UC Sudan Vote Is a Lesson in Student Activism
Times Staff Writer
April 9, 2006
In the long history of college student activism in California, it was yet another victory: The University of California's regents had agreed to divest from companies with ties to the Sudanese government.
The divestment movement started quietly less than two years ago when six feminists met in a UCLA student's Westwood living room.
Members of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, they had heard UNICEF reports of Sudanese women and girls raped when they left refugee camps to collect firewood and water. They were victims of violence that erupted in 2003 in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, between government-supported, mostly Arab militia and non-Arab black Africans. Reports suggest tens of thousands died.
In Baylee DeCastro's apartment, the students sat in a circle as they ate Red Vines and tortilla chips and shared research about Darfur. They made plans to meet twice a week.
Each invited friends, and 20 people came to the second meeting. Thirty attended the next. Soon they outgrew the living room.
In time, hundreds of students would be drawn into the movement. Along the way, they learned about organizing, the importance of timing and the art of compromise.
They also learned that, sometimes, compromise isn't an option.
"A number of students are moved by not only the moral imperative to do something, but the reality that there is something we can do," said DeCastro, 22, an international development studies major from San Francisco.
UCLA's Darfur Action Committee was born.
To understand the intricacies of the conflict, committee members consulted with faculty at the university's African Studies Center. They pored over reports from the International Crisis Group and Doctors Without Borders. They teamed up with other campus groups to sponsor an awareness week about Darfur last March, at which they showed films and had speakers talk about the conflict.
Meanwhile, nearly 400 miles away at UC San Francisco, Jason Miller, 27, also decided to take action on Darfur.
In April, on "a silly whim," he called the UC treasurer's office to find out how much the university system had invested in companies connected with Sudan. Although the number amounted to far less than 1% of UC's investments, Miller thought divesting from the firms could make a statement.
Next, he contacted the UC Student Assn. to seek others in California who were plugged into the issue. After "a monthlong chase" in phone calls and referrals, Miller said, he came upon the Darfur Action Committee.
For the next three months, Miller and fellow UC students attended regents' meetings to encourage them to divest. Together they wrote a 55-page proposal, released last October, describing the situation in Sudan and detailing a divestment strategy.
Their efforts drew in Adam Rosenthal, 26, a UC Davis student regent who shared their concern over what some aid groups and governments have called genocide.
In early November, Rosenthal presented a resolution to the UC Committee on Investments suggesting that the regents create a plan to mirror efforts by Stanford University, which five months earlier had divested from four foreign companies linked to Sudan.
But the students had only a week and a half before the Nov. 14 meeting at UCLA of the investments committee to mobilize mass support, Miller said.
Thus began a mad rush to establish press contacts and find a "big-name endorser," with calls to state and national politicians, said UCLA student Adam Sterling, 23, of Oak Park in Ventura County, who served with Miller as co-chairmen of the UC Sudan Divestment Task Force.
The day of the meeting, minutes before a 10:30 a.m. news conference, Sterling received a call: Actor Don Cheadle, whom the task force had been trying to reach, was on campus and looking for the group. Later, Cheadle joined students in a silent march around campus.
"Each time I said, 'Don Cheadle,' another 15 students would join the march," DeCastro recalled, laughing. By the time the committee convened, more than 100 students were on hand — along with Cheadle — for the 20-minute public-comment period. Others spoke by telephone from San Diego and Oakland.
Speakers read scripts that Sterling and Miller had banged out that morning.
"That was the turning point for the whole campaign," Miller said. The committee unanimously approved a resolution that called for a regent-created plan to divest from the same companies as Stanford did.
Yet, the students hoped they could get the regents to consider more companies than just those four. But roadblocks arose when the full board took on the divestment resolution.
On Jan. 18, the night before a scheduled vote in San Diego, Rosenthal presented task force leaders with an offer after talking to several regents: The regents would look into divesting from only the four companies, he said, because they did not feel comfortable going beyond that with the limited information they had on the subject.
In a room at a La Jolla motel, Miller and Sterling recalled, the task force leaders agonized over their options for more than two hours.
The co-chairmen called their fathers for advice. Should they accept the regents' less-than-palatable proposal? Or should they protest and risk losing any chance for change?
They phoned Rosenthal.
"We can't accept that offer," they said.
The students continued talking and arguing past midnight, Miller said, as Rosenthal tried to persuade them to agree. They wouldn't budge.
The next morning, they were prepared for a protest. Three buses from UC schools had arrived in San Diego for the event.
But shortly after the public-comment period, Rosenthal came to the co-chairmen with a compromise. The regents were willing to examine direct and indirect investments, as well as more companies.
"We had no idea we were actually negotiating," Miller said. "But that was actually what we were doing."
This time, the students set their own stipulations, which they demanded to see in writing before the vote, Sterling said.
The final agreement said the regents would create a formal study group, with student representation, on divestment; that group would meet at least three times before March, when the board would vote on the issue. A larger pool of divestment candidates also would be considered.
"We've all sort of found our way as we've gone along," DeCastro said of their campaign. "Everyone has just developed leaps and bounds."
The UC board reconvened at UCLA on March 16 for what the task force hoped would be the final discussion of their cause. Miller, Sterling and activists who had traveled overnight from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz spent the day bouncing from the regents' open sessions to rallies and interviews, unfazed that they were missing classes — or by looming final exams.
The ending was surprisingly swift: The divestment resolution targeted nine companies, many involved in energy and oil, that had provided financial or military support to the Sudanese government.
It passed unanimously. Some students cheered. Others wept.
Sterling and fellow activists say the resolution was just a first step. They are in talks with the MTVu network, which broadcasts to colleges, to spread their blueprint for activism nationwide, DeCastro said.
On Thursday, many of the student activists were on hand in Sacramento when the board of the California State Teachers Retirement System voted 9 to 0 to explore selling its holdings in five foreign energy companies that do business in Sudan.
CalSTRS, as it is known, is the nation's second-largest public pension fund. The board's motion called for retirement system staff to use as a model the plan adopted by the UC regents — the very plan that traces its roots to Baylee DeCastro's apartment.