Jack: Letters can set prisoners free

“When the first 200 letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes,” a former Dominican prisoner wrote to Amnesty International about his experience. “The next 200 letters came and the prison officers came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior.”

Activists around the world wrote to Dominican authorities urging them to release this man, whom the government had imprisoned for his work with labor unions. Tens of thousands of such prisoners, unjustly incarcerated by governments around the world, have been released after activists organized grassroots letter-writing campaigns, petitions, educational events and meetings with government officials to push for human rights.

Freeing a prisoner takes thousands of letters. Many think: My letter, one more on that pile sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk, may make no difference. My signature on a petition means even less amongst the thousands of others. Many wonder: Why bother?

Zmitser Dashkevich, the student leader of an organization working for political freedom in Belarus, was imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of his right to assembly, association and organization. After receiving thousands of letters from activists, Belarusian authorities released Dashkevich on Jan. 23, 2008.

Letters work.

If I don’t stop to write a letter or pause to sign a petition, feeling lazy or too busy, I justify others not to sign or write. If 100 other people follow my lazy attitude, there would be noticeably fewer letters.

Elections can be seen similarly, and they can help explain the power of a letter. Many ask: Why vote? The election results would have been the same, regardless of my ballot. Yet I voted, to make my voice heard and to bring positive change to my country. I sign a petition for same reason.

There is a difference between making change through education and making change through grassroots activism. The Yale campus abounds with panel discussions on global problems, classes on social justice issues and casual dining hall debates on current affairs. These activities develop the knowledge and critical thinking necessary to build future leaders to handle these issues.

Yet in the rush to finish papers for these classes and attend the numerous panel discussions, we often forget why we are doing these things.

We want to make some sort of positive change, right? I wonder how many of the 176 people enrolled in “African Poverty and Western Aid” or of those in the smaller group taking “The Politics of Human Rights” engage in any sort of activism outside of class.

So many Yale students spend time learning and complaining about social justice issues but claim to be too busy to engage in action while on campus. Education on these issues will not solve the problems until students apply that knowledge to action.

The simple act of signing a petition or writing a letter can have an impact. Complain about a social justice issue not only to friends in the dining hall, but also to someone who might be able to change the situation.

Letters from foreigners to international authorities show those leaders that people worldwide are aware of and opposed to their actions. Enough pressure from abroad can motivate them to change. Letters or petitions sent to domestic elected officials can have an even greater impact. Constituents elect these people to office. Officials have to care what their voters think.

Writing a letter and signing a petition are forms of legislative lobbying that can shape policy. A staffer tallies each letter, e-mail or petition signature that comes into a government office. The tallies get reported to the official. Every tally counts. Constituent pressure played a large role in pushing Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine to co-sponsor the International Violence Against Women Act in April 2008. This legislation, which is still awaiting a Congressional vote, would create new State Department positions and allot funding to make stopping the abuse of women a top priority.

Take action. Change a policy; free a prisoner. Pause in your rush through Woolsey Hall to sign a petition outside Commons if you support the week’s human rights issue. Or go write a letter yourself about some other problem. Campus is inundated with information on crisis worldwide. It’s overwhelming. But doing something is better than doing nothing.

“The letters kept coming, three thousand of them, and the President called me to his office,” the Dominican prisoner wrote. “He showed me an enormous box of letters he had received, and said: ‘How is it that a trade union leader like you has so many friends all over the world?’ ’’

Helen Jack is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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