Student Activism for Congo and the Power We Didn’t Know We Had

Posted by on Sep 06, 2012 | Original article

Editor's Note: On August 27, Ohio University’s Bobcats for a Conflict-free Campus claimed a victory two years in the making, becoming the 12th U.S. school to pledge a commitment to giving preference to conflict-free electronics products. Student leaders Ellie Hamrick and Jack Spicer wrote this guest blog post about strategies they used to advocate for the university to take a stand.

Last week Ohio University published a statement on conflict minerals, acknowledging its own link to the crisis in Congo as a major institutional consumer and investor in electronics and calling on its business partners to clean up their supply chains. As two of OU’s 20,000 students and leaders of the Bobcats for a Conflict-free Campus student group, we were ecstatic to see our school join the chorus of voices calling for an end to corporate complicity in Congo’s conflict minerals crisis.

It wasn’t easy. Getting the statement published took two years of hard campaigning. Initially, it seemed like an easy task: Our demands were simple, our arguments solid, our resolve strong. However, the odds were stacked against us in many ways.

Although Student Senate and Graduate Student Senate unanimously supported the campaign three times, student government has only symbolic power: The administration is not obligated to consider their resolutions. Similarly, Student Trustees are outnumbered and unelected and have no voting rights. Access to top administrators was restricted; administrators banned us from contacting the Board of Trustees, and meeting cancellations and postponements were more the rule than the exception.

Forcing administrators to take students seriously meant rethinking our relationship with them. We needed to make it in their interest to support a conflict-free campus. Doing so required re-conceptualizing the power we held as students.

When OU Board of Trustees Secretary Tom Davis said Bobcats for a Conflict-free Campus members were “like children asking for cookies,” we ensured it was quoted in the local newspaper later. With the help of our colleagues at Enough, we informed administrators that an incriminating news story on the OU administration’s evasive tactics was soon to be published in a national media source. Within a week the president created the Ad Hoc Committee for Socially Responsible Practices to examine the issue. We led a march to the administrative building where 100 students participated in a call-and-response mic check for student power, despite police blocking the entrance. We delivered thousands of petition signatures and held a call-in day to the president’s office. At times the campaign even took on a playful tone, like when we delivered a conflict-free valentine to the president’s office and asked him to be our “date” for a screening of “Blood in the Mobile.”

As the campaign grew in intensity, it grew in numbers, recognition, and popularity through the publicity we generated and our outreach efforts. We collaborated with dozens of student organizations, from Hip Hop Congress to Amnesty International to African Student Union. Supportive professors gave their students extra credit for attending our educational events and invited us to give guest lectures in their classes. Some professors permanently altered their syllabi to include units on Congo in response to our campaign. Organizations, alumni, and faculty members with relevant expertise penned letters of support to deliver to administrators. United Campus Ministries honored us with its 2012 Social Justice Award. By the time OU finally passed its policy, our small group of activists had mobilized a campus-wide movement.

The OU conflict-free resolution commits the university to “practicing socially responsible management of our resources to ensure ethical economic decisions benefit our students and our community, including the many lives we touch across the globe." It pledges to continually reassess the university's procurement and investment practices in this and other situations where our actions may contribute to human rights abuses.

We remain proud that we gave administrators a chance to do the right thing on their own terms. It is much to their credit that they eventually did the right thing. The statement sets a valuable precedent for other large public universities who can make a difference in calling for a conflict-free mining sector in eastern Congo. Here’s to hoping they do it the easy way.

Ellie is a senior studying anthropology at Ohio University. Jack is a junior studying political science. They are both leaders of Bobcats for a Conflict-free Campus.

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