Oral History 04.2015: Ben Evans and Student Activism

Leah Whetten-Goldstein interviewed Ben Evans, a "mediator, instigator, and activistor"

Leah Whetten-Goldstein: In this project we are supposed to talk about peace building. I am interviewing you, Benjamin Campbell Evans, because you are huge with student activism. You even gave a panel about it during G.U.S.

Ben Evens: Yes I am. I gave the panel about student involvement and the importance of student activism. Talking about past experiences we have had this past year and the different protests and rallies we have organized in the Greensboro community, but also, People’s Climate March in New York City. We went to the Spring Lobby Weekend.

LWG: What is the Spring Lobby weekend?

BE: It was a four day conference put on by the FCNL, Friends Comedy for National Legislation, where students from universities and colleges from all over came to DC and learned more about environmental policy. The message they were pushing for was that this is a bipartisan issue and shouldn’t be argued anymore across different sides of the aisle. Then we got to meet with our representatives from where we are registered to vote. So I met with Senator Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. I actually didn’t meet with them, I met with their staffers.

LWG: The staff members do all the work anyways.

BE: It’s definitely true. As you probably know, Marco Rubio recently announced candidacy for president. So a lot of what the conversation and conference was about is learning how to craft your statement, how to interact with politicians to get your voice heard. Which definitely plays a very big role in peace building. Because something that I’ve paid attention to lately is congresses attention towards the different actions we do with other countries. Recently Obama has tried to make a deal. Sort of like a nuclear arms deconstruction kind of deal is sort of how I understood it. With Iran. Nothing is set in stone but they are working towards that agreement, and in some ways I believe that it is also trying to combat ISIS. Since then many Republican Senators have spoken out and said I think this is a bad idea, we shouldn’t be engaging with Iran because they are just a forsaken country full of terrorists and all that redirect. Some of them were saying oh we should do what President Bill Clinton did in 1978 where just a series of air raids and bombings over Iran and that is really going to solve our problem. And you know it seems like these senators are so willing to engage in military war fare with these other countries in order to get what we want, but we are very hesitant to promote peace building strategies with any of these countries. We spend more than twenty percent of our nation’s budget on military.

LWG: More than the other top three nations combined right?

BE: More than twenty! More than twenty countries combined, WE spend more on our military. It’s almost as if our military is too big at this point that we can’t do without it. That if we decide to now promote more peace building strategies than we spent all of this money for nothing. It is almost as if we don’t want to have to come to that realization so we keep promoting violence and war and the way that we help counties deal with their problems is give them Military aid. Which we are not really paying attention to the current status and situation of the county and we are not providing the aid that they need. If the goal is to promote peace than we shouldn’t be giving arms and weapons and bombs to be dropped along the country side to promote that peace.

LWG: So you are saying that this aid is actually promoting the opposite of peace and promoting more violence?

BE: It’s creating the violence and promoting it. It is turning up to a scale that is just. There are so many human rights violations that go into that. Look at El Salvador. I don’t know if you know much about the history of El Salvador but funding them by promoting it under an anti-communist effort, we funded the military which was in a cue at that point. And they just used that money to continue to oppress the people that were beginning to revolutionize and try and fight which they weren’t given. If you look at Israel, the goal is that they have a stronger military and that they can stand up to their neighboring countries if threats were to break out. But they used that power and that military force to land grab. To completely oppress an entire population.

LWG: Why do you think we support Military Cues and it bites us in the butt a lot of the times?

BE: It’s a good question. So basically why do we continue to support this? I actually just wrote a very large research paper about military aid policy for my public policy course. So often times our military aid is not for the use to benefit our military. It is mainly political, we want something from them. Whether it be Israel or oil from the Middle East, or even to give other countries incentive to cooperate with our companies here in the United States. In a simple answer money is the reason. Also, power; being seen as the most powerful. In the anarchic system that we live in, we use our military as a way to bully other countries into getting what we want. This has created a lot more problems than necessary, but it has worked in some instances in the past, so right now there is no notion to end that. If anything they just want to continue this ideology that thing are going to continue working out like they have been, but I don’t think that is true. I think the more we continue to promote this ideology, the more counties are going to start to loath us and see us as that international bully that we are.

LWG: So you talked a lot about working to change the government. Do you feel that the way to peace build is through the government?

BE: You have to incorporate the government in any social change that you want. However, the government in a lot of ways is just not effective. It doesn’t have this driving let’s get things done, let’s make change. We have been debating topics for the last twenty five years. While some ground has been made on the state levels, on Washington, things just aren’t getting done. Bills are declined for stupid reasons and people are just so caught up in having the way that they want it to be. Which is counterproductive and is not going to create peace. Naturally, in all of live you are going to encounter different ideologies and different opinions. What happens in the world of politics is this refusal, this inability to talk about it, to find the things you do agree on, and to work towards goals. To work towards actually change and policies that can be amended to solve issues that we recognize.

LWG: So is that what you are working towards? To go past that blockade of freezing up when you meet someone with different opinions and ideologies?

BE: People don’t want to step on each other’s toes, and you are going to have to and are going to have to be okay with disagreeing. The political activist mindset I have developed here at Guilford is promoting these conversations to happen, and not just on a political form. These conversations can happen on any situation or circumstance you chose. The more you bring those conversations in your casual life the better. I’ve gotten on the plane last semester and asked someone what do you think is going on in Ferguson? When I tell people that they say, why are you doing that? If they disagree with you then it is going to make things really awkward and then you have the whole rest of the plane ride. If we disagree that’s fine, but I think it’s important that we are talking about the things that are going on in this country, seeing where other people stand, and sharing our ideas the way we perceive it to create some sort of solidarity. That’s the only way peace is going to be built. Is communicating with one another and coming to some sort of understanding of other people’s view points and learning from one another.

LWG: That actually a really good segue into my next question. You are a student here are Guilford, and like I said before you are known for student involvement in student activism. So I was going to ask about your thoughts on the importance students play in peace building. Could you talk about the importance of organizing on a communal level, like a college campus?

BE: One of the coolest things about being a college student is that you have a lot of resources available to you. You get to do really cool programs and internships for low costs. So really this is the time to engage in those projects with a social change emphasis. This time is really important to learn how to engage with powers in the work force and with other people. Here at Guilford there is definitely a difference in ideologies, but I find that the friends I have share my ideologies really well and do this similar work. So one of the important things and one of the challenges is to take that conversations with people who might be uncomfortable with having it, and present it in a way that they are willing to engage in. Not try to protest or to shove your opinions down someone’s throat. Come from a place of understanding and wanting to education and promote the betterence of all of us.

LWG: This is kind of a part two question. My final question for you is First off, what made you get involved in this type of work? Was it a specific experience that spoke to you or did your parents influence you?

BE: I’d say it is somewhat of a combination of the things you have said. Both my parents are preachers and naturally have tried to get us [me and my siblings] involved in a lot of service work. They took me to protesting the Iraq war in Miami. At the time I was kind of confused. I knew war was bad but I didn’t know why this was making people so angry. I saw so much anger in people shouting and protesting against the war. I have always been a performer and have always been able to talk in crowds. I was a theater major for a while but I switched to Community and Justice Studies last spring. After I returned form the No More Deaths trip from Arizona. No More Deaths is a humanitarian aid organization that works fifteen to five mile from the Mexican border. What it does is basically maps out migratory trials that people use to come to this country, and place out food and water at current points to end the death and suffering that is cause from this crises that has been created around keeping “illegal aliens”, please use quotes there, out of our country. When you look at the statistics, half of undocumented immigrants make of our food industry, and are paid significantly less in construction, factory, food jobs that are already terrible, that don’t get minimum wage or what minimum wage should be. So this sort of marginalized population is living in fear of deportation to promote our current economic system. The fact that we criminalized it to such an extent to just make people literally constantly fear their existence in this country. It is not only us fearing them, it is them fearing themselves. Because they feel as if they are not accepted.

LWG: What did you physically do in this trip?

BE: The two things we did was either go out on day hikes and scope out the mountain side. The place where they have to come through to get to the border is the most deadly. It is very easy for someone to sprain their ankle and it’s almost as if they give up. They have to travel hundreds more miles and a lot of times they are left out there and die of dehydration or want to be found by border patrol at that point. The other thing we do is drive out along these many roads that border patrol would use, but it is also a hunting area, and walk about a half mile into these trail. There would be specific buckets with lids and snacks and we would put out gallons of water and cans of beans. WE would also mark how many times these places were being used so we could have an idea of how many people were using these services. Because we didn’t see any migrants on trails.

LWG: You said that this trip was a big turning point for you. Would you say that the being able to easy access those materials, opportunities, and service trips through college push you to be more invested in your work because you are physically able to do stuff?

BE: For me, I am an experiential learner. So all of the trips and protests and lobbying teach me a lot. Every experience I have adds to my understanding and world view. One of my favorite quotes is that “change only happens when someone is outside of their comfort zone”. So going to the desert in Arizona, we were taken outside of our comfort zone and shone the objective reality to the whole immigration process. My entire perception of immigration was changed by that trip. My entire perception of what Washington is was changed by the Lobbying trip. My perception of the power that people can have by combining and uniting together was changed by the Peoples Climate March. So I think these trips are always important, and it is important to get everyone involved in it because they are going to learn something. I would promote living out that change you see within yourself and promote that with others. It is hard to do when you are in a comfortable environment. While we do grow here, in Guilford, some people are set in their own ways of thinking and it is hard to reach them. It is hard to make someone believe that we live in an unfair system when they are a direct benefactor of that system. I don’t know if there is one set answer to promote peace building. I do think that it starts with living it out.

LWG: My next question was going to be what would you tell students who what to get involved with peace building, but you already answered that. Is there anything else you would like add to what you have been hinting at?

BE: If you are fighting for peace, you need to enact peace. The peace exists. Peace is its own entity and it can exists in access, but in enacting that and living that is really challenging sometimes. There is a lot of conflict and violence trusted in our faces all the time. It’s a process and a challenge, but it starts with you. Also, Ballot initiatives. It is this really cool idea that the people of a town or state can bypass congressional action and vote for something that will become a law. This was done for things like equal marriage and marijuana legalization. It doesn’t matter how you feel about those issue, the point is that we are actually taking action, and lately there has been a promotion for a moment for these anti-corruption ballad initiatives. In Tallahassee, Florida, where I grew up, there was a ballad initiative that went out that said we don’t want our positions to accept corporate or secret money and it passed at a 2 to 1 margin. Basically now it is a law that those politicians can’t engage in practices that have begun to take over. Practices that effect peace building, that effect the way we interact in the international system, and mainly here on our own soil. It is important because we the people, which the constitution is supposed to be by and for, really engages in that belief. We can actually begin to create the change we want to see, a democracy where people are heard. That this conversation isn’t just a bunch of rich senior senators in Washington that are detached from their citizens so they are not representing tem in the way that they want to be. It is engaging all of us.

LWG: That is very interesting and also, very powerful. Do you have anything else you would want to say?

BE: Peace and Love, peace and love.

LWG: Thank you Ben! What would you want your title to be or what would you call yourself in relation to peace building?

BE: Mediator, instigator, and activistor