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Coming Full Circle

Coming Full Circle by Janice Gallagher '99

Last month, Janice Gallagher '99 embarked on a 500-mile bike ride to raise money and awareness about the struggle for human rights in the peace community San José de Apartadó in Urabá, Colombia.  Her trip brought her back to campus, where she spoke with students about her decision to live and work in Colombia with the Fellowship of Reconciliation as a human rights observer.  Read more about her journey at her blog, or write to her at>

iking into Swarthmore, I was reminded of the cramped suburban sprawl, which suddenly opens up to Swarthmore's stately, picturesque campus. We rolled into the borough of Swarthmore, and I was unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, totally disoriented by the litany of college-named streets (Which way do I turn on Yale Ave, or was it Dartmouth, to get to Swarthmore?). When we finally got to campus, I was greeted by some new buildings, a transformed Parrish Hall, with dark carpeting (funny what we notice), a career office which had flown to the other side of the building, and a Cornell Science Building which had expanded from what I vaguely remember, as a social sciences person, as a quaint, dark corner of campus to an airplane-terminal like modern center of science-learning and fun.

After wandering around the campus with Fedelma McKenna, and searching largely unsuccessfully for staff I remembered (sorry I missed you Yvette!) I went to Tarble, where Chris, a long-time Swat employee, and I remembered each other and caught up. I also found my former brilliant student Garth Griffin '09 doing what with his time at Swat? Playing pool in Tarble's new and improved recreation area, of course. After a quick and unexpectedly steep and rough ride to Pendle Hill to drop our stuff off, we returned to campus to meet Alisa Giardinelli, our Swarthmore host and fellow Colombian human rights advocate. William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science Kenneth Sharpe had put me in touch with Alisa, and she had been amazingly helpful in setting up the event at Swarthmore, and graciously treated Fedelma and me to hot chocolate and Swarthmore news after a busy day.

The film "Until the Final Stone" (2006) documents the struggle for human rights in the peace community San José de Apartadó in Urabá.  

Prepared as always for a turnout of five people, we were happily surprised by the quickly-filling room. Turns out, both Ken Sharpe and Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change George Lakey had pushed our talk in their classes, and Professor Lakey's class had read Unarmed Bodyguards, the best book about human rights accompaniment work out there. After a gracious introduction by Alisa, David Bronkema '83, former head of the American Friends Service Committee's work in the Andean Region, agreed to be put on the spot and gave a history of five minutes. We showed 30 minutes of the documentary "Until the Final Stone," talked about our reasons for doing human rights work in Colombia, and fielded questions from the always-on-point Swatties. I talked about political space, a favorite Ken Sharpe concept, and saw smiles of recognition spread across the faces of the students... and felt home in a way I hadn't with other audiences.

Political science professor Ken Sharpe has taught courses on political theory and Latin American politics at Swarthmore since 1973.

In many ways, this felt like coming full circle for me. Almost ten years before, I had petitioned to get in Ken Sharpe's Latin American politics seminar. I was a sophomore, and the seminar was full, and Ken explained that there was simply no room and no way for me to take the class. After repeated petitions, I agreed to go to Haverford College to take a Latin American politics class instead, since I was determined to take the class before going abroad in fall of my junior year. After bringing the papers for Ken to sign, he finally relented and let me in the class.

The class affected me in more ways than I, or he, would guess or could imagine. I dove into the reading list, trying to make up for what I lacked in analytical experience with expertise on every reading on the legendarily dense syllabus. I typed up pages of notes in preparation for every class, and sat riveted and appalled as I read and discussed the U.S.' misguided and almost genocidal foreign policy in Latin America. After some initial missteps (I double-spaced my first seminar paper! horrors!), I felt I came into my own in the class with my paper on Nicaraguan land reform under the Sandinistas. In Ken's one-page written responses to the paper (he really does this!) he saw some strengths, but also pointed out some arguments which needed further development and analysis. Naturally, I decided that to answer his questions, I would go to Nicaragua and work with the farmers' union that had conducted the land reform the following semester. And so I did.

Graffiti in downtown Bogota which reads, "Yankees out! No to the free trade agreement! No to oppression!"

While there were of course other things that led me to Nicaragua, I was fundamentally motivated by the seriousness of purpose that I took from that seminar. It felt to me like in those late, late nights in Trotter we were grappling with nothing less than people's right to struggle for justice and equality, and looking at how our own country's moral failings had led to the obliteration of these rights, movements, and dreams for change. I made a lifelong commitment during that class to never again stand by while the U.S. funded the killing of people in Latin America struggling for social change. Fundamentally, this is what has led me to become a human rights observer in Colombia.