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Champlain's Quest for a Conflict-Free Campus

Photo by Haley Parent.

Photo by Haley Parent.

Originally posted April 7, 2016.

Dr. Valerie Esposito’s Environmental Policy & Globalization class has taken on an extensive human rights project over the past couple years. This spring semester, Champlain students are continuing these efforts, working towards an initiative to become a conflict-free campus. This initiative is a movement in colleges and universities across the world to divert from purchasing conflict minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

In the Congo, the major source of income for many towns is mining. The men, women, and children who live and work in these mining towns have been violated in many forms and made to feel that they have no value outside of the work they can produce. The land on which these people live has been deemed the “richest country on the planet” in regards to natural resources. 

Some of these natural resources are minerals, such as gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, timber, iron, tin, tungsten and coltan, used in multiple industries that are widely used in developed societies such as our own. These minerals are used most frequently in our electronics and technology: computers, cell phones, tablets, etc.

Conflict minerals bear their name due to the fact that the under-privileged people living in the Congo that mine the minerals are frequently subjected to abuse, rape, violence and exploitation, as rebel forces against the government have taken over their mining towns and violated their communities. 

In the last couple years, the awareness of violence and unfortunate death in the Congo has spread around the world, and many who are aware of these issues consider the crisis in the Congo a large-scale genocide of Congolese people who live and/or work in the mines.

As this awareness spread, students on college campuses have become more involved in the push to purchase more conflict-free electronics. Dr. Esposito decided to make education and efforts towards the Crisis in the Congo part of her curriculum for Environmental Policy & Globalization, bringing this idea to Champlain.

Cleophace Mukeba, a Congolese refugee who returned to college upon relocating to the United States met Dr. Esposito during his time as a student at Champlain. Cleophace and Dr. Esposito kept in touch as time went on, and eventually, as she pursued the project in her ENP course, Dr. Esposito knew just the person to bring in to help.

“When he returned to my class as a guest speaker about the crisis in the Congo, I knew I had to do something and engage students to change the situation,”  Dr. Esposito said. “It’s really important to empower students [and others] to feel like they can make a difference, even when the problem seems quite overwhelming.”

This semester’s class has been building on the work of classes in years past, hoping to finally get  President Don Laackman’s signature so that they may officially pledge conflict-free in electronics purchasing. Concerns have been presented in the past by administrators worried about the costs of only buying conflict-free technology, although Esposito’s class has gathered data proving that while they cannot predict price increases of certain technology, switching currently would have little cost difference to the school.

The spring semester may have only started in late January, but Dr. Esposito’s class has already made great strides in raising awareness before bringing their campaign to the president. 

In February, members of the class tabled with Cleophace to educate students on their campaign and  the local organization  Cleophace started known as the Vermont Ibutwa InitiativeIbutwa means “renaissance” in Lega, the language of the Lega tribe of the Mwenga District, South Kivu of the Congo. Cleophace’s organization helps to raise money and provide support for women and children who have been affected by the violence and rape in the Congo. 

The tabling was successful, and members of the class were able to gather upwards of 100 signatures on their petition, which they hope to fill with 200 total signatures before meeting with the president to prove that current students have a voice in this issue.

“Tabling and engaging in person seems to be the best way to approach a topic as heavy as divesting from conflict minerals,” Lily Mason, (‘18), a member of this semester’s class, said. 

In addition to tabling, Lily has been a large influence in the social media aspects of the class’s campaign to raise awareness on the pledge they want to pass.

“Since social media is free, it’s currently the cheapest way to get important messages about social and environmental justice out to large groups of people,” she said.

The class currently has two social media accounts, ChampShouldBeConflictFree on Instagram and Champlain College supports Conflict-Free on Facebook. On these accounts, students in the class have been reaching out to their college community and recording their journey as they continue the campaign.

To better manage the campaign as a whole, students in Dr. Esposito’s class divided themselves into groups, such as outreach and logistics. Lily is part of the outreach group, which has made a lot of progress through the public events they have participated in such as tabling. 

“Education is such an important intervention point that must be more closely connected to our behavioral consumption patterns as consumers,”  Lily said. “What we purchase is directly tied to the places that these goods and services come from. By giving students the information they need, such as company conflict mineral rankings, students can begin to buy and be the change they wish to see in the world.”

To students like Lily, the campaign is more than just getting signatures on a petition it’s about making people aware of a product chain: where the things we use every day come from and whose lives they affect to get here.

“I know our efforts have opened up some eyes since many students that we spoke to had no idea that their technology was dependent upon rare earth minerals. The more we keep the conversation going, the better,”  Lily said.

As for promoting a campaign like this at Champlain, many students and faculty feel it is completely in line with the college’s stance on creating “Global Citizens” as our mission statement proclaims.

“As a teaching-focused school, this project capitalizes students’ talents and passion to enable them to make significant change at the institution.  Champlain is a nimble place that allows change to happen quickly through student action,”  Dr. Esposito said. “It is our responsibility to become conflict-free.  Our actions directly impact the lives of others, and we need to be leaders for social change.”

Dr. Esposito’s  Environmental Policy and Globalization class will continue their efforts in this campaign with hopes of officially passing the pledge for Champlain College to purchase technology made by conflict-free minerals by the end of the semester. On March 31st, members of the class held a film night to educate students on some of the positive work that technology companies such as Philips are doing by investing in conflict-free mines. Keep a lookout as students will continue to table, and plan to meet with President Laackman and the staff council at Champlain very soon to gather support so they can finally pass this pledge!

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