Alumnae discuss activism after Dartmouth

by Abbey Cahill | 2/12/16 1:06am

Rianna Starheim ’14, avid traveler and human rights activist, believes in equality and freedom of speech. These concepts are pretty simple on paper, she acknowledges, but they are remarkably rare in the world.

“These are the issues I feel most interested in spending my life working on,” Starheim told me.

She said that these issues are global ones, noting that she has lived over 70 percent of the past six years out of the country.

The photos on her website are proof — they capture the stories of people and places around the world in vivid color, from Egypt to Taiwan to Italy, to her rural hometown, Jefferson, New York.

In fact, she wrote me from her current home in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works as the managing director of a public relations and marketing firm called Rumi Consultancy. Rumi Consultancy is a social enterprise, which means it’s a for-profit company that works with a social mission.

Although Starheim worked with many non-governmental organizations during her time abroad in college, she participated in the Tuck School of Business’ Bridge business program during her senior winter and was immediately drawn to the idea of social enterprises.

“I fell in love with the efficiency and high standards of the for-profit world,” Starheim said. “Social enterprise is an ideal way to merge a social mission with a for-profit business.”

Both Starheim and her classmate Meghan Hassett ’15, public interest campaign organizer, are interested in fighting gender-based violence.

While she was at Dartmouth, Hassett was a part of Movement Against Violence, where she worked to change the conversation around the issue of sexual violence. Yet a lot of the time, she said, her demands for change took the form of impassioned rants on her Facebook wall. She felt like she needed a more efficient outlet to voice her concerns. Hassett is currently working as a campaign organizer through a two-year fellowship program at We Are Impact.

“I thought just me at my Facebook being angry wasn’t going to resolve any issues, so I wanted to be a part of something that would really help,” Hassett said. “Impact doesn’t work on gender issues, but it is definitely a way to get started with activism.”

Impact, she explained, is a nonprofit that runs campaigns to take action against important issues like global warming, clean water and the influence of big money in politics. Impact does the active fieldwork for larger organizations like Environment America and the Public Interest Research Groups. It energizes and mobilizes citizens to enact change.

“One citizen might not be able to create significant change,” Hassett said. “But when you have hundreds and thousands of petition signatures and you have rallies and tons of press around it, that’s when we really build momentum.”

Like Impact, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is another organization that gives strength to individual voices. Allegra Love ’03 started the Dreamers Project after working in New Mexico public schools for years. During her time as a teacher, she saw first hand how talented immigrant students and their families were negatively affected by American immigration policies.

“Our immigrant youth have the potential to make our city, our state, and our country stronger,” Love said. “But some of them are not going to be able to do that when their hands are tied by an inhumane immigration policy.”

So, Love started the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to offer free legal representation to young immigrants. She calls them Dreamers. Love explains that her clients qualify for Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy for undocumented immigrants who entered the country younger than age 16 and before June 2017. DACA provides work authorization, a valid social security number and a reprieve from deportation.

“When we provide high quality legal services to help individuals access this tool, we empower them to achieve educational success, economic stability, and civic engagement,” Love said.

She speaks assertively, with quiet confidence, so it surprises me when Love admits that she wasn’t always this driven. She was not passionate about much during her time at Dartmouth, and she insists that she was a mediocre student. Love found it difficult to unearth that “spark” of inspiration that so many of her classmates seemed to have discovered in college. However, she reminds me that college does not necessarily dictate the rest of your life.

“Just because you lack the rigor for intense academics doesn’t mean you can’t go out into the world and kick ass on different terms,” Love said. “Not everyone is the most glorious version of themselves at 21.”

It wasn’t until years of working with the Santa Fe immigrant community that she began to truly understand the problems she was trying to solve and value the people who were affected by them. When she was at Dartmouth, Love explained, it was impossible to learn firsthand about issues of poverty and justice, because she was surrounded by wealth and privilege.

“I simply didn’t have any actual exposure,” Love said.

Starheim agrees that nothing beats real, firsthand experience. She encourages current students to travel outside of the Dartmouth bubble.

“Under the D-Plan, we have the opportunity to do something completely new every three months, with the safe landing pad of Dartmouth to fall back on,” Starheim said.

As a college student, Starheim spent an off term teaching at the School of Leadership Afghanistan, the only girls’ boarding school in Afghanistan. She recalls her experience there fondly. Although each of the girls’ lives had been touched by violence, Starheim remembers them burning the rice over dinner and watching movies and stressing over homework, just like girls anywhere else in the world.

One of her favorite memories was doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with them. Twice, she noted with amusement, because the camera didn’t record the first time.

“The SOLA girls see the world with a bewildering mix of naïveté and clarity,” Starheim said. “My introduction to Afghanistan was through the eyes of some of its girls, and I am very lucky for that.”

Hassett also advises current students to get outside of their comfort zones.

“I was the economics major who did not do corporate recruiting at all,” Hassett said.

As a sociology and economics double major, Hassett was presented with interesting and often conflicting perspectives on the world.

“I’d go from one class that was all about maximizing profits, and then go to another class about how maximizing profits often leads to socioeconomic inequality,” Hassett said. “From those different perspectives, I got very interested in corporate accountability.”

Corporate accountability is the idea that we should be conducting business in a way that is sustainable, socially responsible, and environmentally friendly. Hassett became interested in the nonprofit world and took an internship with Corporate Accountability International during one of her off terms. Later, she found Impact at a career fair and fell in love.

She explains that Impact’s strategy is all about leveraging people power to influence decision makers. A lot of the time, elected representatives and corporations don’t make changes unless voters and consumers start making their voices heard.

“Politicians want to make sure that the voters are on their side and corporations want to make sure that the customers are happy with their companies,” Hassett said. “It is leveraging that and getting their self interests to align with the public’s interests.”

This past fall, for example, Impact persuaded the fast food chain, Subway, to go antibiotic free. Hassett explained that the use of antibiotics on factory farms contributes to a major health crisis. The prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is rising and actually killing thousands of Americans each year.

As the largest fast-food chain in the world, Subway’s decisions have a big impact on factory farms. Impact rallied Subway customers to call on the restaurant to take action and commit to banning antibiotics in their food.

“People are dying from antibiotic resistance, and we are one of the only groups working on that right now,” Hassett said. “And we do it by building people power. That’s pretty exciting.”

Working as an activist is grueling, she confessed, but the victories are always worth it. Starheim echoed Hassett’s sentiment.

“It’s hard to have those moments where you realize there is so far to go,” Starheim said. “But then, think of how far we’ve come. One hundred years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote. One hundred and fifty years ago, slavery was the norm in America. Last year, LGBTQ couples didn’t have the right to marry.”

For Starheim, there’s never a question of whether activism is worth it. Love agrees. She is constantly humbled by the intelligence and resilience of the immigrants she works with. She recalled one case in particular, in which she fought for a client’s U.S. residency.

“There is a kid in my life, someone who is very special and smart and beautiful and very dear to me,” Love said. “He has suffered in ways none of us can imagine and was in danger of being deported to his home country which is a terribly violent place.”

Last September, after what Love described as a long legal nightmare, she drove to El Paso, Texas with him and appeared before a judge. His deportation was cancelled and he was awarded legal, permanent residency in the U.S.

“I have never been so proud of myself and I was so proud of him and it has given me so much peace to know that he is so much safer now and that he is going to live a wonderful life,” Love said.

Interviewing these three women has been a deeply inspiring experience. I recently read a piece of creative nonfiction that Starheim wrote for English professor Jeff Sharlet’s class. It’s about a local Vermonter — a drug user, a mother, and a victim of domestic abuse. Something about her writing strikes me as so candid, unsparing of even the most thorny details, that it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Starheim believes that writing is a great way to create social change.

“Writing skills are vital, no matter what you’re interested in after college,” Starheim said. “Write, write, write.”

Enacting social change is about putting yourself out there. It’s important to be heard, Love emphasizes.

“Don’t be afraid if you have an idea that is different or a solution that no one has tried before,” Love said. “We need big change in our country right now and that happens when people do brave things.”

Love is following her own advice. She’s in the process of an unusual undertaking: the conversion of an RV into a mobile legal clinic so that she can access clients living in rural areas in the southwest. She thinks that it defies most stereotypical ideas about lawyers.

“It’s going to be really wild and super fun and probably frustrating but definitely not lawyerly,” Love said.

I notice the same type of bravery and ambition in each of these alumnae which Hassett described perfectly at the end of her interview.

“It’s definitely hectic work and it’s very difficult and has crazy hours sometimes,” Hassett said. “But when we have something to celebrate, we really have something to celebrate. We literally save lives.”