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UWRF assistant professor discusses trip to Poland at social justice event

February 19, 2009

During the first Social Justice Series event of the semester, Feb. 11, Todd Savage, an assistant professor in UW River Falls’ school of psychology, talked about his experiences involving a student social justice leadership mission to Poland.

Extra chairs had to be brought in to seat the approximated 60 people attending the event.

“This was a huge turnout,” Leadership Student Manager Katherine Francel said in an e-mail interview.

With a deadline of May 1, this spring the SJS is offering UWRF students an opportunity to travel and participate in MHR on a trip to Poland Aug. 1-8.

Savage participated in the inaugural March of Hope and Remembrance program (MHR) in March 2001. The purpose of the trip is for students to learn about the Holocaust by visiting prison camps in Poland and work for social justice back home.

“The world, with their silence, gave its consent and allowed the atrocities to continue,” according to the MRH Web site. “You will understand why we must continue to teach, to help individuals communicate the message of the simple yet elusive goal for all people-never again.”

Savage’s main message was one about applying the lessons of the Holocaust to the here and now. 

Citing historian Raul Hilberg’s model of genocide-exclusion, expulsion and extermination-Savage used audience interaction to get participants thinking about the steps that led to the destruction of 6 million Jews during World War II.

“If more and more people stood up and said this is not right, who knows what would have happened,” Savage said. “All it takes is one person working for social justice to get it started.”

Leadership Training Coordinator Amy Lloyd said in an e-mail interview she thought Savage’s interactive approach worked well.

“It was not difficult for the session’s participants to list off the ‘signposts’ that they see in their own backyard everyday that demonstrated exclusion,” she said.

Audience members listed the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the lack of gay marriage rights and the simple act of telling prejudice jokes.

Savage also talked about the social psychological concept of the bystander effect that says people are less likely to intervene in emergency or unjust situations when others are present.

Sitting idly by is “giving tacit permission,” Savage said.

UWRF graduate student Sage Lavant who attended the event said in an e-mail interview she thought the UWRF campus supports minorities and the surrounding issues with the different events like the SJS, but the lack of minorities on campus poses an awareness problem.

“Unless a person is willing to take their level of becoming aware into their own hands, then a bystander is exactly what they are,” Lavant said.

Savage—neither a Holocaust scholar nor survivors—said the first-hand experience in Poland helped erase his feeling of disconnect from the Holocaust.

“To be able to be in these spots and talk to survivors made it come alive more than reading a book or watching movies,” he said.

Any 40 undergraduate or graduate students who want to go on the trip will have to sign up for an independent study. Savage will assign readings and journaling to prepare students for the trip.

“The group needs to rely on each other to get through the experience,” he said. “It is a very heavy trip.”

The estimated cost is $3,600. Savage said anyone interested in going should apply for a passport immediately if they do not have one.

Knowledge and awareness are paramount to the SJS, according to Lloyd.

“I believe that this session/trip is a perfect way to get people thinking about what can happen if we, as individuals with power and privilege, ignore the injustices around us,” Lloyd said. “It pushes us to first acknowledge where the injustice lies within our own communities, and also how we as individuals have the power to make social change possible.”