LOWER MERION Five years ago, Abri Bernstein's mother took her to see a grim documentary called The Devil Came on Horseback, about war, famine, and genocide in a remote land 6,500 miles away, the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.
Bernstein was a 13-year-old seventh grader in Harrisburg at the time, but after what she saw, she said, she had to do something. "Being Jewish and having distant relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, it bothered me that genocide was happening," she recalled. "I was frustrated."
So with friends, Bernstein came up with an idea for a club - Gems Not Genocide - to make jewelry from discarded pieces. They sold them, and raised between $500 and $1,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition.
And then she did something that many adolescents would not do. She kept going.
On Tuesday night, the club that Bernstein helped launch at Harriton High School in Lower Merion, where her family moved when she was in eighth grade, will mark a high point. It will host a daylong community forum - "Witness. Inspire. Act: Educating About the Conflict in Darfur" - that will bring leading human rights activists and a renowned photojournalist to the Montgomery County campus.
In an era when teens can learn about faraway human rights crises on Facebook or Twitter, and then feel like activists with a tap on their iPhone, Harriton's anti-genocide club is doing it old-school - through pizza parties, jewelry sales, and, increasingly, engaging community members outside the school walls.
"I told them our mind-set shouldn't be a club with members, but that we are part of a larger movement," said Daniel Imaizumi, the physics teacher who supervises the group. "If students become involved who aren't officially part of the club, that's OK. Parents, teachers, rabbis - we want to open it up."
Dividing the labor among club leaders, including Bernstein's co-presidents - Samantha Braver, who started its website (gemsnotgenocide.com) and is skilled at jewelry-making, and Lindsey Barrison, who handles advertising - Gems Not Genocide has raised about $15,000 for human rights causes during the last four years, even as it has raised consciousness among Harriton students.
"It's important to me to raise money and send money over there, but educating 1,100 kids in school so they have a little bit of information about the Darfur genocide is also important," said Braver, who is 18 and headed to Colgate University after graduation.
Since 2003, when sectarian violence and a rebel uprising in the desert region of western Sudan sparked warfare and famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions into refugee camps, the Darfur cause has inspired youthful activism in America - aided by viral videos and celebrity crusaders such as the actor George Clooney.
For Bernstein, now 18 and bound for George Washington University, her first experience raising money for Darfur in Harrisburg stayed with her when she took a course on Africa and Asia in ninth grade. She mentioned the Gems Not Genocide project to her friends, and the idea caught on in her new school.
"We had pizza parties after school to make jewelry," said Bernstein, who said her knack for business is stronger than her jewelry-making skills. "It was pretty messy."
But the effort took off - eventually drawing about 200 club members, including 20 to 30 who are highly involved. While raising thousands of dollars for the Darfur Peace and Development Organization, group members also raised their awareness of global human rights issues - especially Bernstein. She traveled to Rwanda with the School for Ethics and Global Leadership two summers ago, studied with its program in Washington, and last summer was selected by the ANNPower Vital Voices Initiative to travel to Myanmar for an international women's conference. In her travels, she has met or heard the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This week, the group's human-rights conference will bring a healthy dose of global activism back to Lower Merion. Speakers at the three-hour event will include Darfur survivor and activist Hawa Muhammed; photojournalist Ron Haviv, who has depicted humanitarian crises from the former Yugoslavia to Haiti; and leaders from groups such as United to End Genocide and the U.S. Peace Institute.
As for Bernstein, who hopes to land coffeehouse gigs as a singer and guitar-player, and is captain of her field hockey team, she's uncertain of her path in college and beyond. "I want to find the best way to make a difference, whether it's through politics, international law, or grassroots organizing," she said.
Those who know her have little doubt she'll have an impact whatever she picks.
"The word that comes to my mind is indefatigable," said Imaizumi, her faculty adviser. "She's running full steam."