Chloe Qi, a junior at St. Mary’s School, leaned forward in her chair as she described the effects of government censorship in a context familiar to her: massacres and rapes by Imperial Japanese Army forces in Nanking in her home country of China in 1937.
“The (Japanese) government denies that it even happened, but everyone should remember it,” she told her group mates. “It was a horrible thing.”
It was a heavy topic, but far from the only one that the high school students gathered Tuesday inside Stevenson Union at Southern Oregon University were tackling at that moment.
In fact, all of the more than 100 students from across the valley were taking on complicated subjects that tend to light internet comment sections on fire. Applying principles developed by South African leaders to guide their discussion, American students as young as 14 considered how to deal with Confederate monuments, nonviolent NFL protests and fake news.
“I think my opinion might be a little controversial,” one student warned her group mates before adding her comments to a discussion about gun control.
This was the third annual symposium organized through the university’s Democracy Project. Ken Mulliken, executive director of the Honors College, and Prakash Chenjeri, head of the Philosophy Department, launched the project together.
Mulliken said the topics chosen for the discussion were meant to tie into the campus-wide academic theme this year: truth.
“And we wanted to ask, ‘What can the U.S. learn from other countries?’ ” Mulliken said.
The country in question this year, South Africa, pioneered a model through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with atrocities committed during the apartheid era. By inviting survivors of human rights violations to speak about their experiences and offering the possibility of amnesty to those who openly confessed to committing violations, the restorative justice model has been touted as a linchpin to creating a stable democracy after years of unrest.
The student attendees learned more about that model from two guest speakers: Ernle Young, who was a white Methodist pastor opposing apartheid while it was in place, and Dr. Albert Munanga, who holds a doctorate of behavioral health and witnessed the country rebuilding itself. He is now Zambia’s honorary consul in Seattle.
Honors College students Rebekah Krum and Megan Godsby organized this year’s event. Godsby was also one of several students to travel to South Africa last summer, where the participants met with government officials, including the mayor of Capetown, and talked politics with their peers attending the University of Johannesburg.
Chenjeri said the summer trips, which inspire the focus of the spring symposium, try to include visits with people at all levels of democracy. When they’ve gone on other trips, such as India in 2015, the student cohorts have spent time with both Parliament members and villagers.
“We want to see where (democracy) is practiced,” Chenjeri said. “At the local level, how are they involved in decision-making?”
The teenagers grouped in circles under the guidance of two Honors College students per group Tuesday afternoon were also being challenged with those questions.
Qi’s table was debating courses of action to take when the public begins to decry schools named after or monuments dedicated to figures linked to genocide, slavery or other human rights violations.
“People need to know the whole history,” one student said. So, asked the student moderator, should the government regulate textbooks to make sure they have all the information?
“That’s tricky,” said another student. “The government could end up just teaching what they want.”
Qi said afterward that she had decided the truth and reconciliation model from South Africa would be difficult to replicate in the U.S.
“It would start conversations,” she said. “But when I came to this country, it was like, America has freedom of speech, this whole country has freedom. So you really can’t push any opinion on anybody.”
Complete agreement or endorsement of the South African model wasn’t exactly the goal, said Godsby, a sophomore political science major with a minor in international studies.
“I’m hoping it will influence them to try and participate in government,” Godsby said. “To look at both sides of the story and try to come to a consensus.”