May 25, 2007

Different ends need different means

As the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) representative to the Sustainability Council and a member of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), I think that what GCI does speaks for itself, without holding the group in contrast to other activist groups. The Maroon Editorial Staff’s denouncement of STANDs “aggressive tactics” (“Speak Softly and Carry a Green Stick,” 5/8/07) is misinformed and fails to grasp the different challenges faced by groups pursuing environmental sustainability on campus in contrast to those working to stop the genocide in Darfur.

The Maroon’s editorial counseled STAND that “it’s the groups willing to collaborate with administrators toward the generation of new ideas and solutions that actually get things done.” Yet STAND members have been in dialogue with the administration since last spring. For months, STAND members have articulated comprehensively researched arguments that divestment would not sacrifice the academic freedoms, that it would be economically feasible for the university, and that it would be effective in helping to stop genocide.

It was only after the Board of Trustees refused to allow a student-faculty delegation to meet with them and chose not to divest that members of STAND became “antagonistic.” Amid community-wide dissent over of a lack of administrative accountability, the Board of Trustees has refused to further discuss the decision with the student body. Thus, students inside and outside of STAND formed the Coalition for Immediate Divestment (CID) around the beliefs that the administration’s continuing dialogue is disingenuous, that dialogue with third parties is no longer effective, and that more compelling tactics and direct pressure must be used.

Others, the current members of STAND itself, remain committed to working within the system while staying firm in their demands for divestment. STAND members have sent several letters working to schedule a meeting with President Zimmer that have gone unanswered. I was part of a meeting that met with Bill Michel last week collaborating on an effort to increase faculty involvement in the dialogue. STAND is also conducting broad-based outreach to alumni, donors, and legislators, many of whom are outraged at the University’s decision and are committed to reversing it.

It is true that some STAND members “ridiculed” the Darfur Action and Education Fund, but in doing so, they pointed out that the fund does not address the most pressing issue. Divestment aims at paralyzing the perpetrators of violence right now, whereas the fund supports “University-based activities that will broaden knowledge and help prepare our students and the University community ‘to advance human rights and the well-being of people around the world.’” Although STAND rejects the fund as an acceptable institutional alternative to divestment, the organization hopes that the fund will support individuals and groups to ease human suffering in the long term, and are submitting proposals.

The Maroon’s editorial also overlooks the fact that STAND has contributed hugely to raising city and campus awareness about Darfur and genocide. In the past two months alone, it hosted documentary screenings; talks by professors, outside experts, and Sudanese refugees; candlelight vigils for the victims in Sudan; and a series of teach-ins on the quads. Over the course of the campaign, UChicago STAND has generated over 40 articles in 21 publications nationwide, bringing local efforts to stop the genocide into the public eye. STAND has even helped mobilize the active support of a U.S. senator and two U.S. Congressmen. I wish that genocide were as approachable a topic and as fun to get involved with as the green movement, but it’s hard to be upbeat about genocide without trivializing it.

Raising awareness about Darfur and trying to change the way we invest are the techniques students have to harness our influence as a university and make a bigger difference than we could as individuals. GCI can tackle sustainability from the inside out because the University and students make simple decisions that impact sustainability every day. I wish that the Board of Trustees were as sympathetic to changing its investments in mutual funds as Residence Halls and Commons has been in increasing purchases of wind power. I wish I could prove that divesting from genocide in Darfur is as directly profitable for the University as taking measures to reduce waste and save energy. Without that proof, the administration sees and deals with the problems differently, and thus, so must students.