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Effectiveness of awareness weeks questioned

Staff Editorial | Friday, April 27, 2007

This past week, a group representing the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) hosted an awareness week on campus.

The task force has achieved some admirable goals, especially raising money for bed nets to prevent malaria in Africa, but some of its methods this week – especially the large electric construction sign outside DeBartolo – showed once again the problem with many similar weeks at Notre Dame.

The trend lately for students who want to drum up support for a cause, raise money for charity or point out an injustice in the world has been to host a week worth of speakers, events and, sometimes, protests.

But unfortunately for the organizers of awareness weeks, the reaction from many students is not one of empathy or support, but rather one of disinterest or even annoyance – even for causes with no opponents, like AIDS research or sexual assault prevention. Weeks that are not well organized don’t make an impact. Weeks that flood students with information don’t succeed in conveying one clear point. Weeks that immediately follow other awareness weeks don’t find as broad an audience and risk confusing their cause with one of another group.

What do organizers need to do better to buck this trend?

First, students need to see that when they participate in an awareness week, they are somehow contributing to the cause. “Awareness” is all well and good, but it is simply a first step. While it’s necessary in order to make future progress, it’s not yet a direct benefit to the cause.

The easiest way to do this is to raise money. Instead of handing out donuts and flyers outside DeBartolo, why don’t groups sell the donuts and give the proceeds to charity? Even more effective would be T-shirts, which students could then sport throughout the week – a tactic that some organizations, like the MDG task force, do already.

Another issue is the concentration of awareness weeks in the spring semester. Many groups probably want to avoid football season, which makes sense, but what if some organizers shifted their week to a different time in the year? That would prevent awareness-week burnout. A second idea would be spreading events out over a month, rather than cramming a weighty message into one week.

In order for that to work, of course, the groups would have to work together. If organizers give each other space and time to showcase their cause, everyone will benefit because students won’t confuse multiple awareness weeks with each other – a legitimate problem, and a real disappointment. Instead of building momentum, many weeks seem to come and go with no real groundswell of support afterward. Increasing the time in between awareness weeks or changing to a month-long system would generate more support and allow more time to process important information.

Students driven to work for change can greatly benefit the rest of campus by explaining and promoting their causes. The challenge is to do so in a way that’s engaging, informative and productive.

That can only be achieved through greater organization and coordination, and that is how students can become forces of change, rather than simply advocates for it.