Shine A Light On….Stephanie Viggiano!
From Stephanie Viggiano’s long list of Amnesty leadership roles and achievements, it’s impossible to know much about her struggle to find her voice. As a Student Area Coordinator (SAC) for the state of Pennsylvania, Steph not only leads her own student chapter at Bryn Mawr College, but also mentors other students, participates in regional trainings, and is now a part of the planning committee for this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in San Francisco in March.
Despite a stutter that has been with her all of her life, Steph now has no qualms about speaking in front of groups, large or small. “Now I think, hey, they can wait if I can’t get out my words,” she says with a laugh. “I really think that my involvement with Amnesty has helped me get out of my shell. At times I get frustrated, but a lot of the time I’m okay—a lot of that has come from my work with Amnesty.”
In just a few short years, her work has become progressively more crucial to her community, to the region, and now to Amnesty USA as a whole. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Steph about her progress as a leader, about her passion for new forms of organizing, and about the upcoming AGM.
AI: Thanks again for meeting today. Before we talk a little bit about the upcoming AGM, I’m just wondering what sparked your initial interest in Amnesty, and how you started to get more involved?
SV: I first got involved through a friend that I was visiting at Penn State University. I would go to Penn State just about every weekend and saw that the Amnesty group had events whenever I was there, so I guess I was kind of adopted into their group, so to speak. Early on, what happened was that I met another SAC at Penn State, who as it turned out I eventually replaced. The next year I went to Penn State for my junior year, and soon became president of the Amnesty chapter. I really enjoyed it, so I got more and more involved.
But what called me to this work was that on my way to one of those first events, I met a cab driver that had an incredible story. He, along with his colleagues, was the first person to start an independent news source in his country, and he’d been tortured for it. Two of his fingers were missing, and he had other scars, too. He had actually come to the United States for asylum. Hearing his story, and meeting someone who’d been through all of that made it all much more real.
AI: As you got more into Amnesty in college, was there anything in particular that moved you to get more involved?
SV: Becoming an SAC and always being in touch with Emilia [the Field Organizer for Pennsylvania], Folabi [Regional Director], and the rest of the Regional Office has led to so many great opportunities. Those connections have led to some…I guess you could call them intense experiences, too! My first ever conference was the Regional Conference in Richmond, Virginia in 2009, and Emilia asked me to speak. I thought to myself, wow, this is amazing! I’ve now had the opportunity to speak at every conference I’ve been to, and it’s really more than just building these “life-skills” that I appreciate. It’s also about learning more about Amnesty, and about being a part of the community.
I really love how Amnesty allows you to get as involved as you’d like. I could have never imagined that I would be on the AGM Planning Committee, but there’s been such a great support system, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been awesome to see how much we can all achieve. Overall, Amnesty is probably one of the best things that I’ve ever done. I’ve had fantastic opportunities, and I recommend that anyone go for it if you’re thinking about leadership roles, whether it’s in group or region or national.
AI: How did you become a part of the AGM Planning Committee?
SV: Emilia put in an awesome word for me, and I’m really grateful for that. The invite was the coolest thing ever. It’s funny—the New York office called me and because the only number I have from New York is from Bergdorfs (the department store), I thought he was the make-up counter or something like that. But instead it was Amnesty, and so I was really surprised and excited!
It’s been really cool to see these other aspects of Amnesty. I’ve experienced it at so many levels—as a student, as part of a local group, at the regional, and now the national level. And it’s great observing how they all work together for the same thing, and to see the synergy of all of it.
AI: What is your role on the AGM Planning Committee, and how did that come about?
SV: I’m the social media outreach person for the AGM, and it’s really awesome not only to assist in all of the planning, but that I can also work to my own strengths. I love technology and it’s something I feel very strongly about. That’s important to the planning—having a diverse group of volunteers, staff members, and board members, and it’s cool to see everyone working to our strengths.
In general, social media is the next big thing. As soon as a whole society adopts a new vocabulary—“I’ll Facebook you”, or “I’ll Tweet you”—it’s become ubiquitous. It’s in our culture. It’s something we have to use in order to market and perpetuate our goals. Not only is it inevitable, but it’s also insanely current, and it’s important for an organization to stay as up to date as possible. I’m really into the whole area of new media and how it’s changing the strategies of marketing, and also how we interact as a whole. We can get a lot out of this.
For example, trending on Twitter is a huge thing, and it can say a lot about us—not only our presence in San Francisco, but nationally. That could be a goal for everyone—to get human rights beyond the local news and online for everyone to see. Everyone there [at the AGM] should have a social media goal.
AI: So, since this is Amnesty’s 50th year, is this AGM going to be special? What are you looking forward to about this year’s AGM?
I think what’s really awesome is that Amnesty is really focused on youth, and that there’s a youth summit this year at UC Berkeley. It’s a huge opportunity for students, and it would be very beneficial for them to attend. We have an awesome line up of speakers, and of course I’m biased, but there’s a social media session that I’m really excited about!
There’s a march, there’s a concert, and it’s in San Francisco, which says a lot for the human rights movement. I guess I’m so excited because I attended the AGM last year, and I honestly learned so much. I love that there are always such amazing speakers and awesome sessions. And it’s not only an educational experience, but also an exciting one. It’s so cool! Because of how much fun I had last year, I’m sure the 50th anniversary will be twice as amazing! That’s almost enough in itself. Not only is it a time for AI to look to the past, present, and future, but the whole history of the human rights movement. There will be something for new members, as well as people who have been around for a long time.
If you have questions about this year’s AGM, you can visit www.amnestyusa.org/agm, or write to Steph at email@example.com.