Taking the Pledge
When I entered Stanford last fall I noticed a pattern of corporate involvement and sponsorship that disturbed me. All the athletes wore Nike gear via a lucrative contract. The owner of Gap, Inc. sat on the school's board of trustees. I met fellow students whose sole desire in life seemed to be to land a corporate job so they could get as rich and powerful as possible.
While attending the University Career Fair that October, I was amazed at what I saw. Silicon Valley employers had flocked to campus to woo the next generation of programmers, engineers, managers, and marketers. The blue-chip competitors sat in adjacent booths selling the stability of fashion, heavy industry, investment and banking. Students wandered around like children in a candy stores, oooing and aaahhhing over each employment opportunity, envisioning exactly how they would spend their starting salaries and the earnings from their bonus stock portfolios.
Representatives from the largest Wall Street firms rubbed shoulders with their counterparts from the trendiest clothing manufacturers, hawking their companys free-market success stories. As the day drew to a close, and the employers packed up their colorful brochures, toys, pencils, hats, and water bottles, the students, loaded with optimism and bags full of goodies, headed back to their dorms. Out of the corners come the shadowy shapes of the janitors, to sweep the pamphlets, trinkets, and candy wrappers from the floors and tables of the rapidly emptying room. The stark contrast of these two groups struck me, and caused me to wonder: how do our career choices affect the lives of those around us?
The Students for Informed Career Decisions, or SICD, was founded by a Stanford student named Ned Tozun, back in 1999. He had attended the Career Fair that year, in the heyday of the "dot com revolution" and, along with some fellow students, he was spurred to research some of the companies recruiting on his campus.
Weeks later, they heard that Disney would be hosting an informational session at Stanford. Just minutes before several Disney representatives were scheduled to speak at the session, they manned the doorways and distributed informational flyers about Disneys questionable labor practices. As Ned remembers it, "the room was a sea of yellow flyers - almost everyone had one." The concerned students were seeking to inform, rather than to directly confront the Disney representatives, but they ended up in a discussion before a large audience. As Ned remembers, one representative professed to "know nothing" about Disneys practices in Asia and another defended those same practices as part of the free-market system. The students found that even though they were confronting a powerful institution of American culture and commerce, people the student audience, and even the representatives listened, and were receptive to what they had to say.
After this initial success, the group did research on another group planning to visit -- the cigarette manufacturer giant Phillip Morris. Again, they made informational flyers, and prepared to educate. But this time a confrontation was not necessary. "When they heard about our efforts to raise awareness about the harmful and often heartless practices of the tobacco industry on campus," recalls one student, "the company canceling their recruiting sessions and interviews."
This time the school newspaper and the regional media noticed, and the students realized that they had something bigger on their hands. So they decided to try something more permanent. That November, Ned and company founded the SICD.
As the SICD website reads "Realizing our power as Stanford students to intimidate multi-billion dollar companies, we decided to use our influence to make a more lasting impact." The group formed an on-line resource for students that profiles recruiting corporations, and provides a means for students to research the social responsibility of a particular company. The resource now has the facts about 20 organizations, including information about joint ventures and holdings, the salary of CEOs, philanthropic work, and whether or not each company has a "non-discrimination policies that includes sexual orientation" or "sites in non-democratic nations." The SICD website also analyzes each companys labor, and environmental policies, any statements the company has made in relation to findings by non-government organizations, political donations, and other relevant information.
While the SICD actively promotes corporate responsibility, their approach is different from many other activist groups on campus. Ned sees the SICD as a "non-activist activist" organization, which he explains as seeking to both "raise awareness of issues and put pressure on companies" and at the same time recognizing that while "some activists portray corporations as fundamentally evil, corporations are made up of people, too." In this way, the group hopes to bridge the gaps between radically political students and those who may not identify as such. Their work is based on a belief that it is never too late to do social good, and acknowledges that some of the most important changes takes place within established systems.
In their efforts to start discussions about career decision-making, and to acknowledge that some decisions are much more complex than they may seem, this year the SICD decided to initiate a Stanford senior graduation pledge.
The concept of the senior graduation pledge was first developed by members of the Student Citizens for Social Responsibility in 1987 at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California as an optional part of spring graduation ceremonies. The next year, Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, took up the pledge and in 1996 the formally became the headquarters of the national pledge campaign, called the Graduation Pledge Alliance.http://www.manchester.edu/academic/programs/departments/Peace_Studies/files/gpa.htm. Since then the number of groups advocating for the Pledge has grown like wild fire. Today, the GPA estimates that up to one hundred colleges and universities have groups using the pledge, up from fifty last year.
As Ned sees it, the pledge is a two-fold tool for change. Its mere presence pledge encourages all students - even those who choose not to sign - to consider the ethics of the jobs they will choose. But, as those who sign do not restrict themselves to simply turning down job offers from, what some SICD member call, "ethically challenged companies," it also suggests that we all have the opportunity to enact change from the inside. Ned points out that, while the CEOs of companies like Disney have the power to make socially conscious internal change, they rarely will, saying, "Thats why actions like the graduation pledge are important: we need students who care about these issues to work for companies like Disney we need good people in there."
Examples of the impact of the pledge are inspiring. One account that has received wide circulation tells of a Manchester college graduate who signed the pledge and went to work for a chemical manufacturing company: When her boss was reviewing a profitable chemical weapons contract, she was able to convince him to turn it down on moral grounds. Other pledge signers have gone on to establish recycling programs at their workplaces, eliminate racist language from the corporate policy manuals, and bolster their companies conflict resolution services.
This is the first of year of the graduation pledge at Stanford. Over 30 religious, cultural, and political groups have signed on, but members of many of those groups fit the profile of one who would think twice about taking a corporate job in the first place.
The issue for Ned and the SICD appears to be about whether a school like Stanford, with its long and proud history of affiliation with powerful corporations, can be the kind of place where the Graduation Pledge is acknowledged and, at least considered, by the majority of the students.
The question on everyone's mind is: will those who sign the pledge recognize (or even remember) their vows years from now? Ned and the others at SCID are prepared for them not to. At a time when most students are tired of hearing the same repetitive social and environmental responsibility slogans, he sees the pledge as a means to send these messages home in a new way.
This first year of the Graduation Pledge at Stanford, over 300 graduating seniors or over twenty percent of the class - have signed the pledge. While this administration has not taken a formal stance on the pledge, similar pledge campaigns at other universities have garnered official support and so have become an intrinsic part of graduation ceremonies across the country.
While some campus activist groups protests, petitions, and boycotts to affect change in their school's policy, groups like the SICD seeks to maintain a more inclusive and "non-partisan" atmosphere. The approach is to build consensus between various groups on campus interested in changing university policy and/or changing student attitudes. Some groups choose to enact change through direct confrontation, and some seek to reform the environment in which confrontations take place. These are very different approaches. But in this new era of social and environmental activism, where it is essential to remain open-minded enough to recognize the humanity of everyone, I believe there is room for both.
Eric Eldon, 20, is a Sophomore at Stanford. He is spending the summer in El Salvador.