Students raise funds at Darfur benefit show

by Beacon Staff • October 18, 2006

"The situation in Uganda and Darfur is very critical. There's not enough going on and it needs to start right here," Chad Urmston said, tuning his guitar in the Emerson Cabaret while preparing to sing a song he wrote about Sudan for the African Action Benefit.

Urmston, lead singer and guitarist of State Radio and former member of the Boston-based band Dispatch, was part of the local music lineup featured at the African Action Benefit on Oct. 11.

The benefit raised $700 and awareness for the crisis in Darfur and discussed issues in northern Uganda.

The collected donations will be given to two organizations: the Save Darfur Coalition and Invisible Children. The Save Darfur Coalition is an organization devoted to raising consciousness of Darfur and money to provide aid to those affected by the ongoing genocide.

Invisible Children, which was started by three college students, donates money to foster the children affected by the crisis in Northern Uganda.

Every night in Uganda, according to the event's coordinators, thousands of children face the threat of being abducted for the Lord's Resistance Army, a rogue rebel force that has terrorized parts of the country since 1987. To escape recruitment, they walk miles, barefoot, finding refugees in surrounding towns and sleeping on church floors.

Emerson College sophomore writing, literature and publishing major Melissa Gittelman, along with sophomore organizational and political communications major Sasha Brown, organized the philanthropic event in a partnership with Imagine, Hillel and Emerson Peace and Social Justice.

Before Gittelman came to Emerson, she was very involved in raising awareness about issues in Africa in her home state of Pennsylvania. Both Gittelman and Brown showed a film to spread understanding of the gruesome genocide in Darfur last year.

But the two women wanted to move beyond simple sympathy.

This past summer, they learned more about what children in Uganda face every single night through activities structured to teach empathy. They walked with hundreds of other humanitarians through Boston neighborhoods and stopped to sleep outside on a church lawn to simulate a nightly commute of the children facing abduction in northern Uganda.

"It was intense to connect with their experience and feel what they felt," Gittelman said.

Gittelman was also inspired by Urmston's involvement in issues surrounding Africa and wanted to do something else to raise funds and knowledge in the region.

"Last year, I started learning about rallies, and I started really researching what was going on over there. It really upset me and fueled my energy to try and make a difference," Gittelman explained. "And then I saw that Chad was focusing on Darfur at his concerts and I thought that would be a good way to turn on our campus through music. That's how kids respond."

The night started off with a performance by The Young Republic, a nine-member band formed at Berklee College of Music, playing a djembe, a traditional African drum. The local music lineup also included reggae-influenced band The Stolen Records and folk singer/songwriter Emily Kimball, who was backed by Marcel Hamel on electric bass.

Urmston played the last set of the evening. Surrounded by a crowd of students, Urmston strummed an acoustic set, featuring a new song he wrote for the event titled "Sudan," which focused on the issues in Darfur and northern Uganda.

The audience listened closely as Urmston sang, "If I had one wish on which to stand, I wish the weapons would leave Sudan."

Gittelman is concentrating on starting an African Action group to help host more social gatherings in the future.

"We need events like this for students who aren't updated on the issues because it's not in the news as much," Gittelman said.

"You hear about Iraq all the time but you don't see news segments on Africa. Once in a while kids start making noise about it, but normally the media isn't focused on it."