Students plan winter break service trip to Standing Rock Reservation

Dakota Williams ’17 will travel 3,000 miles to be home with his family in California for the holidays. But he’ll be cutting his visit short so he can follow his heart on another journey before the new semester begins, one that will lead him and some of his impassioned classmates to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux.

Williams, a former business student turned philosophy major with a self-described passion for activism, and his classmates are raising money on their own to fund the nearly 2,000-mile drive from Newport to Standing Rock, North Dakota. They plan to deliver supplies and join protesters in what has become a prolonged fight to protect the sacred land and drinking supply the Standing Rock Sioux believe is threatened by the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline project. Fellow students Dean Wollenberg ’17 and Patricia Socarras ’17 are helping to organize the trip, in which they anticipate many more of their classmates will join.

The nearly 1,200-mile underground pipeline, a $3.8 billion project of Dakota Access, LLC that is about 90 percent complete, begins in northwest North Dakota and travels southeast through South Dakota and Iowa, ending in Illinois. The remaining section to be completed needs to pass under the Missouri River and as proposed, runs close to the border of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

“There is currently a direct attack on the Native Americans, the well-being of this planet, and the lives of millions of people who depend upon the Missouri/Mississippi River for water,” Williams writes in the GoFundMe page he created to raise revenue needed to fund transportation, gear and material donations for the trip. To date, the students have raised about $1,000 but hope to generate more prior to their planned Jan. 2 departure from campus.

The undertaking is completely student-planned, and is a reflection of the University’s mercy tradition. “As college-age students passionate about the social justice issues of our generation, we cannot remain idle and watch as the events at Standing Rock unfold,” Willams said. “We see the injustices this community face and aim to join them in their protest.”

Williams became familiar with the Standing Rock situation like most in his generation do, by reading news feeds on social media. Empowered by the capstone course he completed during the fall 2016 semester with adjunct professor Dr. Jordan E. Miller, he decided to do more than simply voice his concerns. That course focused on the question: What has happened to radical activism in the U.S. since the 1960s?

“Dakota was curious what it would mean to put his values into action,” said Miller, who was a featured speaker during a November rally opposing the pipeline that was held in Newport’s Eisenhower Park. “It’s clear he has a genuine concern for rights and water protection and he can use his skill set to contribute. I helped him through the process and put him in touch with resources. We don’t want these students to show up as ‘active tourists’.”

That meant considerable thought put into the practical considerations of making the trip, the so-called grunt work ranging from planning their driving route, to what items to take with them, to how and where they would sleep in adverse winter conditions once they got there. They put together a list of items to donate once they get there, including blankets, hand-warmers, jackets, beanies/hats, gloves, sleeping bags, tents, and non-perishable food. They’ve plastered the campus and the city with flyers to seek out sponsorship.

“There’s a charge in the mercy mission to go out into the world, and it’s that charge that I take very seriously in this capstone course,” Miller said. The charge, he explained, is to become initiated into the values of the liberal arts, Catholic intellectual tradition; to look at what you want to do with your life outside; to see where we’ve been and where we are; to mine for resources to empower what we’d like to be changed and how we’d like to move forward in the world.

“Going to Standing Rock immediately after finishing the course is a perfect supplement, a perfect complement to the more didactic approach of the course,” Miller said. “The five critical concerns of mercy come together in that one place.”

In declaring their solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, the Religious Sisters of Mercy pointed to those five critical concerns: working passionately to eliminate poverty, the widespread denial of human rights, the degradation of earth, the increase in violence and racism, the continued oppression of women, the abuse of children, the mistreatment of immigrants and the lack of solidarity among people and nations.

“We embrace the call of Pope Francis to protect this Earth – our common home – and invite others to join us in prayer and in deed to support the Standing Rock Sioux at this important moment to show care and protection for our Earth and for those speaking,” the Sisters of Mercy state.

“As we close out the Jubilee Year, it just seems obvious that a mercy education is behind the people of Standing Rock,” Miller said. “This is coming from students. If we want to know what the value of mercy education is, this is it.”

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