Just over a week ago, a group of students and I who are part of the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke sent a video message to Tim Cook, Apple CEO and fellow Dukie, imploring him to create a conflict-free product by the end of 2013.
The conflict I am referring to is in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the death toll has reached nearly six million Congolese, earning the violence in Congo the title of the worst conflict since WWII. Other notable titles for Congo include the "rape capital of the world" and the "worst place in the world to be a woman." The worst part? The mining of Conflict Minerals that power our beloved iPhones, iPods, and all other electronics products--gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten--are subsidizing the armed militias that commit these atrocities.
This is not a new problem, and it is finally getting the attention it deserves. Congress has called for action; Hillary Clinton has called for action; the state of California has called for action; and students at over 70 college campuses, including Duke, have called for action on behalf of electronics companies who need to commit to investing in conflict-free mines in eastern Congo to ensure the development of a legitimate mining sector in Congo -- one where the profits benefit the Congolese people instead of lining the pockets of militias who rape, kill, and enslave populations.
In conjunction with the Change.org petition by Congolese activist Delly Mawazo Sesete, we hoped the video would pique Tim Cook's attention and help build a constituency demanding change, but we never guessed that Apple would publicly acknowledge our call to action. After all, we are just a bunch of college students.
But a few days ago, I received a call on my iPhone from San Jose, Calif. It was Steve Dowling, Apple's spokesperson, telling me that had seen our video, heard our call for action, and said that Apple is very committed to going conflict-free. It's true, Apple was one of the first electronics companies to map out its entire supply chain, and it is spearheading a program to train smelters about the importance of sourcing conflict-free minerals from the Congo. However, when I asked Dowling if Tim Cook was going to get serious about producing a conflict-free product that contained conflict-free minerals from eastern Congo, he didn't have much to say except to again emphasize that Apple's commitment to social responsibility extended to the source of its raw materials.
Apple's progress and willingness to reach out to concerned consumers is highly commendable, and shows the impact that activists and students alike are having by voicing their demand for conflict-free products and a change on the ground in eastern Congo. But we are past the point of first steps -- we need a leader among the electronics industry, and we think Apple and Tim Cook can be the necessary catalyst.
It is important that students around the world continue fighting for reform in eastern Congo. At Duke, we're pressing our own administration and Board of Trustees to pass a proxy voting guideline leveraging Duke's shares in electronics companies in favor of conflict-free shareholder resolutions. We received unanimous approval to be heard by the University's Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, which makes official recommendations to the Board. Students at more than 70 campuses are doing the same, as part of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, and now is the time to keep moving forward using the momentum we have built.
What I have learned from this experience is that activism is alive and well, and that even a small group of students can get the attention of one of the most powerful CEOs on Earth. Fittingly enough, Apple's 1997 advertising campaign, entitled "Think Different," echoes the same calls for change and activism. One television commercial states:
"Here's to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
So here's to you, student activists. Continue to 'think different,' and continue to demand change, especially for the people of eastern Congo who deserve to benefit from the wealth of their country. Because people will pay attention, and you might just be able to shake something up and make Tim Cook think a little differently as well.
Stefani Jones is a junior at Duke University who leads the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke.