College students across the U.S. are taking a stance and asking their administrations to work toward building a conflict-free institution. Whether they face roadblocks or successes, students are continuing with their efforts to create the most profound change possible.
Large, international humanitarian and environmental crises can often be paralyzing. Upon reading about such a conflict, it can be easy to feel disconnected from a far-flung location ridden by chaos. Where to begin; what stance to take; who to communicate with on the matter. These can all be difficult issues to face. One tactic is to turn to a community you already feel a part of—a workplace, organization, religious institution, school, or family—to discuss the matter and decide on an educated course of action. An example of such communal action has begun to take root at college campuses across the United States and in parts of Canada.
Sixty-two American and Canadian colleges have already come out in support of conscious consumption of electronics. Conscious consumption refers to purchasing electronics from companies that do not buy products containing Congolese minerals from conflict mines. As campuses take action on this matter, support generally comes in one of three forms: a procurement policy, a shareholder resolution, or a statement of general support.
A procurement policy is the strongest level of commitment a university or college can take. This involves the passage of a resolution that states the institution will favor purchasing electronics that come from companies that do not purchase conflict minerals. A shareholder resolution would require the university to vote their shares in favor of any resolution—regarding conflict-minerals in the DRC—that arises at companies they hold stock in. The third option, a statement of general support, expresses the university’s support of conscious consumption and conflict-free electronics in general. Each of these three efforts also acts as an awareness tactic as well.
These three options all pressure electronics companies, whether directly or indirectly, to clean up their mineral supply chains and to only use conflict-free minerals in their products. That said, each of these commitments does hold some noncommittal component. The language of procurement policies remains somewhat vague, allowing universities to express their “intent” to purchase conflict-free products. The shareholder resolution is a somewhat indirect piece of action; it deflects the need to actually purchase conflict-free electronics on campus. A statement of general support, of course, is only committing to releasing a public statement and falls short of taking any action beyond that.
At the same time, each of these steps does build awareness, seek to decrease the purchasing of conflict-ridden electronics, and pressures electronics companies by showing a growing demand for conflict-free products. Students are seeing the publicity and impact of these efforts and are now taking it upon themselves to demand more if universities do not self-impose stricter conflict mineral strategies.
Alexandra Hellmuth, Student and Youth Coordinator for Enough Project’s Congo Campaign, works with college and high school students to develop conflict-free campaigns on their campuses. The Enough Project is a non-profit organization “dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity, and preventing them from occurring in the future.” Hellmuth expressed in an interview that she believes the most influential way students can become involved in the cause of conflict minerals in the DRC is through the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI).
As stated on the Enough Project’s Congo campaign website, CFCI is a “national campaign to develop consumer advocacy for conflict-free electronics.” She clarified that the extent of these efforts never seeks to achieve Congolese divestment, but rather asks electronics companies to evaluate the legitimacy of mines. Hellmuth explains, “A main part of our campaign is that we don’t want companies to pull out of the Congo.” This would produce further chaos and economic distress in the DRC, which would work against the objectives of this campaign.
Stanford University’s chapter of STAND, “the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network” represents one of the leading college campus forces taking on the conflict-free campaign. Through Stanford STAND’s efforts working with administrators and Board of Trustee members, Stanford University became the first university in the world to alter its investment guidelines to help diminish its funding of the conflict minerals trade in the DRC. Through the club’s efforts, they achieved the passage of a proxy voting agreement, which is the same concept as a shareholder resolution, described above, except for that it does not take initiative to file these resolutions. Stanford STAND’s website describes the policy the university adopted: “The guideline states that the University will: ‘…vote in favor of well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives.’” Even given this success, though, Stanford student and campus STAND co-president, Clementine Stip, stated in an interview that just because they have achieved this accomplishment does not mean they will back away from this issue; she insisted they must continue to perfect their rhetoric and stance as they now act as a role model for other campuses.
Students at Duke University provide another example of meaningful campus activism. Stefani Jones, Duke sophomore and student senator for athletics, services, and the environment, teamed up with a group of friends to spearhead these campus efforts. While interning for the Enough Project this past summer, Jones decided to bring the CFCI to her campus. In order to do so, she started a coalition of students that is now part of the Duke Partnership for Service, which acts as an “umbrella organization for student-led service organizations at Duke.” Jones explained the importance of establishing this coalition since there is not a STAND chapter at Duke. Her goal was to gain as much student support as possible: “We have been reaching out to different student groups… like human rights and ethics to…investment clubs to our environmental alliance.” Her goal was “to try meeting…all the parts of campus that have either a stake or an interest in stopping the conflict in Congo.”
Jones’ campus-wide support was reflected in the organization of the Eureka Symposium, run through Duke Partnership for Service, which attracted over 120 students. The symposium, which included a presentation by the Enough Project, sought to work with students to teach and develop effective mechanisms for social change.
Despite the original strength of efforts at Duke—and the original enthusiasm of the administration—Duke advocacy did run into a roadblock. Once administrators discovered that many of their corporate sponsors were electronics companies, they feared jeopardizing their relationship with such companies and backed down from their position of support.
Jones shared her perspective on this setback and the importance of remedying the situation in the DRC, “These corporate interests aren’t as important as the fact of how severe this conflict is. We’ve had a hard time convincing administrators that it is something worth viewing as a serious issue.”
Jones ensured, however, that as she continues to work with fellow students to develop a procurement strategy for Duke, and to establish a dialogue with Board of Trustee members, that she would not stand down to the administration: “we’re not really going to take no for an answer.”
Each of the three campus action options work toward a solution to hold electronics companies responsible for their mineral sources. As discussed last week, this type of activism is just one component of the necessary efforts to address human rights violations being carried out by violent Congolese mine owners who exploit the environment. What is clear is that campus activism is taking root all across the United States and that students are tenacious in their efforts; they are not backing down, and they are fighting for a cause they deeply believe in.