Taken from a recent interview of SGD's founder and president, Charlie Szrom, by Bloomington student Ashley Crikelair...
AC: What’s the story of the formation of Students for Global Democracy?
Well, supporting liberty abroad first sparked my interest when I attended a Model UN conference in my junior year of high school (’01-’02). My high school represented Iran at the conference, and while that meant I had to play the part of a hostile dictatorship (which was fun I’ll admit), it also meant I read quite a lot while researching for the conference. At the time, Iran was undergoing a number of mass demonstrations demanding democracy (these continue today). I developed an interest in Iranian democracy, and my interest in democracy in other countries blossomed from there.
After that, I came upon the book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil by Mark Palmer, a former US Ambassador to Hungary during the 1980’s and currently one of the major players in global democracy promotion. The work acts as handbook for fighting for political liberties abroad, detailing both the why and the how. After picking up and soon finishing the book before Christmas 2003, ideas started to swirl in my head. In the book, Palmer wrote about the need for a “Students for Democracy” organization that would fight for political liberties abroad. I’ve always wanted to, like I imagine most people do, make the world a better place, and this seemed like the call to service I had been waiting for. To sum up my motivation, I want to change the world for the better, and this seems the most practical yet ambitious way to do so.
During the break, I wrote up a mission statement for the organization soon to be known as Students for Global Democracy. This simple initial piece of paper outlining goals and beliefs of the organization would form the ideological nexus of the new group.
As for the story of the founding of the organization, it began with the plastering of that piece of paper all over IU’s campus during the blistery January month on various kiosks and billboards. Basically, the paper just laid out the mission and asked anyone who was interested to email me. A week or two later, a couple of people did. I still remember meeting with Zack Gelbaum, a very bright guy from California (I think) who shared some of my enthusiasm.
But without SGD’s first true member, the organization would have undoubtedly ended that first semester. Andrew Allaby, previously a friend of friend who became my best friend, ripped one of my flyers off the kiosk near Ballantine while we walked back to the dorms from a lecture. Having some interest in the topic, but mostly just wanting to help out a friend (by his own admission) he joined and was invaluable. Together, we held various events that semester, events that I could not have done without him. When we had meetings with very little turnout, I don’t think I could have faced them more than once or twice without Andrew at my side. That’s why Andrew is the co-founder of SGD – he helped it become a real organization, something more than a collection of flyers on kiosks.
AC: SFGD was started at IU. Why did you begin other chapters? Where are those other chapters, and how did you choose those presidents?
CS:Other chapters (UC-Berkeley, Stanford – both in the San Francisco area, although the chapter presidents met each other through SGD oddly enough) were founded by individuals at those universities, the incredibly dedicated and talented Arthur Edelstein and Joe Fairbanks, respectively. Those presidents chose themselves as they expressed the desire to found the chapters – we operate on a more decentralized model when possible at SGD, believing in the decision-making ability of local entities. Also, these chapters are not entirely representative of SGD’s growing footprint – just this week, for example, we’ve received commitments on new chapters to open in the fall at University of Michigan, University of Western Ontario (Canada), and Middlesborough College (United Kingdom.) There also may be chapters at the University of Oklahoma and (more certainly) George Washington University by the fall.
As to the desire to expand to other campuses, countries, etc., it’s simply because our mission cannot be fulfilled while operating solely on a local level. To truly influence national governments, raise enough funds, and demonstrate international solidarity with activists one needs an organization with a large geographic footprint. With recent interest abroad in SGD, before our major recruitment campaign goes into full swing this summer, we believe we can have a reasonable footprint to begin achieving this by the beginning of the fall semester.
AC: Obviously if the name is Students for GLOBAL Democracy, your target is the world as a whole, but how did you begin locally to accomplish your goals?
CS:A wise question. Initially we were faced with that very problem, but began to overcome it at the small scale. Our initial steps mainly included organizing petitions and showing films. Our first two petitions focused on Iran and Burma respectively, with the signed petitions then being sent to Indiana’s representatives in Congress, along with other appropriate Congressmen depending on the bill. Our most successful film showing was that of the film Beyond Rangoon, a movie highlighting the democratic struggle in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (called Myanmar by the ruling military junta). In the fall, with a repeat showing, we were able to have a speaker from the Burmese government-in-exile as well as a Burmese musician give us their insights and music on the struggle for democracy in their country. Meeting with people such as them really makes one feel grateful for being born in the United States, and guilty as the same time for not doing more for these people. Dr. Ro Ding, a member of the Burmese govt-in-exile, for example, trekked many days to escape from his country after distributing underground literature against the regime.
Our most successful petition was targeted at the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, legislation giving specific aid to North Korean refugees and aiding the brutally mistreated people of N. Korea. It had been stuck in committee, and needed extra support to get that highly important legislation passed. After hearing about the need for action from SGD Bloomington’s Dan Levin, who remains in close contact with Senator Lugar’s office, we organized a petition drive. In a matter of two days – some eight hours in total – we amassed a massive 500 signatures. After being sent to key individuals in Congress and otherwise in Washington, we later learned the legislation managed to get signed into law.
AC: What were the next steps in promoting democracy?
CS:Let me highlight SGD’s strategy for promoting democracy. We use 1) awareness techniques to educate the populace in general to get them more interested and realize the immense benefit of supporting democracy abroad, 2) activism techniques such as the aforementioned petitions as well as demonstrations of solidarity; both to influence the national government as well as show support for democratic dissidents abroad, and 3) direct fundraising (training if needed) for dissidents abroad, who are often left behind by international organizations that do not understand the situation on the ground and often are less willing to commit resources when political situations turn sour, as recently happened in Belarus.
It’s amazing how much people underestimate the critical role of solidarity from abroad, and simple direct aid. Dissidents walk a very challenging path, and need all the support they can get while walking that path. SGD sees the success of nonviolent democratic dissidents everywhere as its goal, because while other problems within countries will surely remain, dictatorships cause the majority of the world’s problems. Hence, the world can only be at its safest and most livable when democratic revolutions or reforms have finally put authoritarianism in its rightful grave.
As for further actions, three events last semester in SGD deserve mention, as well as one this semester. On election day last semester, we organized the Election Rights Awareness Campaign (ERAC) where we passed out hundreds (probably 800?) of brochures to people who had voted, educating a good section of the IU campus on the lack of voting rights in countries abroad. Secondly, when news of the situation in Ukraine broke, SGD held demonstrations both in San Francisco (at the Ukrainian consulate there) and in Chicago (also at the UKR consulate) during different segments of the now-famous Orange Revolution. Photos are on our website. Finally, in the lead-up to the Iraq elections in January, SGD raised funds for the group Spirit of America, an excellent charitable group that had been doing some very good work in Iraq and was then organizing an excellent campaign to support Iraqi elections. SGD also organized its first Internet petition in conjunction with the campaign, requesting that those governmental agencies involved in the reconstruction of Iraq include students more fully in democratic development.
AC: Where are you at right now with the organization? How much have you accomplished?
CS:SGD is at a critical phase of transition. Our major campaign currently is the Belarus Endowment for Life and Liberty (BELL) fundraising campaign. This campaign focuses on directly raising funds from American sources for the Belarussian Zubr movement, the primary dissident movement in that country, and one almost entirely composed of students. As our peers living under a dictatorship, we can do no less to get them the financial support they need in opposing dictatorship. I’ve personally met with dissidents from Belarus in a private meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia organized by the former foreign minister of Slovakia, Pavol Demes – who continues to be a great ally during this entire campaign.
So we’re at the point where we can influence events in Belarus to some degree by showing the support of American youth to Belarussian dissidents, as well as making whatever financial contribution we can. The established international aid organizations obviously outdo us in scale, experience, and funding, but we are slowly compensating for that through our expanding manpower, ability to connect more closely with dissidents, and willingness to be more flexible in our work.
Over the summer, SGD will expand its fundraising and recruiting in an unprecedented campaign conducted primarily through the Internet. I’ve already mentioned some of the potential chapters that may open both here and abroad, and by the end of the summer we think we can easily outdo that number to allow SGD to have both a significant national, and possibly international to a small degree, footprint. We also will probably have 501(c)(3) non-profit status before the fall term, meaning that we will be able to offer potential donors the benefit of a tax write-off.
No one has ever attempted an organization like this before, so it’s difficult to gauge where we stand as we continually must forge our own path on local, national, and international scenes. SGD is advancing at a much faster rate that I expected a year ago, it’s hard to believe that just a few days ago I was invited to an inauguration of a democracy-promoting organization in Ghana in relation to SGD. I would have never believed the scale of international contacts and work we’re doing now when I first posted those flyers only a year and a few months ago. None of this would have gone anywhere without the quality individuals that continually come to SGD; I’ve mentioned the most important ones by name so far but more come everyday. Without them, it would have ended at flyers on kiosks.