Monday, May 07, 2007

THE BYU 25: My Diary of a Grass Roots Miracle (PART THREE)

Utah Valley State College, 6:15pm, April 26th

Finally, it was happening.

The blue sedan carrying Ralph Nader, his assistant Matt, the superheros Ashley and Eric, and myself pulled up in front of the McKay Events Center. The press conference started in 15 minutes, so Ralph and the crew rushed up to the press room while I took my camera to the main arena. I wanted to see if anyone was showing up.

As we temporarily parted ways, Ashley was on the phone firming up the fact that the missing contract had been found. Apparently, some suited bullies at the arena were trying to find any reason to cancel the event. They hadn't told the students to bring the signed contract with them, but when they got there, they threatened to throw them out and lock the doors if they didn't present it. Someone had to speed home and pick it up lightning fast.

A steady stream of people was filing into the events center. Some of the organizing students were wearing orange "USHER" tags and were shuffling people to the lower floor, trying to seat everyone in an organized group. Other students were putting finishing touches on the stage, arranging seats, making sure microphones worked, etc. They all moved fast and with determination and everyone had a glossed expression of anxiety. When the press conference started at 6:30pm, only about 450 people had showed up.

Upstairs, on the 3rd floor, a crowded room of reporters and photographers sat in front of a long table where 3 student organizers: Carl Brinton, Eric Bybee, and Ashley Sanders and 3 speakers: Pete Ashdown, Jack Healey, and Ralph Nader sat and took questions and gave their opinions. It should be noted that even though this press conference went 45 minutes and everyone involved was dishing out amazing insights and opinions, not one Utah TV news outlet aired anything. In fact, only the Salt Lake Tribune acknowledged it even happened. I guess when TV news compacts a complicated story into a 3 minute sound byte, some things get left out.

The press conference ended 15 minutes late. Superheros Ashley and Eric quickly changed into their graduation cap and gown and rushed down stairs to the main floor with Ralph Nader and the other speakers. The walked into the arena and saw a waiting crowd of 1,500 people.
I could tell just by looking at their faces, that Eric and Ashley were amazed. In 10 days, they had fought an entire university, and entire city, and and a local press that wouldn't give them the time of day and somehow gotten 1,500 people to show up to their alternative commencement on a Thursday night. The students and speakers took the stage and a wall of cheers and applause erupted. Within seconds, everyone was one their feet. A standing ovation.

And then music suddenly filled the air. It was "Pomp and Circumstance" and a sea of black caps and gowns emerged from the back of the arena. The dozens of protesting BYU Grads marched proudly in a single file line up the middle of the arena and sat in the front row. As I looked around the applauding audience, there were tears streaming down faces. I could feel tears swelling up in my own eyes behind the camera.

The applause and cheering lasted for a long time and then it was time to begin the ceremony. An opening prayer was given by Elisa Bushman, one of the organizing BYU students. Here is her prayer:

"Dear kind and gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee so very much for all the things thou hast done for us. Father, we thank thee at this time for helping us to pull this experience off. And we ask thee to please bless everyone that's in attendance to be able to understand the message that we are trying to give. And bless that people will be motivated to make a difference and to love their brothers and sisters more. Father, we thank thee so very much for all that thou has given us and we ask thee to help us to be able to give more to others and to be able to see the value in others. And we say these things in the name of thy beloved son, Jesus Christ, amen."

1,500 people then said, "Amen".

Eric Bybee then gave his opening speech. "A lot of people said we couldn't do this, or that we shouldn't do this," said Eric. "We've received ridicule, threats, been called names. Many people have laughed and jeered. But here we are."

He then laid out some amazing numbers (hat tip to Joe Vogel) that showed what "The BYU 25" were able to accomplish in 10 days:

* 25- Number of students who planned and coordinated the event through basic grassroots mobilization
* 10- Number of days to make it happen
* 15- Number of meetings in a crowded Provo living room
* 24- Number of venues we contacted that turned us away
* 100- Roughly the number of finals we took in the midst of our preparations
* 10,000- Number of fliers we printed and distributed
* 20,000- Estimated number of dollars we needed to host the commencement
* 24,000- Number of dollars we raised in less than ten days (including $12,000 in just four hours thanks to the readers of Daily Kos)
* $6,000- Amount of leftover money we plan to donate to local charities

"We wanted to do something constructive," said Eric, who emptied his personal bank account to help make the commencement happen. "We wanted to do something different and unique. We wanted to invite people to speak and share ideas about an alternative vision for our country."

Ashley, with tears in her eyes, addressed the crowd next. "A lot of people have asked me just like they've asked Eric: 'If you disagree with what BYU or the government does, why don't you just go some place else?' A favorite suggested location is Berkeley.

"I only know one way to answer them, which is to tell them that I love this place and I want it to be the best it can be.

"After I answer this, there is always another question: 'If you love it, why do you critique it?' My answer is the same: Because I love it. And because I believe that integrity requires [it]."

Read Ashley's full speech here.

From former Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Pete Ashdown (the man with the audacity to challenge Orrin Hatch), we were urged to "respond to the entrepreneurs of war by being an entrepreneur of peace."

"Every day think about peace," he advised students. "Every day think about service. Every day believe that people can coexist no matter our cultural differences. Every day question your political leaders no matter the party and do not fear to speak your mind."

"This gathering is more than a response," he concluded. "This gathering is the future."

Human rights activist and former director of Amnesty International Jack Healey (who is one of the most inspiring men I've ever met) told students that their courage warmed his heart and gave him hope for America. He advised the graduating class: "Take your voices and turn them into thunder. Take your candle and turn it into a bonfire -- and revive this nation to who we say we are and what we want it to be!"

And finally, there was Ralph Nader.

You can read his personal account of the experience here.

"I've spoken to a lot of commencements," Nader began. "This is the first alternative commencement that I've spoken to."

"Moral courage," he continued, "is what it took to bring this together on the part of the students. . .but the fact that you have to engage in moral courage in order to make a statement of conscience or utter a statement of truth is not just a reflection of a morally courageous person, it's a reflection of a suppressive context. You have to have great moral courage to utter a statement of conscience in a dictatorship, but in a free society it shouldn't take a demonstration of courage in order to utter a statement of conscience or truth.

"So while we pay tribute to the students, we have to ask ourselves: What is it about their environment that led them to do this? Was it a lack of reflection on the campus? Did it touch on something my father asked me when I was ten years old and I came home from school, and he said to me, 'What did you learn today, Ralph? Did you learn to believe? Or did you learn to think?'"

I will be updating this entry throughout the day...




1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Steven,

i just watched your film, Divided State. Absolutely brilliant. It was excruciating at times, watching conflict between people tends to be, but thoroughly compelling.

I like Mike Moore but thought his speech was really weak, and in retrospect, sounded stupid too (kerry lost after all). His style reminded me of a presidential candidate rousing the faithful during the campaign, real jingoism. Not much substance, you know. A let down. Give me Chomsky any day.

Anyway, well done, and thankyou, from Melbourne, Australia.