October 15, 2007
Environmental activists at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, had a lot to celebrate this last Earth Day. On April 25, about a dozen active students, faculty and staff gathered in the spring sunshine to commemorate Guilford’s first solar-heated building. Campus activists had convinced the administration to spend tens of thousands of dollars refitting Shore Hall with solar panels rather than engage in costly repairs of the all-woman residence hall’s broken hot-water heater. For activists, this represents an important first step in achieving real investments in ecological sustainability. Malcolm Kenton, a student leader of Guilford’s ForeverGreen club, noted, “The smaller the group or institution, the easier it is for it to make major changes.”
Angie Moore, coordinator of the environmental studies program at Guilford and another leader of the green movement on campus, notes that things have really “taken flight” around these issues in the last two years, with the college’s president committing $50,000 to a newly formed “sustainability council” of students, faculty and staff tasked with developing green initiatives on campus.
The march toward fair trade
All over the country, students are working hard to convince administrators on their campuses to make similar investments in things like green architecture, fair trade goods, and sweatshop-free apparel. Their tactics are at times aggressive–the famous sit-ins across the country organized by sweatshop opponents come to mind–but all of these activists have a similar goal. Students around the country are asserting their right to have a say in how universities spend their tuition money–and that universities use their power as spenders to promote justice.
In the last 10 years, student organizations around the nation have ballooned in size, strength and scope. As discussed below, two significant movements worth exploring are labor-based and environmental-based student organizations. It’s important to note that the current successes of the student movement didn’t happen by accident–the current growth of student activism developed from strategic investment in college activists by advocacy organizations looking to the future.
A national movement focusing on college budgets makes sense. Consider that, according to a recent report (pdf) by the Sustainable Endowment Institute, the 100 best-endowed colleges and universities in the nation control a total of $258 billion in assets. To put that in perspective, the Defense Department’s budget in 2007 was about $400 billion. Working together, U.S. students could outspend the Pentagon. Where did this movement come from? Where can it go in the future?