Coalition for Responsible Investment: students promote social advocacy for human rights

February 26, 2015

UVM has begun to view student advocacy for social and environmental causes as a natural avenue for cultivating a deeper sense of civic and social responsibility and a skill in constructive advocacy that complements institutional values and supports our mission which includes preparing our students to lead creative, productive and responsible lives.

Social Advocacy
Students at UVM have formed the UVM Coalition for Responsible Investment to promote social advocacy for human rights and to provide a vehicle for students to make their concerns known to the campus community and to the administration. Recently, the Coalition took up the issue of sweatshop labor and did research on the development of an appropriate code of conduct for apparel manufacturers that are licensed by the university to utilize UVM trademarks. In April they launched a campaign to make UVM “”sweatshop free.”” In doing this, they first followed a fairly traditional course of holding a press conference on the steps of the administration building and circulating petitions calling for the administration to adopt a strict code of conduct and establish its own monitoring process for ensuring compliance among its licensees. In their initial communication they presented their work as a long-term campaign that would require “”long term commitments, discipline and focus.”” They expressed the hope that protests, demonstrations and sit-ins would not be necessary to get the attention of the administration and to promote their cause.

Choosing to use this naturally developing interest as a means to promote a more comprehensive approach to advocacy, members of the student affairs staff met with the leadership of the Coalition to discuss the practical and ethical dilemmas posed by the issue of “”sweatshop labor.”” The staff also worked with the Student Government Association to open up opportunities for a broader discussion of the issues as well as an exploration of ethically sound strategies that would be appropriate for an institution like UVM with its values of respect, integrity, innovation, openness, justice and responsibility.

UVM s involvement with licensing agreements is somewhat different from those of the larger and more nationally prominent members of the newly-formed Fair Labor Association and the recently established coalition working with PriceWaterhouseCoopers to design a monitoring system that would be more clearly independent of influence by apparel manufacturers. UVM enters into contracts with over 150 firms, including many small Vermont-based firms, to produce a range of items with UVM trademarks and logos. The total revenue from these licenses is approximately $50,000. At this scale, the package originally advocated by the Coalition—which called for a very strict code of conduct including the requirement that manufacturers pay a “”living wage”” and for UVM to establish and operate its own compliance reviews—was clearly not feasible. After much discussion, the students amended their request of the administration to propose that an advisory task force of students faculty and staff be formed to discuss how the university could best address labor and human rights issues and to gather evidence needed to make a rational and well-thought-out decision. This group has now been formed and has begun to explore our options.

The lessons to be learned from this experience as well as the environmental advocacy of CEL is that it is possible to leverage the genuine interest and concern of students about issues of human rights or the environment or other social issues to create an opportunity to introduce new approaches to constructive and effective action within our current organizations and public systems. Drawing on the concepts of problem-based learning and experiential learning, a meaningful engagement with student concerns can create a wonderful avenue for promoting civic responsibility and for involving students in constructive institutional change.

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University of Vermont - VT, Vermont
President: Judith Ramaley
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