Sloane Coffin prize lauds student orators

On Sunday, April 14, the First Congregational Church and the Chaplain’s Office hosted the third annual William Sloane Coffin Prize for Passionate Public Speaking in the church. Six finalists, chosen for their written addresses and trained in oration for the event, gave speeches to an audience of students, staff, faculty and community members. A winner was chosen in each of two categories. In the Spirituality and Faith category, Sarah Zager ’13 won for her speech “Walking and Knowing: the Place of ‘God Talk’ in Social Justice.” In the Activism and Social Justice, Hamza Farrukh ’15 won for “Judge, Jury and Executioner: Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” Each received a $400 prize.

The prize, which was first awarded in 2011, is named for the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a famed preacher who began his career in ministry as a chaplain at the College in 1957. According to Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding, Coffin was “a paradigm of the kind of informed, convicted eloquence to which students [of the College] could aspire. As one of the most intelligent, progressive and persuasive religionists of his generation, and as one of the most effective advocates for social justice from the civil rights and Vietnam War eras to the nuclear freeze movement and the expansion of religious pluralism, Coffin’s was one of the most important public voices in the latter half of the 20th century.”

The contest is “a way of giving students [of the College], who have so much to say, a public forum for expressing themselves about important and timely issues of the day, and an opportunity to polish the craft of delivery of those messages,” Spalding said. The prize was named after Coffin because “he spent one of his early years as Chaplain at Williams while still honing his own skills. [This] seemed to suggest that we should create a forum, named for him, for the expression of students in the arenas of spirituality and social justice that could also be an opportunity to learn, celebrate and model the kind of speaking skills that so many of our students will need.”

Farrukh spoke on drone strikes in Pakistan, which target mostly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border in northwestern Pakistan. His speech highlighted the almost 3,500 deaths due to these strikes including 1000 civilians and 200 children. He lamented that despite all this destruction, the practice “is not fulfilling strategic objectives, is not protecting against imminent threats, is not saving lives and is definitely not helping America to make new friends.”

Farrukh was interested in this topic because he is “an international student from Pakistan” who “was very much in the middle of America’s War on Terror” before coming to [the College]. As he has tried to better understand terrorism and its relation to drone warfare, he has found it “more complex and much more troubling” than it had previously appeared. He also found that “there were a lot of things that most [students of the College] had missed in the news” surrounding this issue, so he jumped at the opportunity to speak on this issue during Islamic Awareness Week in February and again for the Sloane Coffin competition.

Zager spoke about how religious philosophies can impact considerations of one’s duty to other people. “I first started thinking about this topic specifically when I was asked in an interview whether my obligations came ‘from God’,” Zager said. “The answer I gave in the moment was rather disorganized, so I wanted to go back and think through the question more carefully. The speech was, at least in part, the product of that rethinking. I spoke about the ways that we can use religious ideas to frame our discussions about our duties and obligations to others. Even if we don’t think of our duties as coming directly ‘from God’, the kind of attention that religion pays to particular interpersonal experiences can be a helpful way to explain why it is that we are obligated to other human beings.”

Zager and Farrukh have freedom to do with their prize money whatever they wish, and the Chaplain’s Office was very impressed with all student’s entries. They are already eagerly anticipating next year’s competition.