If you weren’t lucky (or unlucky, I suppose) enough to wander by the Cube last Thursday, you missed quite the sight: 10 naked college students enjoying the balmy 39-degree day in nothing more than cardboard and some strategically placed fabric that kept the entire operation legal. This wasn’t hazing – apparently, that’s illegal. And the students weren’t trying to show off to their peers: They were vying for the eye of our very own 62-year-old Mary Sue Coleman. The students, representing the University’s Rugby Club and Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, were making a statement: We’d rather be naked than wear sweatshop clothing.
SOLE leapt onto the University’s radar seven years ago, when its members literally invaded President Lee Bollinger’s office to protest the University’s contract with Nike. As a direct result of SOLE’s actions, the University institutionalized the Vendor Code of Conduct, which requires all companies with University business to uphold certain ethical and humanitarian standards.
Since then, it has pressured the University into joining the Workers’ Rights Consortium and spearheaded a wide variety of social justice initiatives, including this year’s SweatFree campaign against exploitation and labor abuse.
This academic year has been a banner one for social and economic justice activists. After months of agitation, the Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola received the best holiday present it could imagine: During winter break, the University provisionally terminated its contract with the Coca-Cola Company. As students finalized their Spring Break trips just a few weeks later, the University’s Residential Dining Service announced it would serve only fair trade coffee in the residence halls.
Through their actions, activists affect our lives on a daily basis. Whether it’s in a “negative” way (We now have to cross State Street to buy Diet Coke) or a “positive” one (Dorm coffee isn’t complete garbage anymore), student activists have the power to change the way this multibillion-dollar University runs.
Yet in the minds of many students, the shadowy cadre of activists lives behind a veil of secrecy; some say they stalk the halls of East Quad and the Residential College, plotting against corporations and capitalism as they pass a hookah. Others suggest something as tame (and legal) as a hookah would never suffice.
Who are the activists who killed Coke and brought fair trade coffee to the dorms? What motivates them, what inspires them, what satisfies them? What are their goals, how do they reach them – and why should the rest of us care?
A Diverse Community .
Social, economic and environmental activists are a diverse group – they come from different states and different walks of life; they’re men and women; some are white, but many aren’t. They’re not all in the RC. They’re not even all in LSA. And while many social justice activists on campus work together, belong to the same groups and share similar values, they all have their own personal stories.
I talked with Ilan Brandvain, a Program in the Environment senior; he was thinking about socioeconomic and environmental justice before he could watch PG-13 movies. While at the University, he’s participated in both the Coke campaign and the movement to get fair trade coffee into residence halls.
He wasn’t active in high school – Farmington Hills, isn’t a very active place – but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about the issues: He grew up attending Camp Tavor, a Jewish youth camp run by the group Habonim Dror, the “Labor Zionist Youth Movement.” It was through mock sweatshops and discussion groups that Brandvain was first exposed to many of the issues college activists fight about. But it was his camp counselors, his role models away from home, who really hooked him: “Most of them grew up in the camp; a lot of them are working toward these things. Your role models are people who are talking about this, and they’re really cool people, so it gets you interested. I’d say that’s definitely where this sprouted.”
Adri Miller, an RC sophomore and member of both SOLE and the Coke campaign, is new to the activist scene: “There are some people in SOLE who talk about how they’ve been going to union protests since they were five. I haven’t done that sort of thing.” Yet she became aware of social justice issues at home, listening to her parents. “My mom is from Warren. Her dad worked in a nonunion factory,” she said “My dad . is a Jewish attorney who went to school here.” As a result, she continued, “It’s interesting to hear them discuss things . there’s always been so much discussion in my house. Dinner tables were always really intense. So it’s always been a lot of energy and awareness.”
Clara Hardie’s parents also raised her to be socially aware. “My parents were always writing letters to the editor of the local paper and going to school board meetings,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They took me and my sisters on medical missions to Belize and Haiti. My mom and dad were probably a bigger influence on me than I thought.”
But for a long time, she just didn’t fit in; growing up in Michigan’s conservative Upper Peninsula, she found herself politically isolated. When she finally came to Ann Arbor, though, she found her place. She explained how, for the first time, she had friends who appreciated Amnesty International, friends she could “tell how I felt without them thinking I was dramatic or crazy.” It was only then that she began to see herself as an activist: “Being in this new supportive environment really allowed me to become more ambitious in what I thought could be accomplished through action and raising awareness.”
An engineering junior, Saamir Rahman has a completely different story. He traces his interest in social justice issues back to his high school, St. John’s Jesuit in Toledo, Ohio. Recounting his experience, Rahman said: “There was a definite social justice focus in the high school itself, because Jesuits are usually social justice advocates themselves.” He says the tale of Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 while fighting for the poor and to end a bloody civil war, was particularly important to his education.
Unlike most University students, Rahman had the opportunity to explore social activism while still in high school. “We had a ‘Sanctions Day’ when we shut down all the vending machines in our cafeteria,” he told me. “All the students were like ‘Oh my God!’ We had to explain the parallel to them.” It was that hands-on experience, he says, that convinced him to pursue social justice activism in college. “It just showed me the power of doing something pretty cool, really fun and really innovative to shock people into awareness of how it is on the other side.”
.With A Shared Ethos
When all of us first arrived at the University, we were greeted with a bewildering array of clubs, activities and interest groups. In time, we found our niches – we found what makes our time at the University meaningful. In a way, the social justice activists have created their own niche, centered on organizations like SOLE and defined by a certain set of values and beliefs. What really unites the social justice community – what has brought its members to the same table, to many of the same issues – is a common sense of purpose.
That common purpose, contrary to popular belief, is not the overthrow of global capitalism. Instead, student activists feel their purpose is to use student power to correct situations in which they see the free market failing: sweatshops, third-world agriculture, developing industries. “I think that the market has shown, again and again . that it does come out with beneficial scenarios, that it does help most people,” Brandvain admits, but “sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes it leaves people screwed, and that if you left it to markets, these people would just keep getting screwed. In those cases, there is a responsibility for intervention.”
In many ways, the argument isn’t against markets – it’s against “market efficiency” as the ultimate goal. Sweatshops, their defenders argue, are alright because sweatshop pay is what the market will bear; not only is it above subsistence, it’s good enough to keep attracting new workers. Social and economic justice advocates maintain a higher standard is needed.
Ryan Bates, a SOLE senior who has worked against sweatshops, explains this well: “No sweatshop activist you will ever talk to will tell you those women in Bangladesh shouldn’t have jobs. No one’s going to ever say that to you because, for a whole number of reasons, they desperately need the jobs. And the wages in the factories are just a little bit higher than subsistence agriculture . so no one says it’s bad for the factory to be in Bangladesh. What they say is that just because those people need the job doesn’t mean you should be able to sexually harass women on the job floor, doesn’t mean you should be able to rape people, doesn’t mean you should be able to time how long they’re in the bathroom, doesn’t mean you should be able to beat them with a shoe, doesn’t mean you should prevent them from forming a union, doesn’t mean you should shoot people for standing up for their rights. Giving people a wage slightly higher than subsistence doesn’t entitle you to do whatever you want to do to them. All we’re arguing for is simple justice.”
Ashwini Hardikar, an RC senior known for her work with the Coke Coalition as well as her role on the MSA Peace and Justice commission, summarizes the struggle: “It’s a process of bringing greater awareness to everything that we do. Every product that we buy – there’s a system, a process that goes into it . We need to make sure that it’s as just as possible.”
An interesting quirk of socioeconomic justice activism is that, for the most part, activists in the United States are working to address travesties thousands of miles away. It’s one thing to sympathize with workers in the developing world; many students probably “feel bad” about the plight of workers in Indonesia. But to dedicate dozens of hours a week, for months on end, to their cause? That takes a special level of dedication – and it raises an interesting question: Why do these activists care so deeply?
In short, it’s all about how they view themselves in relation to the rest of the world; it’s the worldview. Many of us define our “community” as our local environment: the University, Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan. We feel connected to others in our communities – whether they are other Wolverines, others from our home state or city or even just other Americans.
But in this global economy, divisions imposed by national borders are increasingly irrelevant. “You can’t escape that every decision you make affects someone else somewhere,” argues Miller.
“Your responsibility as a global citizen is to give a shit about other people – especially when it’s your purchases that are directly affecting people’s . lives on the ground,” said Brandvain, rather forcefully. “You can’t really see your life as disconnected from the person who makes Coke, or the person who grows coffee,” he continued.
Rahman spelled it out: “I think it requires a broader sense of what your community is. My community isn’t just people in Ann Arbor, my community isn’t just the (Indian-American Students Association)-type people, my community isn’t just activists. It’s everyone in the world.”
Bates went further, suggesting that because we’re all members of a global community, we must treat violations in the global South just as we treat them anywhere else. “On a moral level,” he argued, social injustice and exploitation “is wrong . It’s just wrong. And if you’re going to claim to be a moral person, it’s wrong if it happens in Michigan, it’s wrong if it happens in the United States, it’s wrong if it happens in India.”
That worldview – of each individual as a full member of a global community – may help explain why activists feel a moral obligation to fight for others far away. But that’s only half the story. The technology that facilitated the global economy has also made it easier to communicate and travel; workers are sending more than just products to Americans. They’re sending e-mails, making phone calls and sometimes, coming for visits.
That communication, which helps establish a personal link between activists and the people they are fighting for, has been critical. Because they could relate to sweatshop workers and Coke bottlers as individuals instead of just third-world laborers, many students I talked with had deeply personal, concrete reasons for why they fight.
According to Miller, “Making that really personal connection draws you out of yourself.” Hearing firsthand about injustice “really keeps you grounded;” a campaign becomes more than a noble crusade for noble reasons – it becomes a quest to achieve “tangible, specific” goals.
Bates, who is also heavily involved in SOLE and the Coke Coalition, can recall a specific memory that kept him focused on Coca-Cola. Last year, Colombian union organizer Javier Correa came to speak at a Michigan Student Assembly forum about Coca-Cola’s crimes just as the issue was heating up.
Afterward, as Bates tells it, a Coke rep questioned Correa’s information: “Are you sure nine people were killed?”
The vivid memory of Correa’s response – he individually listed off the names of each and every member of his union who was allegedly killed by Coca-Cola paramilitaries – stays with Bates: “At that moment, I understood the profound callousness of the opposition and the profound dignity of people like Javier. And just remembering that makes me want to kick their asses.”
Keeping It Real
All too often, social justice activists – “those RC types” – are stereotyped as economically illiterate, unwise in the ways of globalization, too idealistic to understand the “real world.” In reality, social justice activism is all about facts and compromise; activists are continually searching for that fine line between idealism and practicality.
For one, events like the Naked Protest are just the tip of the iceberg. Sit-ins, mass action and rallies are almost weapons of last resort in an activist’s arsenal. For example, Residential Dining Services adopted fair trade coffee without any public prodding or mass action. Only when people in power stop cooperating in good faith does public demonstration become necessary – like with Coca-Cola.
Brandvain, who helped with both the low-key coffee and high-profile Coke efforts, explains the difference: “The University, from the start, showed an interest (in fair trade coffee). They were listening to us. With the Coke issue, and many SOLE things, the University is pushing (activists) away, saying ‘Don’t bother us with this.’ I think if we’d gotten that response with fair trade, we would have used a lot more of (the Coke) model.”
Really, “activism” isn’t as flashy or “active” as it seems. Behind the occasional public events are hours upon hours of research, writing and negotiation. “You have to really understand why you’re fighting to fight effectively or to organize effectively or anything,” Miller said. It is education and knowledge of the issues at stake that really drives activist projects forward.
“We’re not just holding rallies,” Rahman pointed out to me, “We go to conferences, we make sure everyone is on the same page, has the same basic analysis of the issues. So everyone is moving forward in education.”
It also isn’t as ideological as casual observers may infer. Every step of the process – from picking a campaign to setting goals and crafting strategy – is influenced by real world concerns. Activists on other campuses, according to Bates, wanted to fight against Taco Bell’s abusive treatment of tomato farmers. University activists didn’t join that campaign because there’s no Taco Bell on campus; there would have been no way to define “victory.”
Indeed, Bates personally feels that enumerated goals are necessary: “I’m not going to get involved in something that doesn’t have a direct, appreciable, countable result – otherwise, it’s a waste of my time.”
Even individual activists are bound, at least to some degree, to swim with the current; students are only powerful in groups, and it’s much more effective to join existing campaigns than create new ones. When Brandvain arrived at the University, he was interested in social justice, and he knew about the benefits of fair trade. But why did he join the fair trade coffee movement, when tea farmers could also benefit from fair trade deals? A movement for coffee already existed. Why’d he choose to fight against Coke? Because “even though there are a thousand things wrong with Pepsi,” he realized there was already a movement against Coke: “It doesn’t make sense for me to splinter and work on my own thing. There’s value in working together.”
A Way of Life?
In the end, the committed student activists who keep fighting, fight after fight, do so because – at some level – they all enjoy it. They’re students, and they’re not volunteering their lives to social justice because of the moral imperative. To quote Brandvain, “A lot of people like to watch television or play video games, and I just find working on some constructive project – especially toward some social justice goal – more fulfilling, more fun, more social, more challenging.”
For some, it’s the rush of victory. For others, it’s the sense of power that comes from outmaneuvering a multinational corporation. For many, it’s the internal gratification that comes from knowing they can – and are – making a difference in people’s lives.
It’s no surprise that Hardie, speaking from her own experiences, can summarize the mindset better than I can.
“Some people just prefer to be called ‘A person that does things that she cares about,’ instead of an activist. That’s all (an activist) basically is.”
-with contributions from Kimberly Chou