AKRON, Pa. – What is structural violence? How can it be recognized in the systems upon which societies are built?
Laura Cattell, a 2009 alumnus of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., addressed these questions in a speech which took first place in this year's C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest. Her speech is entitled, "Structural Violence in the U.S. Educational System."
The annual event, open to students in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ universities and colleges in Canada and the United States, is administered by Peace and Justice Ministries of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. The top three speakers receive scholarships to attend a peace-related conference or seminar as well as cash prizes, with $300 awarded for first place. This year, two participants tied for third place.
Cattell, of Honey Brook, Pa., begins her speech by defining structural violence. One of its hallmarks, states Cattell, is that it hinders the meeting of basic human needs. In addition, unlike other forms of violence, "Structural violence occurs when perpetrators ... are not easily identifiable. A singular person is not to blame."
The social, political or economic structure comes into being, Cattell says, because " … people in power create the structures and in doing so stack the deck in their favor." When power is unevenly distributed, those who have less of it lose because they have no chance to create the structure's rules.
Cattell cites Pennsylvania's funding of schools via property taxes as an example of uneven distribution of power and resources. Since property values vary, "wealthy communities have access to more money for education than poor communities do." She provides statistics to demonstrate the role which access to resources plays in creating optimal environments for academic success.
Cattell offers two suggestions for addressing the structural violence which she identifies in the education system. First, volunteers can give their time and knowledge in academic settings. Second, people are encouraged to "lobby and advocate for equitable funding of school systems."
This year's second-place prize, including $225, went to Bluffton University's Anna Yoder, of Eureka, Ill., for her speech, "Enough is Enough." Yoder calls individuals and the church to live "kingdom lifestyles," built on a foundation of "radical generosity." Such lifestyles are based on love of neighbor, which orient priorities toward ensuring that all people have sufficient material goods, rather than desiring extras for some.
The two third-place winners of $75 were Conrad Grebel University College's Sara Brubacher of Lincoln, Neb., and Goshen College's Analisa Gerig-Sickles of West Branch, Iowa. Brubacher's speech was entitled, "Planting Olive Trees: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless." Gerig-Sickles' speech was called, "No Mas Redadas….No More Raids."
Directors of the C. Henry Smith Trust established the contest in 1974 in honor of the late C. Henry Smith, a Mennonite historian and professor at Goshen College and Bluffton College (now University). Participating colleges host a contest with student speeches on the general theme of applying the Christian peace position to contemporary concerns. These individual campus contests usually take place during the spring semester of the academic year.
The winning speech from each college is judged by a panel chosen by staff of Peace and Justice Ministries of MCC U.S. The winners are announced in late summer or early autumn.
Judges for this year's contest were Rick Fast, director of Communications for MCC Canada; Joe Manickam, director of Asia Programming for MCC; and Linda Gehman Peachey, director of Women's Advocacy for MCC U.S.