A Personal Message to PA State System University Students Graduating Today

In a letter to the editor published in the Reading Eagle on Wednesday, Kutztown student and president-elect of the Student Government Board, Nick Imbesi, made the following appeal:

The negative media coverage of Kutztown University must end.

The media day in and day out are slandering the school’s name and ignoring the world-changing accomplishments coming out of the institution.

As student body president-elect, I see every day the accomplishments coming from my fellow students. I see dreams being followed, I see opportunity being created.

When will that be front-page news?

Kutztown University is a state-of-the-art institution for higher education, which allows for students such as me to excel and become community leaders.

I welcome people to our campus to see first-hand the outstanding work being done by Kutztown students.

Kutztown students (are) the future of this nation, and they are working hard to fulfill America’s economic needs.

Imbesi’s appeal comes just three days before Kutztown – and 12 of the 13 other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities – will celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2013 during commencement ceremonies. No doubt that the recent controversy over Kutztown’s decision to change its policy and allow guns on campus – a controversy that began right here when I published the first story on the change in Kutztown’s policy.

I know Nick. I have taught at Kutztown University for eleven years now. Nick Imbesi is one of those students that you know is destined to have an impact. Not just get a good job or be “successful” in the ways we think of success these days. When I mean an impact, I mean Nick is one of those students who has decided to stand up and defend public education against PA Governor Tom Corbett’s deep cuts. Nick and I have stood side-by-side on the same podium and rode the same buses to Harrsiburg to protest Corbett’s cuts. I will never forget his words echoing off the walls of Old Main on Kutztown’s campus and the Capitol building in Harrisburg back in the spring of 2011: “The future of Pennsylvania is standing right here!”

Nick’s frustration with the “negative” media coverage of Kutztown and other PASSHE universities is understandable. As the public – and students, faculty and staff – learn that administrations have been quietly opening up their campuses to guns behind the backs of those very people who work and study at the universities, some people may be concerned that such coverage may eclipse the amazing work that goes on at these universities. Such concerns are only heightened when we approach commencement ceremonies for the class of 2013.

I want to share a slightly different perspective with the class of 2013 and the university community that will remain long after this year’s graduates have left our campuses. If we care to make good on the promise of democracy, of our responsibility as American citizens, we must always be willing to speak truth to power; to demand fairness, transparency, and justice; to not turn our heads and walk away when we witness wrong-doing, lies, and cruelty; to insist that our leaders’ words and those of our own be spoken honestly and are followed up with good faith efforts turn those words into deeds; to never accept “good enough” when we know it’s possible to do better; and, to never, ever, enslave ourselves with the words, “there is nothing we can do, there is no alternative.”

Critique, protest, dissent, refusal, outrage, and resistance fueled by the promise of a deeper democracy, a fairer economy, and a more perfect union have been the engines for progress. And here I don’t simply mean progress in terms of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I mean progress in the sense of becoming more human – at least a notion of human that accepts that we are more than base instincts and a desire to conquer everyone else around us as some would like us to believe.

In the 1880s when employers could legally force employees to work 16 or 18 hour shifts, workers joined together and successfully fought for the 8 hour day under the slogan, “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will!” Women, refusing to accept their roles as second class citizens, joined together and gained the right to vote in 1920. African-Americans fought long and hard to gain full citizenship rights in the face of brutal violence. And today we see gay and lesbian Americans struggling to achieve full equality in marriage. These are some of the big examples, but there are thousands more that happen in every community across this country and world.

What tends to be forgotten about these historic struggles and those that are going on right now is that it took years and decades to win. None of them would have achieved a thing if they gave up when they lost their first argument.

But perhaps even more important is that we forget that these struggles were not fought out in only in abstract ideas, or even in the halls of Congress. They were fought out in specific communities, at people’s places of work, in their churches, and on the streets. Struggles at the local level are uncomfortable. It is one thing, for example, to make an abstract argument for the right for gay and lesbian couples to be able to marry; it is quite another for a gay or lesbian couple to walk into their County Clerk’s Office and demand a wedding license.  It is one thing to complain that nothing is made in America anymore; it is quite another for a family to make a decision to buy only Made in the U.S.A. products. It is one thing to argue about what the mission of a college or university should be; it is quite another to demand that your college or university live up to that mission today.

The week before I started writing about Kutztown University’s new gun policy, I was working on a very different kind of story about the university. And it is part of that story that I want to share with you today.

On my drive home from work on May 1 of this year, I heard a story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about the emergence of for-profit “social monitoring companies” over the past two decades. The story, “Factory Audits and Safety Don’t Always Go Hand in Hand,” exposed the ways in which multinational corporations such as Wal-Mart and the Gap hire these firms to “audit” factories that make their clothes at locations around the world in order to “protect their brand” – that is, to assure their customers that the shirt they are about to buy was not made in a sweatshop. However, in most cases these “audits” are audits in name only. The reporter called out these for-profit monitoring companies by name and showed how little auditing these companies actually do. The story ran in the wake of the fire at a factory in Bangledesh that killed more than 400 workers, making it one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history.

Early in the story, there’s a short clip from Scott Nova from an organization called the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). But, if you didn’t know anything about the WRC, you would most likely think it was one of the for-profit, monitoring companies that the story exposes as frauds. That irritated me. Anyone who has been involved with campus activism or labor activism since the mid-1990s, is likely familiar with the amazing work done by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to bring attention to the issue of sweatshop labor by pressuring their college or university administrations to require any company wishing to use their logos certify that their clothing is not made in sweatshop conditions. USAS was instrumental in getting over 175 colleges and universities to sign on to the WRC to do the monitoring of the factories that produced the clothing. That is important because the WRC is independent of the manufactures and actually works closely with local organizations and workers rights groups in the countries in which the clothing is made.

tumblr_mbwu8h2xH91rj0ukko1_500My experience with USAS began when I was a graduate student at Miami University (OH) – now a WRC affiliate. It wasn’t until I began teaching at Kutztown University in 2002 that I became involved with a USAS campaign from the ground up. I was the faculty advisor for a student group called the Campus Greens which was founded by former Kutztown student, Nate Banditelli, in the fall of 2002. Nate’s group grew quickly and by the spring of that academic year, the group was running several petition drives, holding regular meetings, and bringing in speakers. In the fall of 2003, the group brought Dan Calamuci to campus to speak about workers rights and sweatshops. Dan was a former student of mine at The George Washington University and was working at the National Labor Committee [ now the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights] in 2003. Following his talk, three students, Amy Robinson, Miranda Resnick, and Shannon McDonough became very interested in starting a Kutztown Chapter of USAS: KUSAS. They asked me to be their advisor.

In the weeks and months that followed, Amy, Miranda and Shannon dove into the research. They were determined to get Kutztown University to join the WRC. As their faculty advisor and as someone who was familiar with USAS, I was able to answer some of their questions and direct them to some resources as needed. The heavy-lifting was all theirs.

In spring 2004, the students arranged a meeting with then Vice President of Administration and Finance, James Sutherland, and then Vice President of Student Services and Campus Life, Chick Woodard – the two officials responsible for university apparel and licensing. The day of the meeting, each student showed up with a two or three inch binder filled with supporting documents. As I recall, they decided to split the research into three areas and they would each be responsible for answering questions in their area.

The meeting lasted maybe 30-45 minutes if I recall correctly. Sutherland and Woodard asked fairly pointed and specific questions ranging from the cost of joining the WRC to the licensing requirements. For each question, Amy, Miranda and Shannon had answers. About half-way through the meeting, Sutherland announces that the proposal to join the WRC came at the perfect time. As it turned out, Kutztown did not require a licensing agreement for the use of their logo on apparel, but they were right in the middle of doing so for the first time in the university’s history. Both Sutherland and Woodard then said that the students were impressive and that the university would be not just willing, but was enthusiastic about joining the WRC. I think it would be fair to say that all of us were a bit shocked, especially given that many USAS campaigns were not successful until students occupied administration buildings and held campus-wide protests.

So, there is was. Kutztown University would become a member of the WRC. Clothing bearing the Kutztown University name or logo, would not be made by women who were subjected to forced sterilization or by eight-year-old children. Kutztown would join the ranks of universities like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Miami University (OH), Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania.

After hearing that NPR story, I was curious if Kutztown was still a member of the WRC. Amy, Miranda, and Shannon have long moved on and, as is often the case in student organizing, there was not another student willing to keep the KUSAS going. Wouldn’t you know it. After 10 years, Kutztown remains a member of the WRC! And, Kutztown remains the only PASSHE university to be a WRC affiliate. I still hear from Amy, Miranda, Nate, and Shannon on occasion. Given the horror of the garment factory disasters in Pakistan and Bangladesh this past year and the fact that we are coming up on the ten-year anniversary of Kutztown signing on to the WRC, I thought I would get back in touch. My idea was to ask each of them to reflect back to that first year and to talk about what they think about what they did. My goal was…and still is…to compile their stories and some artifacts from that year and publish them as part of the anniversary.

Then, Kutztown instituted a new gun policy that virtually no one knew about outside of a small circle of administrators and lawyers. That became my focus for the past week.

After reading Nick Imbesi’s short letter to the editor, however, I thought it might be worth while to share this incredible accomplishment by a handful of motivated Kutztown students who didn’t just believe they could have an impact; they set to work and did it. Given that commencement ceremonies are supposed to focus on students, I want to close by sharing the words of Amy Robinson, one of the students that founded USAS at Kutztown:

May 9, 2013

Hey Kevin,

I just woke up and turned on the Today show.  They reported yet another deadly fire in a Bangladesh garment factory and it reminded me that you had asked the “KUSAS originals” to write a little bit about our work and why we did it.

I don’t think that anything I’m about to say is going to be profound in any way.  But I do think the fact that we as a group, took the time to think about the issue as young 20-somethings is pretty profound.  It was (and still is) so easy to listen to the news, hear the stories, see the bodies etc…and then move on with the rest of our day.  We aren’t faced with those same hardships or struggles, living in the US.  Those workers are after a better life and we dangle this carrot in front of them, really– so they can support our American lifestyle.  They go to work making our over-priced clothes and deal with conditions we would never tolerate.  It’s their basic human right to have the opportunity to make a living and support their families.  The difference is that their lowest standard of living is unimaginable to us in this country.  We are so quick to complain about the “rich getting richer” meanwhile, my $30,000 a year would make a garment worker more than happy.

The reason we felt compelled to start KUSAS and work toward joining the WRC was really simple Kevin: it was just the right thing to do.  We knew we couldn’t change the entire world but we could change our part of it.  The idea that human beings could treat other human beings so poorly was incomprehensible.  We have evolved beyond that and we, as human beings, know better.

It’s so daunting to think about what needs to change in order for there to be peace and comfort and safety–all the things we value in this country for ourselves—but unless it’s right in front of us, we aren’t concerned with who sacrificed what so that we could get those $150 boots.  And Kevin, I’m not totally innocent as I write this!  Seriously, I would have heard that story, felt a bit of sadness for the 60 seconds it was on and then moved on to my green tea and computer screen without giving it much of a thought as to how the running shoes I’m about to put on were probably made in similar conditions.  But in 2004, I wasn’t so concerned with making my own living, getting to work on time, having enough money to pay bills or buy the latest–whatever.  In 2004, I had the luxury of time to THINK.  We keep ourselves so busy… maybe so we can’t think…

Anyways, I feel like I’m rambling a little now.  I just wanted to reflect and hopefully provided you with something….OH!  Ha!  One more thing—(which I think is kind of sad but motivating at the same time)…I’ve gone on from KUSAS to live in the woods and help set some “at-risk” kids straight—I traveled all over southeast Asia and lived in South Korea—came back to Pittsburgh to build relationships with kids who were beyond “at-risk”, aggressive and violent towards me and somehow, I still managed to feel like I helped a few of them, I just earned my masters degree—and when I’m in a job interview, and someone asks me to describe my greatest accomplishment, I still feel like saying it was getting Kutztown to join the WRC!!  We did something purely altruistic and helped people we will never meet.  We may never really fully understand the impact that our work had on someone’s life but we did it because we knew that it was the only way any of us would be proud to wear that KU hoodie.

Amy

There is outstanding work being done by Kutztown students and by students at all of the PASSHE universities. Reading Amy’s words brings tears to my eyes and makes my heart expand just a little bit more. Amy and the other students founded KUSAS and sought to get Kutztown to join the WRC because “it was the right thing to do.” Kutztown students made a lasting impact on their university. And, while they got lucky and found a receptive administration, they were fully prepared to wage a sustained campaign in the public even if that brought bad press to the university. They wanted their university to be better than it was. They refused to say “there is nothing we can do, there is no alternative.” They didn’t get mired down in cynicism.  They were determined to do more than talk about how sweatshops were bad, they wanted to find a way they could have an impact on the issue in their immediate surroundings.

And they did it because it was the right thing to do and they wanted to be proud to wear that KU hoodie.

 

 

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