Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College, or HTC, last week became the first public college in the United States to publish a conflict-free statement. The HTC acknowledged its indirect link to human rights abuses in the Congo, called on electronics companies to clean up their supply chains so they do not include conflict minerals in their products, and promised to consider further action.
I started OU’s conflict-free campus campaign in the fall after taking an anthropology class that focused on the way globalized consumption patterns affect communities in the Global South. I knew a little bit about the war in the Congo, so I decided to research conflict minerals for an assignment. When I realized how connected I, as a consumer, was to the violence in the Congo, I felt guilty. But I realized that the connection also empowers consumers to make a difference. I made a personal pledge to buy conflict-free products once they became available, and then started looking for ways to make a bigger impact.
Eight months into a dynamic campaign to get Ohio University as a whole to pass a statement like the HTC’s, I began to doubt that a huge public university like OU could be convinced to enact a conflict-free policy because of the persistent push-back we were receiving from the administration. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy at the university and state level consistently frustrated our best efforts, even when we found administrators who genuinely wanted to help. Building an organized, mobilized movement of students, faculty members and others in the OU community turned out to be the easy part. A lot of people hadn’t realized that the products we all use every day are so connected to human rights violations in the Congo. But when we told them what was going on, many people responded with an impulse to help. For a lot of students, I think the personal connection makes this issue stand out.
However, the fact that the university was so entangled with state politics and hampered by its internal bureaucracy – especially on the issue of procurement policy – underscored the point that if we succeeded, the impact could be huge.
Due to the resistance we have met in our campaign to make OU conflict-free, we had the idea to try going conflict-free college by college within OU. Since some members from our STAND group, Bobcats for a Conflict-free Campus, are enrolled in HTC, we approached HTC Dean Jeremy Webster about our idea. He listened carefully, asked a few questions, and pledged his support for the initiative. Two weeks later, the statement was up on the website. Until the Security and Exchange Commission releases rules and regulations for companies who use minerals from Congo, and furthermore, until there is an international certification process in place, the statement in largely symbolic. However, it sends a powerful message to electronics companies and decision makers that there is a growing demand for conflict-free products.
We learned some important lessons from the dean’s willingness to help. First, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The HTC is small, and the dean is very concerned with helping each of his students enjoy “the best student-centered learning experience in America,” in accordance with OU’s new motto. He takes student concerns seriously, and is able to act on them because he enjoys a degree of autonomy within his own college.
Second, we found that bureaucracy is like a brick wall; you cannot stand in front of it and demand that it turn purple. Instead, you must paint it brick by brick. Members of our STAND chapter are now approaching the deans of their respective colleges. Next on our agenda are the Scripps School of Journalism and the College of Business. With any luck, soon we will have painted each brick purple, and by that time the wall might as well acknowledge that it is purple too.
A conflict-free statement from the university can only help OU. The ongoing violence in Congo perpetuated by the illicit conflict minerals trade has claimed over 6 million lives. It demands an unequivocal statement by the university to do everything in its power to ensure our purchases aren’t part of the problem. In addition, the positive publicity that a conflict-free policy will generate can attract engaged, intelligent students. This initiative could also win over potential donors at a time when public schools are in need of funding.
Our hope is that increased student and community activism will pressure the OU administration to make a statement in support of conflict-free products. To raise awareness and generate support, we send out press releases whenever we can and host events, like our recent screening of "The Greatest Silence," and our information session with Project Congo founder Sylvia Gleason.
One project that has been effective is our 1,100 Faces Campaign. We started the campaign when we saw the report that 1,100 women and girls are raped every day in eastern Congo. That number should not be just a statistic—we wanted to emphasize the human element. So we started collecting photographs of students, parents, faculty, staff and community members holding signs saying they want to see a conflict-free campus. We have almost 900 photos so far, and it’s inspiring to look through the album and see all those people engaging in solidarity with the people of Congo.
When we finish, we hope to set the pictures to a song by Congolese spoken word artist Omékongo Dibinga and upload the video to YouTube. We’ll play it at our future events and of course make sure that key administrators get a copy.
In the meantime, help us celebrate the fact that public colleges can—and now do—show support for conflict-free!
Are you interested in making your university or high school conflict-free? Contact Alex Hellmuth at ahellmuth[at]enoughproject.org or visit the Raise Hope for Congo website to learn more about the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative.
Ellen Hamrick is a sophomore at Ohio University.