A letter from this year’s SOA trip

Several weeks ago, a group of 21 of us made the 17-hour trek down to Columbus, Georgia on a bus to call for the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC) to be closed down. The SOA provides military training for Latin American soldiers and has been linked to countless human rights abuses and un-democratic practices in the region, including the 2009 coup in Honduras and 2010 attempted coup in Ecuador. By calling for the School to be closed down, we participated in a long history of social justice and peace activism here at Grinnell while furthering the rich connection between Grinnell students and the SOA Convergence of Hope and Resistance.

While in Georgia, we attended workshops on issues related to human rights in the region including the connections between U.S. Latin American immigration and militarism, the proliferation of violence under the U.S.-led Plan Colombia and the ongoing repression against the non-violent movement in Honduras against the 2009 coup. We rallied at the gates of Fort Benning with thousands of individuals to listen to speakers, network with leaders and non-profits and raise awareness of the abuses committed by graduates of the School. We stood in solidarity with those affected by the culture of violence taught by the School and raised our voices for those who have been systematically silenced through torture and assassination.

The SOA Convergence was a deeply profound emotional and educational experience and we feel that we have come back to campus educated about human rights abuses in the region and inspired to take action against them. As a part of that action, we have decided to take what we have learned back to the campus community to raise awareness of the SOA through many venues. Two students who attended the SOA have already performed a piece about the SOA for Dance Troupe and other awareness raising activities include guerrilla poetry to raise awareness for a group called Witness Against Torture and plans to bring speakers, musicians and artists we discovered at the SOA to campus. Through these mediums, we hope that awareness of the movement to close down the SOA can become an educational experience not only for the participants of this year’s trip but for the entire community.

Recognizing the transformative nature of this experience, many Grinnell students and administrators have supported the opportunity for students to attend the SOA Convergence. For years students had been going down to the gates of Fort Benning on an ad-hoc basis, but four years ago was the first time student leaders organized to charter a bus to increase the number of participants and to ensure safety for students. Ever since then, students have relied on the College for funding to subsidize the costs of the bus and campsite in Georgia in addition to student participation fees. In the past few years concerns had been raised regarding the legal question of a non-profit institution funding the trip although a compromise was reached each year to allow the trip to happen. With a change in administration the policy was reviewed and the College’s lawyers were contacted to clear the air. Upon clarifying that there was minimal to no legal risk and that many peer institutions fund trips down to the SOA, President Kington cleared the way for trip organizers to apply for funding.

In the wake of this year’s decision, the financial and institutional support of this trip and similar endeavors is up for deliberation by a committee to ensure coherence and transparency in the College’s support of such projects in the future. As students who participated in the trip and profoundly value our experience, we hope that the College can continue to support trips that directly relate to the institution’s core values of social justice, diversity and excellence in a liberal arts education. We feel that trips such as the SOA Convergence allow students to translate the lessons from the classroom about creating justice in the world into concrete action. In this way, students receive a holistic liberal arts education that recognizes the value of experiential learning while strengthening the College’s deep roots of social justice and peace activism for generations of students to come. We as students believe that trips that fall within legal and institutional guidelines and those with clear linkages to students’ Grinnell experiences, no matter where these trips fall on the political spectrum, should continue to be institutionally supported and financed.

Lastly, we would like to thank Raynard Kington, SGA Treasurer Gabe Schechter, Deanna Shorb, Chris Gaunt, Val Vetter, Michael Sims, Houston Dougharty, SGA, Peace Studies, the Voicebox and the CRSSJ for helping to make the SOA trip happen this year. We hope that the SOA trip and other such endeavors directly related to the core values of the College continue to receive sustainable, generous and transparent financial and institutional support in the future.