How California Teachers Beat the Gun Companies

06/23/2015 04:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The recent success of the California Federation of Teachers' (CFT) battle to remove investment in guns and pro-guns organizations from their retirement fund is a major victory. In the years since the ultimately successful divestment campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, the tactic of using one's money to change the world has been repeatedly second-guessed, called ineffective and generally dismissed. Yet divestment campaigns continue, on fossil fuels, on guns, and on other issues, for a reason: They work.

In the real world, where progress on tough issues is measured in millimeters, California teachers taking a stand and forcing their pension fund to divest millions from gun holdings was a practical and moral win that matters.

The campaign to divest began two years ago, when the country was jolted out of complacency by the horror of the Newtown school shooting. New groups formed, legislation was introduced in Congress and a pivotal moment in gun legislation was at hand. California teachers voted to have their pension fund, known as CalSTRS, divest from companies manufacturing firearms illegal for sale in California. The vote took place in April 2013, but two years later, the pension fund still held stock in Cerberus, which owns Freedom Group -- maker of the Bushmaster rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre. CalSTRS said it was complicated and that they were working on divestment, but no one saw any movement. Cerberus claimed they were trying to sell Freedom Group, but despite protests from coalitions like Campaign to Unload, which includes the American Federation of Teachers, there was no evidence that they were truly making an effort.

"Our teachers took a stand, put their money where their mouths are and told the world that the violence in this country must end and that we are all responsible for making that happen," said CFT President Joshua Pechthalt. "We were truly amazed that those who supposedly worked for us and managed our money did not do everything they could to support us in our work."

By fall of 2014, it had become abundantly clear that progress would be made only if those who care deeply about gun-violence prevention gave CalSTRS no choice but to act.

The renewed campaign officially kicked into full gear in spring 2015 at the CFT's annual convention in Los Angeles, but planning for it began much earlier, with a new partnership between the teachers and our team here at Brave New Films. Together, we planned and delivered a hard-hitting short film featuring teachers who had been touched by gun violence in their lives or through the lives of their students. The film became a rallying point for teachers to speak out on social media, make phone calls and eventually launch simultaneous public protests in Sacramento, at the CalSTRS campus during a board meeting, and in Los Angeles, at the Cerberus Group's Southern California office.

In Sacramento, teachers screened the film outside the meeting and staged a "teach-in" to educate the board about the toll of gun violence on the lives of Californians. In L.A., my Brave New Films team and I joined angry teachers and other advocates in a similar teach-in and delivered thousands of petition signatures to Cerberus calling for the group to follow through on public promise and to sell Freedom Group.

And then in mid-May, Cerberus announced plans to let investors in their funds divest themselves specifically from Freedom Group.

The lessons here are no surprise to anyone who has organized and fought for change.

The voices of ordinary people matter. In this case, the teachers' voices mattered not only because they were the actual investors in the pension fund but because they had moral authority on the issue. They had felt the anguish of gun violence survivors and victims, and they were taking a stand for selfless reasons.

Press coverage matters. The Internet is a powerful tool for organizing without which they would not have had this success. People saw the film online, got angry and were moved to take action. And this action led to press coverage, which took the campaign to another level. When people in power see a story told in the media, it takes on a new reality and a sense of urgency. They know for sure that someone is watching what they do.

Finally, successes take time. With all the competing demands in our lives, from activism to family obligations, it's easy to think that one can send a tweet or an email or make a single phone call and his or her part will have been done. That never happens. Victory is always the result of sustained effort and constant pressure. Hang in there; it is worth it. But don't be overly patient -- know when it's time to ramp up the pressure.

The next steps in the gun divestment movement include ensuring that there are no firearm companies in the University of California's endowment. Gun-violence-prevention activists are also working to spread the word about how everyone with a retirement account can take a stand for peace and safety by unloading their 401k.

No matter what amount of money is in one's retirement fund, divesting from gun companies makes a difference. Divestment is a financial tactic, and the pain is felt at the bottom line, but it is also very much a matter of changing the world through social norms. Today's children not only know that smoking is bad for you but also are disgusted by the very idea of taking it up. That took one person at a time changing what they did and what they said. If we work at it, those children can grow up in a world free of random violence and with a political system that does not bend to the will of the loudest, richest voices -- like the gun manufacturers and their lobbyists, the National Rifle Association.

We've all seen the Margaret Mead quotation that half the people we know use in their email signature -- you know, the one about how a few committed people are the only way to make real change. Sure, it may be overused, but that sure doesn't make it any less true.