The troops convened to talk strategy at Gelman Library the Monday before they were to head home for Thanksgiving break. But the meeting of the 20 or so student activists of the GW chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops proceeded with less-than military precision.
Their major goal was clear: persuading the school’s administration to cease doing business with clothing manufacturers that use sweatshop labor. Yet, lack of manpower and organization left group members unsure of how to proceed.
I’m so pissed off that we’re the only ones here, said one sophomore woman, sparking a vibrant debate on how best to get the message of unfair and often inhumane labor practices out to others on campus. The group’s leader, Dan Calamuci, encouraged the students’ suggestions, which included bringing in a big-name speaker, hosting a national conference and launching a week of awareness-raising programming.
Then he said softly, Just keep in mind we only have $150 to spend.
Actually, GW’s anti-sweatshop group doesn’t have a penny to its name. The money Calamuci spoke of belongs to the Progressive Students Union, a leftist activist group he heads that re-established its presence on campus last year and helped establish a chapter of the national anti-sweatshop group. Because of its size and relatively short existence, the money PSU receives from the Student Association’s general fund for student group operations is a pittance compared to the thousands of dollars the SA’s Finance Committee doles out to larger and well-established organizations each year.
But the leaders of some newer activist groups like USAS said a lack of funds shouldn’t stand in the way of impassioned idealism. The real enemy is student apathy. In struggling to overcome it, these smaller organizations are defining a new generation of old-fashioned activism at GW. With few financial resources and limited University support, members of these fledgling groups are attempting to raise the social consciousness of their classmates by relying virtually on their combined will alone.
The student activists believe it can be done, but the school’s unique atmosphere poses its own set of challenges. Many GW students supplement their in-class education with government-related internships, some with an eye toward a future career. Calamuci cites his peers’ adoration for government as one factor that inhibits their activism.
It’s hard to get students to protest outside the White House when they are already set on living in the White House someday, he said.
Jessica Frohman, the junior who single-handedly established the school’s only environmental issues club earlier this year, balks at the notion that most GW students are interested in combating the world’s ills. Despite the University’s aggressive marketing claims to the contrary, she said, the activism climate at GW is virtually non-existent.
I think it’s really pathetic, Frohman said. If you’re going to be a poli-sci major, what are you going to do with that? Go work in a law office? Why not take what you know about government and voice your opinions? Try to get something done.
Frohman said that about a dozen committed members have helped her get the message out about the Free the Planet chapter on campus. This semester the group has already protested outside the Capitol building in an effort to stifle the business of tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris. They have also palm-carded outside residence halls for the national campaign, which centers on a boycott of Kraft foods, a Phillip Morris subsidiary. Like Calamuci, Frohman said her group’s greatest challenge has been appealing to the masses.
There’s a perception that to be an environmentalist, you must be some kind of tree-hugging hippie, she said. And this is a J. Crew campus.
Even if students aren’t marching on the picket line, Frohman believes most students agree with her group’s promotion of a cleaner, safer environment.
For USAS, the pre-Thanksgiving meeting led to a protest of a local GAP clothing store, which drew about 30 people. Calamuci also said the group is making headway with the administration.
We finally contacted the person in charge of the business dealings (at GW), and she said she would welcome all our information, he said. She admitted she knew nothing about the sweatshops.
Calamuci said he is hopeful for the future of activism at GW.
I read The Hatchet and it just seems like there is so much to get angry about here, he said, specifically citing a new fee for majors in the School of Media and Public Affairs and an impending University takeover of fraternity housing. It won’t be long before people find a reason to get active.