The Third Reason to Celebrate
The community of conscience grows, learns, and stategizes
First and foremost, we should celebrate the divestment itself. Harvard’s investment in PetroChina contributed to supporting a massive genocide (400,000 dead, 10,000 more each month) by supporting the Sudanese Government. We celebrate the end of that divestment because we hope it contributes to ending the genocide.
Second, we celebrate the precedents set. Harvard University, as much as it would like to deny it, has sent a clear message that it recognizes the moral consequences of its institutional decisions. We, as students, have recognized that same principle, as well as our own responsibility to affect those decisions.
We have a third reason to celebrate divestment that is less obvious: the campaign itself, and what it represents for a growing, learning community of conscience at Harvard. On a campus where activism is as common as it is frustrating, misunderstood, and only occasionally effective, the dramatic success of the divestment campaign was no accident, and it points to what could be the emerging future of the campus activist community: targeted tactics, broad collaboration, effective public outreach, and constant, unwavering, single-minded commitment.
Most of us probably only know some part of the divestment story, gleaned in part from a Crimson article here, an e-mail or dining hall debate there. There are probably aspects that I’ve missed and more people who deserve credit, but the “Reader’s Digest” version of the undergraduate movement for divestment as I understand it is as follows:
After reading about the investment in PetroChina in this paper, two undergrads, Benjamin B. Collins ’06 and Manav K. Bhatnagar ’06, started working on a petition with Darfur Action Group (DAG), a University-wide effort. They toiled behind the scenes: figuring out who had influence over the Corporation, hand-delivering letters, making presentations to boards and committees and making the case to University President Lawrence H. Summers himself.
Then, in February, Harvard doubled their investments in PetroChina. Outraged, former Undergraduate Coucil and Black Men’s Forum Presidents Matthew W. Mahan ’05 and Brandon M. Terry ’05 wrote a letter to the Senior Class asking them to boycott the Senior Gift. When their letter received a mixed response, they convened an ad hoc group of students and came up with Senior Gift Plus (SGP), an alternate pool of money that would be contributed to the Senior Gift only if Harvard divested from PetroChina. Working with Collins, Bhatnagar, members of the Senior Gift Committee, DAG, and others, they brought their message to this page and to e-mail lists and dinning halls across campus.
Finally, in the last month, came the United Front for Divestment. Founded and led by Black Students Association (BSA) President Lawrence E. Adjah ’06 and BSA leadership in collaboration with SGP and DAG, United Front reached out to student groups to endorse and join their effort and brought them together for a silent protest outside the meeting of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. It was during this protest that the movement, represented by hundreds standing together in black in front of Loeb House last Monday, received the news of Harvard’s divestment from PetroChina.
Tomorrow night, all Darfur-related activism will come together as a reborn Darfur Action Group—blending DAG, SGP, and United Front forces—welcomes new allies and kicks off a coordinated effort with activities ranging from awareness, to fundraising, to further divestment work.
It was, and hopefully will continue to be, an impressive movement and their accomplishment is something we should celebrate. As we do, we also have to ask ourselves: what made them successful?
First, they used targeted tactics. Collins and Bhatnagar were persistent in meeting with every important insider who would listen to them. Mahan and Terry chose a tactic that guaranteed that every Senior would consider their cause. Adjah and the BSA organized a protest that sent a clear and somber message.
Second, they created a broad coalition. In hearing about the internal workings I’ve been struck by how inclusive and organic the movement was. Through its various incarnations, the community continually welcomed more people and embraced each other’s ideas. They sought out endorsements and actively advertised the diversity of their cause (see the front page of last Tuesday’s paper).
Third, they effectively made contact with the public throughout the campaign. News articles and op-eds ran continually on the movement and the debate. Coalition-building by way of outreach to student groups ensured that the members of those groups also engaged. Inboxes were flooded. Because of this PR onslaught, it’s likely that few people remained ignorant of the movement’s presence and goal.
Finally, the movement was single-minded in its goal and committed to achieving it. Petition for divestment. Boycott for divestment. Protest for divestment. Divestment from PetroChina was the goal, no matter what the tactic or the group. I even saw an e-mail from one of the primary organizers for the silent protest that firmly requested that all those involved ensure that only divestment signs were held at the protest, a far cry from progressive rallies that often result in cries for a potpourri of leftist causes.
In our current political climate progressives need to be smarter and more dedicated than ever. And, while there’s always more to do, we mustn’t forget to pause to celebrate successes and learn from them. Between now and tomorrow night when the undergraduate movement begins anew for at least the fourth time, we should do both. Hopefully, if we learn from this tremendous triumph, we’ll be celebrating a lot more often.
Andrew H. Golis ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.