at his school this year.
When students arrived at the event, they were given a card. On the card,
they read the identity of a real person living somewhere in the world. The
students were then organized in the room according to the identity. Five
to 10 percent of the students were seated at a table and received gourmet
meals. Ten to 15 percent ate rice and beans. Eighty percent sat on the floor
and ate rice.
The banquet was designed to reflect how people around the world eat, and
to raise awareness about global poverty and hunger, says Cook.
The Oxfam club is one of Seattle U's largest on-campus clubs with 30 regular
members. "I think that a lot of students are interested in social justice
issues," explains Cook. "I think [Oxfam is] really appealing because it has
a clear mission. And you can see the work always relates back to fighting
poverty and fighting injustice."
The club attracts students in pre-medical studies, nursing, political science,
engineering and economics, says Cook. Cook is an economics major himself.
After graduating, Cook plans to continue his advocacy work. "What I eventually
want to do is work in economic development -- so work for a firm that promotes
small-scale economic development in developing nations."
Alexander Nataros spends up to 10 hours a week volunteering for Oxfam.
But it's hard for him to count the hours because his volunteer work blends
with his social life. That's because many of his close friends are Oxfam volunteers
"[It's] what I think volunteering should be," he says. "It not only gives
you a great chance to develop personally and develop your abilities, but also
you meet a lot of new people and get excited about helping the world."
Nataros is a youth director for Oxfam. He helps organize the annual CHANGE
training. He also works with a team of regional youth liaisons across the
country and helps campus groups promote their campaigns.
Last year he helped coordinate a national concert series to raise awareness
about Oxfam's mission. The role involved calling up local bands, engaging
producers and securing venues.
Nataros is a medical student, and he sees medicine playing an important
role in Oxfam's work. "I think one of the exciting things about medicine is
that there's a huge potential for doctors to play a leading role in so many
of these issues."
How to Get Involved
Join the Oxfam club at your school, if one exists. Or visit Oxfam's website
to see how you can get involved -- start a new Oxfam club, host an event at
your school, apply for Oxfam's CHANGE training, join Oxfam's e-community and
more. There is no minimum age to join.
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