Sticking it to The Man in Seattle last week, thousands of chanting, sign-carrying, entrance-blocking, fist-raising, banner-blowing, arrest-provoking college students embraced hell-raising in all its many forms. They and their ilk put the city in a state of emergency trying to relay to World Trade Organization delegates -- through clouds of tear gas -- a simple message: To hell with profit margins. Stop letting corporations harm people, animals, and the environment.
Back home on campuses from Yale to Ohio University, a different kind of rabble-rousing was going on. And it didn't end with the trade conference.
The goal -- to force corporations to be socially responsible -- is the same. But the only sit-ins for this movement are being done with college administrators and trustees, trying to convince the WTO to pressure large corporations, in which the schools hold stock, not to chop down rain forests or exploit child labor.
That's not to say civil disobedience doesn't still happen on campus. It's just that today's college student knows protests will only bring a company a few lines of bad press, while lobbying through a prominent shareholder, such as a university, could bring about real change.
One of the nation's leaders of this student effort grew up in Amherst, not far from the dreary industrial landscape of Lorain. Now a junior on temporary hiatus from Cornell, Josh Glasstetter has just won a seat on Ithaca's city council (running on the Green Party ticket, of course) and edits the Cornell Progressive newspaper.
Glasstetter, who uses the pronoun "we" more often than "I" in conversations about his activism, remembers being baffled by steel and auto workers in Lorain who would run to Wal-Mart to save 50 cents on products manufactured by sweatshop workers in third-world countries, while their own jobs were being threatened or lost to similarly exploited labor forces.
"They don't realize what they're taking part in [by] buying this product," he says.
An ardent protester in his freshman and sophomore years at Cornell, Glasstetter moved on to a more sophisticated form of economic protest, founding a group called Students for Socially Responsible Investing. Last month, his efforts earned him serious verbiage in The New York Times.
"Like a grandchild who has traced the branches of his family tree, Josh Glasstetter is intimately familiar with the history of campus activism at Cornell University . . .," The Times wrote. "Mr. Glasstetter, 20, sees himself as an heir to that grand tradition, but the weapons of his fight are these: strategic information culled from Edgar, the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission; figures buried deep in the annual reports of Fortune 500 companies; and, most critical of all, the proxy questions placed before the shareholders of those companies."
Cornell students got their hands on those tools two years ago, when administrators begrudgingly turned over the school's portfolio to Glasstetter and his group. This spring they successfully convinced the university to put its Home Depot shares, which reportedly amounted to $18.8 million at the time, behind another shareholder's initiative to stop the company from selling old-growth forest products. The initiative failed. But it garnered so much support from shareholders that Home Depot went along with the proposal anyway.
"By making the university more socially responsible, we make corporations more socially responsible," Glasstetter says. He traces this brand of activism to the anti-apartheid efforts of the '80s, when students pressured universities to divest from companies conducting business in South Africa.
Groups like Glasstetter's, however, view divestment only as a last resort. For the most part, they believe universities can have a greater impact on corporate injustice by working to remedy the system from within.
"We're trying to make things better gradually, trying to improve corporations that we're invested in as much as we can," he says.
Individual campus groups are linked to this effort through the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), whose debut conference at Yale last month drew 430 students from 130 universities. There they wrote a Socially Responsible Investing proposal for universities, identified the "Egregious Eight" worst-behaving companies, hammered out a long-term strategy for mobilizing hundreds of universities in the fight for corporate responsibility -- and held a rally.
For many campus groups, the first step is wresting investment portfolios from administrators. At public universities, such information can be obtained by filing an open records request. But students at private universities have to persuade administrators to open their portfolios. In Ohio, Oberlin produced its portfolio without too much difficulty, according to junior Leah Whitesel, and students there have drafted their own socially responsible investment proposal. A student group at Ohio University, the Campus Greens, has been researching the school's investments for some time, but hasn't yet confronted administrators, says student activist Daniel Foor. At Kent State University, efforts to promote socially responsible investing have just begun.
Some Ohio students were inspired by a conference Foor organized in October titled "Rethinking the Corporation: The Return of Accountability." About 100 students from across the state attended the daylong event, which featured national speakers on such subjects as sweatshop labor and the effects of agricultural biotechnology.
"Focusing on corporate power is a way to bring together issues of human rights, racism, homophobia, and sexism," Foor says. "It's all related."
As was the more unruly effort to shock, lambaste, and inconvenience delegates to the WTO last week. Many college students affiliated with STARC attended, though Foor, Whitesel, and Glasstetter did not. At first, Glasstetter was disappointed that a free ticket he was offered from a social justice organization ended up with an underclassman. But he got over it.
"I think it's better that a freshman got to go instead of me," he says sportingly.
After all, activists aren't born looking through stock portfolios. A good old-fashioned protest is still more likely to snag another one for the cause.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at email@example.com.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.