Olympic Gadfly


A year ago, Jill Savitt found herself in a scorching refugee camp in northern Africa, holding the hand of a boy whose family had lost its home in the Darfur genocide, and thinking of her own 9-year-old son who was safe at home in Brooklyn.

Savitt’s visit to the camp in Chad, her first on-site encounter with the victims of the five-year campaign of murder and enslavement conducted by the government in neighboring Sudan, was another step in a mid-career change that brought her from nonprofit communications consultant to advocate for genocide victims.

“These are people who have lived in terror for five years,” says the 40-year-old human rights activist. “They are unarmed, and their government is trying to exterminate them.”

Savitt, a trustee of Beth Elohim synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is the founder of Dream for Darfur, an independent organization that sponsored a symbolic, international Torch Rally earlier this year, pressured Olympic sponsors to influence China’s relations with Sudan and organized a Team Darfur project of Olympic athletes.

A graduate of Yale University, she committed herself to the Darfur issue in 2004, while serving on the staff of Human Rights First, an organization that fights global human rights violations.

“When she had the idea of Dream for Darfur and announced that she was leaving Human Rights, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her here,” said Allison Johnson, 26, Dream for Darfur’s international campaign manager. “She’s definitely a force of energy and ideas, and that’s an exciting type of person to work for.”

Savitt, who works in a modest office on Broad Street in downtown Manhattan, founded Dream for Darfur with a grant of $500,000 from Humanity United, an independent foundation that supports efforts to end human suffering. Savitt and the five-person staff she recruited have raised $1 million in the last 16 months.

Some of the organization’s more successful endeavors, she says, have included publicity projects with Olympic athletes, who spoke at the torch relay events and wrote letters supporting an “Olympic Truce” — a peaceful period before and during the Games. The Dream for Darfur committee also held meetings with representatives of the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations and issued a viral Web animation called “Gengen Genocide.”

The cartoon features a devilish recreation of China’s “cute little mascots,” which informs viewers that while the rest of the world is enjoying the Olympics, he will be watching the destruction in Darfur, “all thanks to the help of the Chinese government.” Gengen reminds his audience that China buys 70 percent of Sudan’s oil, and Sudan in turn purchases ammunition from China. Savitt estimates that at least 6,000 people have viewed the cartoon since its launch on July 8.

“This is more a political campaign than a typical nonprofit organization campaign,” she says, referring in particular to rapid-response Internet campaigns.

Dream for Darfur will disband at the conclusion of the Olympics, but Savitt will continue to fight genocide, raising funds for The Civilian Protection Project, which defends civilians against atrocities in countries throughout the world. Next April, she hopes to establish a Genocide Awareness Month, particularly commemorating the four genocides whose anniversaries fall within that month: the Shoah, Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia.

As the Dream for Darfur campaign concludes, Savitt remains hopeful but realistic, understanding the challenges of influencing the policies of a powerful country like China. After speaking with representatives from Dream for Darfur, however, China has taken some modest steps. In the past year, China approved a United Nations resolution that authorized a peacekeeping mission in Darfur, agreed to send 300 engineers to the region and publicly chided the Sudanese government about the region, according to Savitt.

“Four people in an office on Broad Street are not going to change China, but we did move China,” she said. “It doesn’t help to think small.”