Cady Sharp Kuzmich, Editor-in-Chief
Jason Bartlett, a senior International Studies and Spanish dual major, founded SUNY Oneonta’s first student-led human rights organization. The club’s name, S.H.I.F.T., is an acronym for Setting Humanitarian Initiatives for Tomorrow. “That is exactly what we plan to do,” said Bartlett.
ST: What inspired you to create this club?
JB: As an International Studies and Spanish dual major, I have always been interested in human rights activism and learning about my role as a productive member of society. Last semester, I was an exchange student at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea, where I studied Korean language, politics and society. My experience abroad proved to be one of the most memorable events of my life, and I even had the unique opportunity to travel to the border of North and South Korea with my South Korean roommate. There was an observation tower, which had about a dozen different telescopes by which you could use to see into North Korea, and even though it was only for a brief moment I was able to see the world through the eyes of the North Korean people. I saw by the side of a river a group of middle-aged women hunched over harvesting rice patties and in the far distance was a brown, stark, barren wasteland of red dirt; the effect of extreme deforestation and environmental injustice to provide wood for the North Korean military. I tilted the telescope upwards and I spotted little, black dots far up in the barren hills. I asked my roommate’s father what exactly I was looking at and he paused, stared outwards into the distance for a moment, and then adjusted the focus of the lens. What I saw next had truly changed my life forever. Guns. North Korean soldiers were hiding in secret army bunks covered with black tarp and had rifles pointing down at the women attempting to provide food for their families. They knew that one quick movement towards crossing that river into South Korea would result in a bullet to the head and the imprisonment of up to three generations of their family members. At that moment I knew that I had to bring my knowledge regarding the North Korean humanitarian crisis back to America and start making a change.
ST: What do you hope to achieve with S.H.I.F.T.?
JB: Our mission is to bring a more in-depth understanding of our own human rights, and how they are being violated around the world. S.H.I.F.T.’s main focus is to spread international awareness of these issues and to empower others to realize, conceptualize and vocalize their human rights. Each year, this organization will focus on a specific country where there is an incredibly high level of human rights violations which are being either ignored or unrecognized. For example, North Korea, one of the most oppressed regions in the world. S.H.I.F.T. will work alongside fully established, non-politically aligned NGOs such as Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), Amnesty International and Save the Children to redefine the public perception of certain countries and shift the attention off the politics and onto the people.
ST: Tell me about some of the projects you’re working on and other groups you’re collaborating with.
JB: This year, S.H.I.F.T. is currently working with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) in attempting to shift the attention off the politics and onto the people. LiNK is the only full-time, grassroots organization which deals directly with the North Korean humanitarian crisis. Last Wednesday, November 12, we held a bake sale and sold hot apple cider along with homemade brownies and taffy. We raised $70 through this event and we will donate all of our proceeds to LiNK. Last Thursday, November 13, we showed the LiNK documentary, entitled “The People’s Crisis,” which depicted the true lives of the North Korean people and LiNK’s efforts to find and rescue North Korean refugees hiding in China. We had an attendance of 40 people and held an educational discussion afterwards. On November 16, three members of LiNK traveled all the way from Torrance, California to come to the SUNY Oneonta campus to give a presentation regarding Jangmadang, the North Korean market for foreign media. The only form of media which is permitted in North Korea is government propaganda, so the introduction of American and South Korean movies has been crippling the North Korean regime’s control over the people. In the future, S.H.I.F.T. also plans on holding a Benefit Concert, Relay Race and Spring Ball to raise funds for our goal of received $3,000: the price it takes for LiNK to successfully go into China and save a North Korean refugee. We also would like to bring S.H.I.F.T. not just to the SUNY Oneonta community, but to the town of Oneonta itself.
ST: How many club members do you currently have? How do you plan on expanding student involvement in your club?
JB: Currently, we have about 30 members and we expect to continue to grow! We gain most of our support from the events and presentations we give, and we have the intentions of tabling both on and off campus to raise awareness.
ST: Has the school been supportive of your ideas?
JB: Luckily, the Student Association of SUNY Oneonta has been extremely supportive of our cause and in just a matter of weeks we have become a recognized organization on campus. In order to be approved by the Student Association the college requires paperwork and several presentations to be given to ensure the transparency and legitimacy of the club, so we are very pleased to be recognized.
ST: How does this club relate to your post-grad ambitions?
JB: I am currently in my senior year, so following graduation next May I plan on returning back to Long Island and applying for an internship position with a human rights-based organization called Save the Children in Bolivia. I also have the aspirations of interning with LiNK to further spread awareness of the North Korean humanitarian crisis and to return to South Korea to teach English to North Korean defectors. I would then like to attend graduate school and receive a Masters Degree in Law and Diplomacy, and to one day work as a United Nations diplomat dealing with international human rights violations and social activism.