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Student activism is a staple of UNC culture

“I think that perhaps one would say that there’s a lot of great, important work that the activists are doing, but sometimes it remains a little siloed and doesn’t get out of areas that are already interested,” said Michal Osterweil , a global studies lecturer who teaches about social movements.

Osterweil said she has been on campus for a long time — going back to her career as an undergraduate — and she thinks campus activists play an important role in big issues.

“I think, historically, a lot of big movements in our country and elsewhere, student movements are one of the sparks,” she said. “There is a really important connection between college activism and larger movements.”

Some of those movements have resulted in major political and cultural changes such as the overturning of the state’s Speaker Ban Law in the 1960s and the University’s decision to divest from companies that did not support the Sullivan Principals, a set of practices that would treat South African workers fairly during apartheid.

That sense of social responsibility is still alive today — though sometimes progress with UNC’s administration takes time.

Coal divestment

Senior Jasmine Ruddy said being a student activist at UNC is a unique experience.

“Sometimes you really feel like you’re getting across to people and you are making issues relevant and something that people care about, and other times you feel like no one is listening,” she said.

Ruddy is involved in the UNC Sierra Student Coalition , which is working to push the University to divest from the coal industry.

“Divestment is one of the best places to start with the transition toward a clean energy economy, and it also brings up the important point that we, as students and as customers of our university, should have a say in what we invest in,” she said.

Ruddy said sometimes she feels like her activism is an uphill battle, but that University administrators have been, for the most part, encouraging. T he coalition proposed a working group to the Board of Trustees in their presentation in September, but the board didn’t think they had enough information to make a decision at that point.

The Sierra Student Coalition is planning a panel on energy and investments with the chancellor’s office to be held in April.

UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said in a statement that UNC has reduced coal usage during the last two years and is exploring ways to remove coal from the fuel mix as quickly as is practical.

Ruddy said she thinks the future of the working group is uncertain.

“A lot of it is going to depend, for us, on how the panel that we’re planning with the chancellor’s office turns out,” she said.

“It’s tough to know whether the board will follow through since there isn’t really a constant flow of communication and dialogue.”

South Building’s slow response

UNC’s Student Action with Workers group , or SAW, has been fighting for seven months now to get the University to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh — a five-year legally-binding agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces.

Some of the members sit on the Licensing and Labor Code Advisory Committee , which is developing recommendations on factory safety for Chancellor Carol Folt.

The members say they have been frustrated by the administration’s slow response to their pleas.

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“In that time, 12 schools have already required the Accord,” said SAW member Shannon Brien . “This is a simple step that UNC could take for workers’ safety.”

Folt said in an interview last week that she had met with students but not developed a position yet.

Moon said the administration will consider several options from the committee and is committed to improving UNC-licensed goods.

Housing activists

Senior Ping Nguyen said he has been an activist since he first set foot on UNC’s campus.

One of the causes he pushed hardest for was gender-neutral housing.

The initiative was approved by then-Chancellor Holden Thorp and the Board of Trustees last year, only to be shuttered by UNC-system Board of Governors in summer 2013.

“I am not sure what it is not like to be a student activist, because from my time at Carolina, I have always been involved with organizing,” Nguyen said. “I truly love being a student activist at UNC — there are so many issues that need our voice.”

Senior Kevin Claybren , who also worked to implement gender non-specific housing , said he was frustrated with the politics behind providing gender non-specific housing.

“The administration wants to make sure that this is what a majority of the students want,” he said. “It’s about educating the administration and the students at the same time.”

Nguyen said he thinks activism should bring lots of different students into the picture.

“I hope that I have made it easier for others’ voices to be heard or for others to gain the confidence to use their voice.”