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Judy and Eliza Dushku share their story

By Allyson Cartter
On February 12, 2013

  • Notable actress Eliza Dushku speaks at the 'Deis Impact keynote address on Wednesday evening in Levin Ballroom. Josh Horowitz

Last Wednesday Eliza and Judy Dushku delivered the keynote address of the second annual 'Deis Impact festival, in which they discussed their philanthropic efforts in Uganda and their therapeutic organization, THRIVEGulu.

The event, which took place in Levin Ballroom, was one of several programs planned by students, clubs and academic departments during the weeklong festival of social justice. The event and festival were sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Judy is a professor of government at Suffolk University and the founder of THRIVEGulu, which, according to its website, is a "not-for-profit organization that is building and operating a trauma healing and reflection center in Gulu, northern Uganda to support the emotional healing and rehabilitation of trauma victims of the Ugandan civil war through educational programs." Eliza, Judy's daughter, is a film and television actor with credits including Bring It On, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, for which she was also a producer.

Associate Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life-and Eliza's former Sunday school teacher-Marci McPhee said in her introduction to the event that the goal of the festival was "beginning to try to understand, 'What is social justice?'" in the hope that a clarity in definition would lead to a clarity in action.

Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel introduced the pair by saying that he is somewhat of a "fanboy" of Eliza's television work. He described her as "a real, live 'superheroine'" and said that the acting roles she has chosen are comprised of "characters that are strong and powerful, but that have to make really hard decisions to make a change in the world," which Eliza herself does in real life.

In her presentation, Eliza, who grew up in Watertown, Mass., said that though her involvement in social justice may seem surprising due to her film and television career, "ending up in Hollywood was more random." She added that the trips that her mother, whom she calls "Mama Judy," took with her students-examples of "rogue social justice travel," Eliza said-"definitely shaped my life early."

On one such trip to Uganda, the Dushkus spoke with and listened to the stories of former child soldiers from the Gulu district, which has been a site of civil war for over two decades. It was that visit that inspired Judy's founding of THRIVEGulu in 2009.

These individuals, Eliza said, embodied THRIVEGulu's motto of "from survivor to thriver." She emphasized the importance of working as a team and of developing the organization's agenda based upon the wishes of those they are trying to help.

Of her work in Uganda, Eliza said that it has "brought me more happiness and purpose than anything I've done in my entire life."

Judy outlined in her presentation three factors that she researched before founding THRIVEGulu: trauma and trauma healing, Africa and returned veterans. She encouraged audience members to "do a lot of background work" and to bring together the ideas and experiences of a lot of people before embarking on such an endeavor.

Judy said that she seeks to answer through her work with THRIVEGulu the questions of how people recover, as well as how they heal themselves and one another after times of conflict. To the audience she advised, "Set deadlines; decide it. You can't learn everything before you start."

Daniel Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, moderated the question-and-answer segment following the presentations. In response to a question from Terris about THRIVEGulu's current projects, Eliza described the organization's computer literacy program. Program participants often want email and Facebook accounts, she said, so that they can connect with individuals in other parts of the world and because they "don't want to be forgotten."

THRIVEGulu also offers a filmmaking class, Eliza said, because some of the former child soldiers they work with believe that many documentaries do not portray them accurately. One project the class participants chose, she added, was to perform and film a Bob Marley flash mob.

In response to a question from a student about how her art has influenced her role in social justice, Eliza said "the best way to play characters and to play other people is to know something about them." Acting involves being a good listener, she added, and having had others share their stories with her has helped her to tell stories.

The Dushkus were available for photographs and autographs following the event.

In an interview with the Justice, Class of 2013 Senator Sarah G. Kim, co-chair of the Student Union Social Justice Committee and one of the students who helped organize 'Deis Impact, said that the event was "eye-opening" and provided important information for students who may want to start their own organizations in the future.

Lee Goldstein '01, who resides locally and returned to the University for the event, said in an interview that the program's message was "even more impactful and powerful than I was expecting" and that the presentations were effective in making Eliza's celebrity endorsement secondary to the organization's message.

In an interview, Class of 2015 Senator Sneha Walia, Kim's co-chair of the Social Justice Committee and an usher for the event, said that the Dushkus' presentations were "dream-driven" in their primary message of "if you have the passion, you can make it happen."

"They were so eloquent, and they were so positive," Walia added.

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