mtvU receives the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' 2006 Governors Award for shedding light on the atrocities in Sudan.More than two years have passed since mtvU general manager Stephen Friedman heard Jacqueline Murekatete's story. A high school sophomore, Murekatete had been moved to tears when Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman spoke at her school. The parallels between his life and her own experience escaping from the genocide in her native Rwanda were all too real.
The story of the two survivors, who met after the session and subsequently began traveling and speaking together, inspired Friedman to launch what ultimately became mtvU's Sudan Campaign, a multitiered effort to open eyes to the ongoing genocide in that country's war-torn Darfur region. Since then, the campaign has touched tens of thousands of lives and earned MTV's 24-hour college network the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' 2006 Governors Award.
From the moment he accepted the task of helming the small college-based network, Friedman was on the lookout for an issue that the channel -- broadcast exclusively on some 750 U.S. campuses since its 2004 launch -- could spotlight.
"I think it was critical when we launched the channel that (social consciousness) was going to be a very key element of the whole channel," he says. "And luckily, that was my background."
Friedman got his start with MTV Networks eight years ago, when he was hired by Judy McGrath, now MTV Networks chairman and CEO, to create a "pro-social" department. His first campaign, "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence," an eerily prescient, pre-Columbine examination of the warning signs of high school violence, also resulted in a Governors Award and provided the impetus for a thousand local forums on youth violence.
After taking the helm at mtvU in 2003, Friedman believed he had more than a mandate to continue such efforts -- he had the perfect audience.
"I think if you look back historically, whether it's civil rights or the antiapartheid movement in the late '80s, the engine of social change in this country has been college kids," Friedman says. "Students are idealistic, and more importantly, pragmatic. They don't just want to protest. They want to take action and see some kind of result."
The Sudan Campaign began simply enough, with a series of Joel Schumacher-created public service announcements produced in partnership with Amnesty International. The spots, which featured actor Don Cheadle and escaped Sudanese slave Francis Bok, encouraged students to find a way to combat the atrocities in Darfur. After that, the project began to take on a life of its own.
An early example was the network's support of Georgetown University student Nate Wright. In 2004, Wright held a rally and staged a fast in support of refugees from Darfur. The concept was simple: Give up something small for a day -- chocolate, cigarettes, coffee -- and use that money to feed a Sudanese refugee family living in neighboring Chad.
The simplicity of the approach struck Friedman, and mtvU quickly approached Wright about taking the movement national. The goal for the project was to have at least 100 campuses join in the fast. Four months later, nearly 200 campuses were participating.
Wright later joined two other college students on a trip to the Darfur region as a part of the network's original documentary "Translating Genocide: Three Students' Journey to Sudan," which reached an even larger audience thanks to subsequent airings on sister network MTV.
The network looked to get the message out to yet a broader audience by co-opting the world of online gaming.
"I had been reading about the very frightening success of neo-Nazi (online) games -- games like 'Ethnic Cleansing' and 'Concentration Camp Rat Hunt' that were essentially recruitment tools for neo-Nazi groups," Friedman explains. "We thought, 'Why not ask our audience to create a game to educate and spread awareness about the genocide?'"
A nationwide contest conducted with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation resulted in the submission of more than a dozen prototypes. Ultimately, University of Southern California graduate student Susana Ruiz's "Darfur Is Dying," picked not only for its message but for its engaging gameplay, got the nod. The game has been played more than 1.7 million times to date since its April launch.
Looking back on what's been accomplished since the project began, Friedman is quick to give the credit to the students.
"I think all we've done is given them a megaphone -- on-air, online and through our events -- to help them shout about this as loudly as possible," Friedman says. "It's why so many of us got into the business in the first place."