Note: This post was authored by Ishmael Maxwell. Ishmael is a student at Carleton College studying Political Science and International Relations and a 2016 Lemkin Summit participant.
In January 2016, I had an opportunity very few high schoolers get. Wearing my first suit and tie, I secured a visitor’s badge onto my lapel then stepped through the ornate doorway into Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office in the U.S. Capitol Building. No experience I’ve had has given me the same fluttering sensation I felt in my stomach in that moment. As a student representative with the Enough Project’s annual Lemkin Summit, I was there to meet one of Representative Pelosi’s staffers and lobby to gain the Congresswoman’s support for efforts to end the atrocities occurring in Central and East Africa, from ivory-trafficking to genocide.
Before the Summit, I had no prior knowledge of the horrors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, or South Sudan, almost no knowledge of the surrounding region. I also had no experience in addressing human rights or lobbying my elected representatives. I knew attending the Summit would change me in important ways, but I had no idea that what I learned would go on to haunt me and to inspire me to do what I could to bring about change globally. The injustices that persist in Central and East Africa are mostly ignored by major global actors, and yet are some of the most critical that humanity currently faces.
For two days preceding the meeting with Representative Pelosi’s office, I was trained how to lobby, attended passionate lectures, and participated in productive workshops. Unlike me, many of the other attendees were longtime activists and leaders in their fields. Despite my young age and inexperience, however, I was not only accepted to attend what turned out be a life-changing conference, but, while there, I felt I was treated just like the others. Just by participating—being willing to learn and be passionate about making change—I was embraced. The Summit has, in many ways, defined the trajectory of my life and career. Now, I am studying political science and international relations at Carleton College, conducting research on topics in the field, and working during the summer at organizations like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which addresses polarization and extremism globally, including in Central Africa.
If I had not been exposed to human rights, lobbying, and policy-making during the Lemkin Summit, I might not be seeking to make change as I am today.