How three UW organizations are harnessing the power of college student idealism to help the world’s poor.
The University of Washington is gigantic. It enrolls more than 42,000 students and employs almost 30,000 others. But that’s still miniscule compared to the billions of people struggling in the world. These students use their own UW connections to look beyond the UW, and beyond Seattle, to make a global impact.
“I think that most people are overwhelmed with the idea of doing work on a global capacity, but United Students Against Sweatshops has found a very strategic way of recognizing student power and using the tools we have as part of a huge university,” said Emily Garverick, a junior at the UW who is majoring in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts and Law, Societies, and Justice.
Garverick was co-chair of the UW chapter of USAS last year, but has been involved since her freshman year toward the end of the Sodexo campaign.
“I was initially interested in USAS because I was looking for a group on campus that was working for a good cause, where I could make a difference,” she said. “The things that made USAS stand out to me as a freshman were the sense of community in the group — everybody had a role to play and made decisions collectively rather than putting one or two people in charge — and also that everybody seemed so excited and motivated.”
With a mission to “develop leadership in students by running strategic student-labor solidarity campaigns,” while building sustainable power for working people, USAS is able to reach far beyond the UW campus.
“If one individual decides to boycott a particular clothing company, that will only get you so far,” Garverick said. “However, a small number of people who come together and leverage what they have can really make a difference… When you factor in the workers around the world who are fighting for the same issues, and all the students at universities across the country who are getting involved, we become very strong.”
USAS defines “sweatshop” broadly and considers “all struggles against the daily abuses of the global economic system to be a struggle against sweatshops.” USAS is coming off a successful campaign to get UW to cut ties with Adidas. In October, they showed their support of the six month anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladeshi and the attempt for the victims to gain compensation.
“The student-labor solidarity movement is part of a larger struggle for global justice, and we are all affected by the many forms of oppression,” Garverick said. “This means that if we want justice, we can’t just stay in our own little bubble.”
While USAS administers campaigns to instill change, Serengetee does it one shirt at a time. Launched by three college students out of a dorm room in spring 2012, Serengetee turns ordinary black and white shirts and tank tops into a clothing for a cause, with the addition of a colorful pocket.
“I find this idea to be very creative because, ironically, of its simplicity,” said James Solski, a UW senior studying supply chain management who is a new Serengetee customer. “As a business student, I also admire the founders’ entrepreneurial spirits and ability to successfully implement their strategies. I am also very touched that they would take the initiative to get such a cause underway.”
Jeff Steitz, Ryan Westberg, and Nate Holterman returned from Semester at Sea, a popular study abroad program, with a mission to “connect people to the globe through fabric while giving back to the communities that inspire their products.”
For the program, a team member travels to a country, finds a fabric to represent it, and pairs it with a cause. Five percent of the proceeds benefit causes like City of Refuge in Ashanti, Ghana to liberate children from modern-day slavery by giving them a home and education. Or the Babali Foundation, a nonprofit that helps hundreds of weavers who live in remote, under-developed villages turn textiles, crafts, and other expressions of local culture into badly needed income in Java, Indonesia.
The company is growing quickly with more than 113,000 Facebook supporters, the introduction of outerwear and shorts, and volunteer representatives on college campuses across the nation.
“My goal for the fall rep program is to really get our UW social media pages up and running, and get more involved in the UW community to see what we can do,” said senior communication student Kayla Kato, who is participating as a UW college representative and gaining experience with social media and marketing practices.
Kato and Solski both found out about Serengetee through Jimmy Tatro’s YouTube channel. Tatro is a YouTube sensation who wears Serengetee shirts in his videos and has become a sponsor.
“Its affordable price, unique idea, and eye-catching design made me purchase,” Solski said. “The fact that I personally knew Kayla made me feel more comfortable buying.”
Among many others, Serengetee contributes to five causes in Guatemala, which is the region UW Global HEED chooses to give back to as well. The acronym HEED is represented in its mission that “aims to reduce inequalities in global health, education, and economic development.” They also raise funds for Calhuitz Village in Guatemala and hold global health workshops for local Boys and Girls Clubs.
“We chose Guatemala because we heard about Calhuitz Village from our host nonprofit and perceived it as an area in need of resources,” said Mitchell Chen, junior UW student and president of UW Global HEED. “Most of our members also have an interest in nonprofit work in Latin America, and there was existing infrastructure we could utilize to send the supplies to.”
While the organization works with local communities as well, the people involved are stretching their resources to affect those less fortunate outside of the United States.
“As college students, we have access to world class resources in the form of a Global Health Department and an energized student body,” Chen said. “We really wanted to utilize those resources, especially since a little effort in the U.S. can go a long way in another country, to help those who need the resources more.”
Chen joined Global HEED’s efforts in order to be involved in something outside of his community. The University of Washington is just one place to reach past your comfort zone and instill change in all parts of the world.
“As people who live with so much, it is important to give to people who have these great ideas and push them forward in creating a better life for millions,” Chen said. “It’s also important for people to realize that the world is becoming more globalized and interconnected; knowing nothing outside of your own culture is detrimental to both yourself and the people you interact with.”