Hurricane Katrina did it for Escenthio. At his high school in Oakland, he was enrolled in a JROTC program and was on his way to joining the military. But one of his teachers invited him to a benefit for the victims of the hurricane. It made Escenthio question his involvement in the class and our country’s priorities in general. “Why are we over there killing people in Iraq when there are people in need right here?” he asked.
Soon afterward, he decided to organize a debate at his school around these issues, and invited the JROTC army officers to the table alongside Pablo Paredes, a well-known conscientious objector. The debates created quite a stir — and Escenthio became one of the central youth activists of BayPeace, an Oakland organization doing counter-recruitment work in high schools.
“He’s one of the most amazing young activists I’ve met,” said Susan from BayPeace, who recommended that Escenthio join our Youth Arts and Action delegation traveling to Colombia at the end of March. At eighteen, Escenthio had an important voice to bring: a young, African-American man finishing his last year of high school, a spoken-word artist, and counter-recruitment activist. I was quite excited about him joining us: a group of organizers, activists, artists, and young leaders who would travel to Colombia to meet up with two youth-based organizations working on the issues of conscientious objection and how militarism affects young people’s lives.
Everything was set for Escenthio to arrive in Bogota on March 21 — until two days before the delegation when I received an e-mail with the subject line “sorry.” He had decided to cancel his participation in the delegation because of a high school exit exam that he would be taking only two days after his return from Colombia. He had already taken the exam and passed the reading and writing sections, but failed the math sections twice. If he didn’t pass the exam, he wouldn’t graduate high school, which meant he couldn’t get into college. I knew there was no way that I could convince myself or anybody else that this delegation was more important than Escenthio’s academics and future.
But I was convinced that there was room and support to do both. I asked the group if any of them had math/geometry skills and might be willing to tutor him while on the trip. Within hours of writing an e-mail, almost everybody responded positively. We set up a study schedule in our itinerary and had a commitment from a couple of people in the group to help as tutors. The general consensus was that his exit exam was just as important as any of the other activities we had scheduled in Colombia.
On our first day in Colombia we began a conversation about the reality of international solidarity work. A number of people in the circle had serious concerns about the nature of this work: why is that so many white, upper-middle-class activists turn toward the romanticized struggles of the Third World to “help” when we have our own atrocious situations to deal with at home? How can we justify solidarity work in Colombia when we have a prison population of African-American men that equals the number of un-free African-American men at the height of slavery? How can we go to a faraway place to accompany threatened human rights leaders when 120 veterans commit suicide every week in the United States? How can we think about inequality elsewhere when young people in our own country have to offer themselves as cannon fodder in Iraq in order to get money for college? These issues merit our attention, hardwork, and passion.
I am a white activist, enamored with Colombia and its struggle. And I have to ask myself — is there racism and denial inherent in my willingness to be connected to the work “over there”? On a personal level, I am deeply rooted to the culture, life, and people of Latin America: my gringo grandparents lived in Puerto Rico for thirty years and had all three kids there. I decided I wanted to learn how to speak Spanish fluently so that I could communicate with my cousins. And that became a plan to study in Latin America for a year, and Latin America became Colombia, and somehow Colombia snuck its way into my consciousness. This delegation felt like a glimmer, a hint at the possibility of challenging an either/or dichotomy of working on injustice here or being in solidarity with it there. We were not approaching Colombia as the problem and arriving as gringos with the helping hand.
We spent our eight-day delegation with two organizations: ACOOC (Collective Action for Conscientious Objectors) and the Red Juvenil (Youth Network). We never made the assumption that after a quick round of names and a two-hour session on youth and conscientious objection that the delegates could go back and “speak” for Colombian youth. We spent time together over a period of days. We heard about their lives, cases, and campaigns as conscientious objectors and their organizations’ work. We gave them a presentation about the war abroad and at home in the United States. We told our stories. We stayed at their houses and listened to music and danced and partied together. They cooked us traditional Colombian food (plantains, guacamole, hogao, and rice) and we cooked them traditional gringo food (beans, mac and cheese, broccoli, and corn bread). We talked about creating a network to support conscientious objectors. And for the first time many of us began to define ourselves as conscientious objectors — whether or not we had run the risk of being recruited by the military, had been discharged from the military, or had escaped these risks through situations of privilege, all of us were objecting with our consciences to these endless wars.
And all the while, Escenthio studied math. Every single day, he studied. He brought his math book with him on the bus, to lunch, and to our workshops. Everybody checked in with him on a daily basis, his self-appointed tutor worked with him in the mornings and evenings, and Escenthio excused himself from some of our sessions. His math test became part of our work in Colombia because our work there is our work here, because we can’t claim to support anybody in solidarity “over there” if we’re not being in solidarity “right here.”