Campus activism doesn't look like it did in the 1960s, but it's still having an impact.
Grace Flott and Rachel Shevrin are busy college students, but they make time to work for issues they care about.
Campus activism doesn’t look like it did in the 1960s, but it’s still having an impact, and I was curious about how students today approach social engagement, what they care about and how they press for action without taking over buildings or staging huge demonstrations.
The two University of Washington students are co-chairs of the UW chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the group that led a yearlong campaign to end a university contract with Adidas.
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Last week, the UW ended the relationship, in which Adidas supplied sports apparel with the UW logo.
At issue was severance pay Adidas failed to pay to workers at a factory in Indonesia that it closed last year.
Flott, a senior whose focus is international studies and French, said she feels like part of a long tradition of student protest.
She said her interest in social justice started in high school.
“My parents took me to a lot of anti-Walmart protests,” she said.
And her college studies made her think critically about the global supply chain.
Trying to improve workplace conditions felt right. “Everyone has to work.”
She got involved with USAS as a sophomore. It was called the Student Labor Action Project then, and was trying to raise support for academic student employees, such as teaching assistants, reading and writing tutors and research assistants.
Flott said her embrace of labor rights is about much more than money.
Conditions in foreign factories are an acute and personal concern for her.
Too many workers are killed or injured on the job. She mentioned a number of deadly factory fires that could have been prevented, including one last month when 112 workers died in a garment-factory fire in Bangladesh.
Flott knows the horror of being in a burning building because it happened to her last year.
She was studying at an elite university in Paris and living in an apartment building that was cheap enough for students and immigrants.
It was also unsafe.
When a fire broke out there, she said there were no easy routes out of the building, and no fire extinguishers.
Five people died and dozens were injured. Flott was seriously injured and endured a long recovery.
If the owners had shown a basic concern for their tenants, the deaths might have been avoided, she said.
Shevrin is a sophomore, who joined USAS last year.
She likes that the group “gets stuff done.” That takes work and sound practices.
A few members meet each Monday to plan for the weekly Tuesday meeting.
During the week there are actions of one sort or another, which require leaders to call and email to get out members and supporters. They also meet with other groups to build coalitions on specific issues. That’s a necessity because there are only 15 core USAS members.
Campaigns against sweatshop conditions resonate with lots of students, they said, because the issues are more than labor issues.
The workers tend to be women and people of color so the campaigns have meaning for people who care about issues of class, race or gender.
This quarter USAS has been taking students to Costco headquarters in Issaquah to support workers from the Milwaukee company that supplies frozen pizzas to Costco. The workers want the company, Palermo’s Pizza, to recognize their union.
Shevrin said that by being involved, she’s learned skills that will be useful to her later in life, like how to handle the media, how to talk to people, how to deal with authority figures. “Last year, after my freshman year was done, I felt I’d learned so much more from USAS than from my classes,” she said.
Shevrin sees working for fairness as an important part of life. “Growing up we talked a lot about ethics, repairing the world,” she said. In Jewish tradition it’s called Tikkun Olam, and suggests each person has a responsibility to make the world better.
And Flott said she has learned that if you care, you can get other people to care, and that together it is possible to make the change you want to see.
That is a powerful lesson for any student.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jerrylarge.