Students from across the campus, along with some members from the community, got a vivid lesson in the maldistribution of wealth throughout the world at a biannual Hunger Banquet, presented by four MCLA classes in anthropology, social work and interdisciplinary studies.
The exercise was but one example of the interdisciplinary approach that's a hallmark of a liberal arts education.
Presented in conjunction with Dr. Sumi Colligan's "Culture, Power and Protest" class - which includes an examination of various types of oppression on local, national and global levels, as well as practices of resistance - she reaches out to other professors whose classes may relate to the assignment.
In addition to Colligan's class, students from Dr. Sue Birns' "Community Organization," Dr. Nancy Muller's "Native American Peoples" and Dr. Rita Nnodim's "Globalization" classes participated.
Collectively, they ran interactive exercises, created art installations, composed stories, wrote and performed skits, and developed PowerPoint presentations that addressed the root causes of global hunger and poverty, as well as the possibilities of social change.
While the model is similar to the Oxfam America Hunger Banquet, Colligan developed her own Banquet concept about 10 years ago. Those attending bring a nonperishable food item or a dollar, which was donated the local Martin Luther King Jr. Committee's larger drive to benefit area food panties and soup kitchens.
In exchange, upon arriving at the Banquet, the approximately 100 participants received a "story," written by a student, to represent either a member of the global elite, middle or lower class.
"Depending on the story that you're given, that determines where you sit - whether you sit at the bottom tier, the middle tier or the upper tier," Colligan explained. "For the elite, it might be Bill Gates or a military dictator in North Korea. It's often done in kind of an ironic way. It not only underscores the wealth and power, but the policies and practices that they might promote that contribute to poverty."
The elite dined on the finest meal and eat on china, using silverware. The middle class ate beans, cornbread and rice. The lower class was given water and rice. Students then read some of the individual stories out loud to give a sampling of those represented.
One interactive exercise involved participants as the national maldistribution of wealth was illustrated. Another project was intended to draw attention to the issue of water - with a particular focus on bottled water - with an art installation they created.
One of the skits showed some of the damaging environmental and social effects of hydroelectric dams. It was based on the current struggle of several tribes of Brazilian natives who live along the Amazon's Xincu River.
"A portion of those tribes has created a new tribe to occupy a construction site where a hydroelectric dam is going up, because that dam would flood their native lands," Colligan said. "The students were trying to make a broader point about the destruction of hydroelectric dams."
Colligan said the students gain much from the experience.
"They learn that education can be a tool for social change. They learn the value of peer-to-peer education and how to collaborate with one another to put together something that's both informative and creative," she explained. "They also learn something about the root causes of various kinds of oppression, as well as that there are various players globally that are participating in the process of global change.
"They learn that their own, small efforts, along with other people's efforts, can create something pretty powerful."