Building Momentum for a Conflict-Free Campus: Lessons from Stanford

 

It’s time to get back into the swing of things as we head off to school, and I encourage you to consider a conflict minerals campaign as part of your program on campus this year.

Last year, our STAND chapter had a great success bringing a conflict-mineral-conscious investment policy to Stanford. To help other student activists at other universities achieve similar successes, we’ve written a brief outline of our process. (If you want to get any more information or discuss our campaign in more detail, feel free to contact me at mmnewman [at] stanford.edu!)

Our campaign was initially sparked by Enough’s idea of a conflict-free campus, and we thought that it would be an inspiring project to bring some change to policies close to home and not focus our advocacy solely on the national level. We were right: It was an incredible, fast, and groundbreaking campaign. By the middle of June 2010, Stanford became the first university to make any kind of institutional statement on the issue of conflict minerals when the Board of Trustees passed a “proxy voting guideline” to govern its institutional voice as an investor. It instructs the university to "…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."

The proxy voting guideline is a rather complicated tool, but valuable for the message it sends to fellow investors, the companies schools like Stanford invest in, and the larger industry implicated by conflict minerals. Basically, now that Stanford has this proxy voting guideline, if a shareholder resolution is proposed within one of the companies in which Stanford invests that has to do with the company’s policies or actions regarding conflict minerals, Stanford must support that resolution. Though not a strong obligation on the university’s normal activities, and a very different approach from divestment, it is nonetheless a powerful statement – and the first of its kind.

The proxy voting guideline strategy came out of a series of meetings we had within the Stanford administration after we first decided to work on the conflict minerals issue on our campus after winter break, at the beginning of 2010.

Our first contact was to the president’s office. It was important to us (and, as it became clear, even more important to the administration) that we never went behind the back of the institution in order to push our goals. We reached out both to the administration and to our student government, though we ultimately pursued the more direct administration route. Throughout the process, it was important that we had the reputation on campus as a strong, informed group with a history of action – administration officials remembered STAND for the success of our Sudan divestment campaign, though it was before the time of any of the current members of our group. With this grandfathered legitimacy, and the recognition that our group could mobilize more student support if the administration hesitated or asked, our path was made somewhat smoother.

When we spoke with the president’s office, the president’s secretary put us in contact with the Business Affairs section of the administration, and then a committee called the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, or APIRL. Working with the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the APIRL, we met someone who became a key ally in our campaign, Stanford alum and sub-committee member Mark Landesmann. He had worked on divestment from South Africa during his time at Stanford, and he was a passionate and educated ally to our cause throughout the process.

It became clearer and clearer just how essential it was to have such an advocate within the system. Mark helped us draft the language of the proxy voting guideline and insured its passage in the Human Rights Sub-Committee. In April, his support then persuaded the larger APIRL to unanimously recommend the proxy voting guideline to the Stanford Board of Trustees. When he presented it to the board in June, accompanied by valuable and objective research from another APIRL member, Linda Kimball, the board ultimately decided to pass it - after an informed and lengthy debate. 

Though the help from our ally Mark was invaluable, his support alone was by no means enough to achieve success. Other key factors were faculty members, the student body, and the wider media.

We enlisted the support of key faculty members, particularly those who were deans of their departments or particularly well known in their respective fields. Few turned us down after learning more about the conflict and what we were hoping to achieve at Stanford. The list of faculty who had pledged their support was among the materials presented to the board in June.

We also generated a list of student supporters through a petition that was available on paper when we were campaigning in a main area of campus and online at our chapter’s website. Student support, however, was not the largest part of our campaign. We had a small awareness building campaign, chiefly driven by stickers reading, “We Are Consuming the Congo” or “Blood Minerals.” These stickers, whose eye-catching slogans also directed them to our website, were widely distributed for use on various items of personal electronics. The idea was not to make our fellow students feel guilty about the electronics we all depend on daily, but rather to encourage them to find out more about what can be done to generate a conflict-free option.

The final essential ingredient to our success was the media coverage our campaign received. Media was an important ally. We made sure to get coverage early on in the Stanford Daily, the student-run newspaper on campus and in subject-related blogs like that of Jason Stearns at CongoSiasa. We were also lucky enough to have leading human rights NYTimes columnist Nicholas Kristof tweet about us, and a Bay Area New York Times article published at the time of the June board meeting. After, we received coverage in several local newspapers – including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Citizen, as well as blogs like change.org. These high-profile media successes by our media team helped to show the university and the wider electronics industry how important, timely, and popular the conflict minerals issue is becoming.

The wider goal has been to show the industries that use conflict minerals – particularly the electronics industry with which Stanford has so many connections – that there is a significant demand for conflict-free products. New developments like the legislation embedded in the recent financial reform act reinforce this message. We hope that other schools and institutions joining their voices to Stanford’s on the issue of conflict minerals will reduce industry pushback to the responsible supply chain management that could help mitigate the devastation in Congo. Please join us!

Visit RAISE Hope for Congo to check out the new toolkit for starting your own conflict-free initiative on campus.

 

Mia Newman is a junior majoring in international relations and the co-president of the Stanford University chapter of STAND.

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