Activists’ work goes beyond divestment

I would like to thank Matthew Gillum for his op-ed last Friday (“Divestment remains unproven solution,” 3/24). His piece brought attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, a humanitarian crisis that is recognized pitifully little in the media.

The content of his op-ed, however, did not accurately describe the Sudan divestment movement. Nor is it a fair criticism, I think, of activists today. Activism tends toward the “idealistic” by its very nature; activists are people who have identified a better situation than the status quo and are working as hard as they can to realize that potential. The question of how to get there is where activists differ, and it’s a matter of debate and evaluation to select one approach over another.

The goal of such criticism, however, should be to construct, not merely to cut down. Gillum’s column reads as a condemnation of divestment without an honest effort to say these activists should be engaged in some other way. I hope that this column, then, represents a first step in the direction of constructive action rather than another demoralizing critique.

In the divestment movement, there were pluses and minuses to be weighed. Divestment is an inherently destructive action: By divesting, an investor pulls money out of companies and severs ties with them. Although many of the companies in question are so large that Yale’s singular divestment action would not have significantly hurt them, there is the possibility that someone working for the company in Sudan was laid off.

On the other hand, divestment creates a lot of press that otherwise goes to Nick and Jessica. Whenever a university such as Yale divests, it gets noticed; within 24 hours of Yale’s announcement of its divestment, for example, publications in places as diverse as North Dakota and South Africa had covered it. Take that and replicate it with Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Amherst, Brown and the University of California system, and all of a sudden people are reading about the atrocities of Darfur instead of a few sick birds in Southeast Asia.

In the case of Yale, divestment was warranted whether or not anybody was pressuring the Yale Corporation to do anything about it. Yale operates on principles of ethical investment — laid out in the 1972 book “The Ethical Investor” — which mandate that Yale evaluate investments it has in situations causing “grave social injury” and divest if dialogue with the companies proves unproductive. So Yale’s choice to divest emerged out of these principles. The campus’s Darfur activists were merely holding Yale to its own standards.

Nobody in the movement believes that divestment alone will end the genocide. Most see divestment as simply one way of invigorating a response to Darfur at a time when most of the world’s governing bodies are responding sluggishly to the issue. Divestment by universities brings immediacy and legitimacy to the genocide in Darfur, which too many dismiss as a faraway issue not worthy of their concern.

If anything, Darfur activists see divestment not as an end unto itself, but rather as a call to ratchet their activism up to a higher level. In fact, not every member of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, a student group that pushed for divestment at Yale, agrees with divestment; the group’s diverse campaigns include political activism with the U.S. government and high-school outreach. So Gillum’s piece addresses a type of activist that sees divestment as a panacea — a type which simply does not exist.

And why criticize the few who are doing something about Darfur? Would it not be more productive to encourage those who aren’t active to take it on? Here’s the constructive part: I’d like to invite Gillum to attend STAND’s next meeting. In his own words, he has declared that “the Sudanese genocide must be stopped.” That’s the kind of motivation STAND needs.

Eric Bloom is a sophomore in Morse College. He is a co-president of STAND.