UD Students and their Moral Courage Project

By: Christina Vaughan-Robinette

As the 2016 spring semester drew to a close, many University of Dayton students were enjoying time back in their hometowns or vacationing with family. However, nine students accompanied assistant professor of human rights studies, Dr. Joel Pruce, PROOF’s Executive Director, Leora Kahn, and human rights activist and documentary journalist, Jimmie Briggs, on a journey that can only be described as life changing.  Their mission: to gather testimony from the residents of Ferguson, Mo. as the first part of their oral history project, the Moral Courage Project.

But what is moral courage? The UD Moral Courage Project  blog states, “In all communities, one can find individuals who are standing up on behalf of others in danger, regardless of the risk in doing so. These people embody moral courage. This project aims to tell the stories of upstanders. By giving a face and name to this notion of moral courage, this project seeks to inspire others to be upstanders in their own communities.”

Situated just 10 miles north of St. Louis is the small city of Ferguson, a city now infamous for the events that transpired on Aug. 9, 2014, when white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The city has been through intermittent periods of unrest since.

“Ferguson is a reference point,” said Pruce, “The small town in St. Louis was inundated with press for weeks and months, then everyone left. We read lots of stories and saw lots of pictures of people facing off with cops, violence against property, things burnt up, tanks being driven down America’s streets, snipers and riot gear – we saw very polarized coverage. What the Moral Courage Project hopes to do is get to nuance coverage – where there are stories of people who chipped in after everyone else left.”

During their two-week stay, the group spent time in places such as the local coffee shop and public library, as well as attending church services and visiting nearby universities– granting them the opportunity to meet a number of people within the community. All together they interviewed 35 individuals; while their stories and experiences were all very different – the one commonality shared was they each represented the epitome of moral courage.

“People were so open with us. I felt incredibly humbled that people would just sit down with us and talk with us for maybe two hours,” said recent UD graduate and former Flyer News Editor-in-Chief, Amanda Dee, “We weren’t asking easy questions – we were asking about trauma and race relations. I never expected that to be something people were so willing to share.”

“My visible take away from the experience was knowing that I want to work in the communities I live in – at home or in Dayton – to build understanding…making people aware of these issues to prevent a future situations. Or tragically, if we had another situation, that we could respond more positively.” said international studies and Spanish major, Bradley Petrella.

“I had the honor of interviewing Raychel Proudie who is running for mayor of Ferguson. She used her extra money and took out loans to donate to protesters, people who were jailed, or on the street and hungry. She is now thousands of dollars in debt,” said political science and communication major Jada Woods. “I asked her when she knew that she going to donate. She said, ‘Immediately.’ They don’t even think twice about it. You don’t even think people are like that in the world.”   

UD Human Rights Center’s Moral Courage Project will be holding an event entitled, Moral Courage in the Americas: Ferguson & Ayotzinapa on Sept. 28  at 7:30 p.m. in Sears Recital Hall. The event will discuss the 43 students abducted from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in 2014, with the remains of one found in Iguala, Mexico, and how the resulting social movements in Mexico and the United States are linked.The other 42 students are still presumed to be alive.  

UD Human Rights Center Executive Director, Camilo Perez-Bustillo, and Dr. Pruce will be headlining the event that will feature the students who travelled to Ferguson in May. The students will share some of their work and reflect on their experience.  

“There is plenty of controversy in what we will represent and the perspectives that we will represent,” said Pruce, “At the same time it’s sort of a soft entry point – a way for even polarized people to recognize the humanity in people with other perspectives and be able to understand where they come from, understand their experience. This is an exercise in peace building – this an exercise in potential reconciliation.”

The Sept. 28 event is only the beginning for the Moral Courage Project. Stay tuned for a future photo exhibit, website, oral history book, and events associated with.

For more information on Moral Courage Project or to view photos or excerpts from their interviews, visit their Facebook page or blog.