A panorama looking over idyllic Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where California college student Katie Hoselton led a groundbreaking campaign to address the problem of “conflict minerals” and support peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Image: Wikimedia)

From GPA to the DRC

How I changed the way my college does business to help stop violence in Congo

By Katie Hoselton

This article chronicles my effort to make my school “conflict-free”. To date, 23 schools have committed to support peace in Congo by favoring companies that are working to create products that contain minerals that benefit, rather than harm Congolese communities. To learn more about how you can bring this movement to your school, community, city, or state, visit ConflictFreeCampus.org

Finding a thesis

I want to tell you about a project of mine that started very small, but grew into something larger and more far-reaching than I ever imagined.

It began when I needed to pick a topic for my college senior thesis. Situated perfectly between the mountains and the ocean, my university is the epitome of a California school. With temperatures in the 70s almost every day of the year, Cal Poly is a sun-lover’s paradise. If you walk around campus on any given day, you’ll find students throwing frisbees on lawns, cruising on bikes, soaking up the sunshine by the school’s swimming pool, or reading a book in the shade of a tree. You’ll hear the chirp of birds, the click clack of cowboy boots of agriculture students, and the soothing tolls of the clock tower bell reminding students to get to class. Oprah Winfrey called San Luis Obispo the “happiest city in America,” and you’d be hard pressed to find a Cal Poly student who would disagree.

Few Cal Poly students could locate Congo on a map, according to Katie Hoselton. Undaunted, she embarked on a project to change the way her college made purchasing decisions on electronics that might contain minerals sourced from mines controlled by violent armed groups. (Image: Wikimedia)

The Democratic Republic of Congo is probably the farthest place you could possibly get from the idylls of Cal Poly. Not surprisingly, Congo is not a hot topic of conversation there. Few Cal Poly students could locate Congo on a map, and most would guess that “DRC” (the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo) refers to the campus Disability Resource Center.

Like most college seniors facing a thesis assignment, I dreaded embarking on this lengthy and infamous graduation requirement. Honestly, my mind at the time was more consumed with the cute guy in my foreign policy class than anything particularly academic. I remember being scrunched in front of a computer screen on the stuffy 4th floor of the library, scrolling through websites and articles for hours, in hope of finding the perfect topic. I knew I would need to put in a lot of hours on this project, so I wanted it to be a subject that could hold my interest, and maybe spark some passion for this task.

Then I remembered a subject I had dabbled in a few years prior. It had grabbed my attention before, so I started digging in.

I had no idea how deep I was about to get.

I had learned a little bit about the Democratic Republic of Congo while doing research back in high school. Congo is a country that is naturally abundant in metals, lumber, and minerals, but has been plagued by civil war, foreign invasion, and regional instability. There is currently a brutal conflict raging in Congo, which has claimed over 5 million lives. Congo consistently ranks amongst the lowest countries on the UN Human Development Index and, due largely to the devastating rape statistics reported, it has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.

Artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Minerals like tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold from eastern Congo wind up in a wide range of electronic products, from cellphones to laptops (Image: Sasha Lezhnev / Enough Project)

The conflict has been largely fueled by the illicit mining and trade of “conflict minerals,” minerals which are essential components in nearly every electronic product on the market. Armed groups seize control of mining areas, and the money they make from the sale of minerals is used to purchase more weapons and ammunition, which in turn are used to terrorize communities and propagate the violence.

The more I learned about Congo, the harder I found it was to concentrate on anything else, knowing that such a conflict is currently plaguing a part of the world. No matter what I read about or studied in my classes, my mind kept coming back to Congo. I snatched the opportunity to invest a good portion of my time on a topic and made Congo my senior thesis. I started researching, reading everything I could about the conflict and the region. I lived, ate, and breathed Congo.

The thing about Congo that I couldn’t seem to get past was my own role in enabling the violence there as a consumer of the electronic products that these conflict minerals end up in. Hearing about conflicts and wars in other countries I often feel overwhelmed, that it would be nearly impossible for me, as just one young student in America, to make any real, positive difference.

But then it hit me. I realized that I actually could do something meaningful, because my daily life as a student at Cal Poly had a direct impact on the lives of people in Congo. Every day that I was using my phone and laptop and the school’s computers, I was part of chain that connected directly to war and suffering. The same was true for all of my fellow students. We were all part of the conflict minerals problem. I wondered, maybe there was a way we could change that. Maybe, instead, Cal Poly could be part of a solution.

Finding a cause

My initial interest in Congo began in high school when I decided to join the End World Wide Genocide club at the club rush event. I remember going around the school quad looking at all the colorful displays, studying intently what each club had to offer. I was drawn by the EWWG club, which sought to raise awareness of a current genocide in another part of Africa. I had heard about Darfur before as I remembered reading about the conflict in an article in the LA Times, which I glanced over each morning during breakfast.

As I ate my Eggo waffles that fateful morning, my world seemed to stop when I read that innocent people were being brutally murdered and forced out of their homes simply because they belonged to a particular ethnic group. Suddenly, it felt so wrong that I could be enjoying my breakfast while kids just like me were being displaced from their homes and had no food to eat at all. I remember feeling shocked and confused that such large-scale violence could be occurring in another part of the world, without me or my classmates even knowing about it. My appetite disappeared and my waffles were no longer appealing. I wanted to learn more about Darfur, and to better understand how something like this could happen, so I decided to join the club. I eventually became the club president, spurring my passion in social justice and building the confidence I needed to know that I could make a difference if I set my mind to it.

I learned some more about Congo through the NGO Jewish World Watch, where I interned for in my second year of college. During one phone call, my supervisor shared with me the story of a young woman named Yafanshize, who lives in the village of Massisi in Congo.

Yafanshize was 17 years old when she was brutally gang raped by six soldiers, while she and her husband were trying to flee from war. Yafanshize was 8 months pregnant, and lost her child due to the trauma of the assault. At the time I heard her story, Yafanshize was awaiting the last of 6 surgeries as part of her recovery process, but the physical and psychological damage she sustained is to a large degree irreversible. I was almost exactly the same age as her at the time, and I could not imagine going through the things she had survived in her life.

Sitting in my little cubicle in the library, reflecting now on my senior thesis, her story came back to me full force, and I suddenly made the connection. As a college student, I had a way to help, a very specific way to give a voice to Congolese women like Yafanshize who were suffering from a conflict that was in some part effected by my actions.

Sometimes, as it turns out, being naïve is exactly what allows you to achieve the seemingly impossible. Feeling excited and inspired, I started with a probably over-ambitious desire — to outright change my school’s electronics procurement policy to favor companies that are working to make their products conflict-free using minerals from Congo.

Picking a place to begin was absolutely the hardest part. And here’s some advice: it doesn’t really matter how you start, just that you do.

I’ll admit, at the beginning, I kind of floundered. I began to talk to professors about what it would take for me to change Cal Poly’s policy for purchasing electronic products. I wanted to pass a resolution at the administrative level, but I had no idea who I needed to talk to, or what I needed to do to accomplish this! For a few months, I felt I was running in circles, as each professor I talked to seemed to refer me to someone else, someone who they thought would be more helpful. I was spending all of my time meeting with seemingly encouraging people, who would smile at me, commend me for taking on this (outrageous) project, and after a while usher me out the door with a “good luck.”

There were serious low points, quite a few, when I came close to throwing in the towel. With the exception of my academic advisor who motivated me to persevere, it seemed no faculty member believed that the project I proposed was anywhere near reality. One day, I met with a political science professor who sat on my university’s Academic Senate. I will never forget the musty smell of his office, the sound of the ancient pleather that crinkled each time I shifted in my seat. And the silence that followed my speech. The professor stared at his feet for what felt like forever. Then he explained: no student had ever attended a Senate meeting, he doubted it was even possible. I felt like someone had just deflated an air mattress right under me.

This defeat made me realize that no one was going to listen to me if I stood alone. If I was going to enact tangible change, I needed the support of others. I decided to raise awareness about my cause around campus, so I started looking for other groups who were interested in Congo. This was a major turning point, because that was the moment when I discovered I wasn’t all alone. Searching the Internet, I found a group called the Enough Project that was already working to raise awareness about the issue on other colleges. Their affiliated program, the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, exists to help students like me encourage their campuses to become conflict-free. I had found the support I was looking for.

Finding a movement

I remember speaking on the phone with Annie Callaway at the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) when I was first thinking about taking on this project. Annie, who runs the international program for the Enough Project, informed me that there were other students throughout the country who also care about Congo, and who had already succeeded in making their campuses conflict-free. In the weeks and months that followed, she gave me tons of helpful information about Congo and conflict minerals, suggestions based on steps others had taken on their campuses, and constant support over the phone and email. Many times, Annie reassured me that I was not alone in this endeavor, and encouraged me to persevere when I felt like giving up. Through CFCI, I was able to read testimonies of other students like me who had succeeded in making their campuses conflict-free. For the first time, I felt I was a part of an extremely powerful and important movement creating real change.

Voicing the demand for conflict-free products from Congo, the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) encourages universities, which are large purchasers of electronics, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector. (Image: Enough Project)

To gain support from the student body for the conflict-free movement, I spoke to classes of all majors and subjects. This was not an easy task for me, as just the thought of speaking in front of large audiences made my stomach churn like a Cuisinart. Regardless, I knew that talking to my fellow students was the best way to inform the student body, so I resolved to conquer my fear. I prepared a presentation about the conflict over minerals in Congo, and the role that each of us can play in its solution. When I stepped in front of a group to speak, I reminded myself I was there to give a voice to women like Yafanshize, and put my insecurity aside.

Slowly, I noticed my public speaking skills improving, and tackled my fear of speaking in front of large crowds. In time, I collected over 500 signatures of students who support the movement. I’ll never forget the day when I presented to an engineering class of 250 students at 7am. Afterward, I felt as though I could do anything! For the first time, I really understood I was making an impact on student’s lives, by teaching them about an issue that most had never heard of before.

After months of talking to seemingly random professors and administrators, I found Dr. Greenwald, a math professor at Cal Poly. After telling him about my project in an email, Dr. Greenwald insisted we meet in person. When I first entered his office, Dr. Greenwald jumped up to greet me. I was met with kind eyes set in thick brown frames and a warm smile. Unlike all the other professors — who would laud me for my efforts and then usher me out the door — Dr. Greenwald immediately took out a piece of paper and started mapping out the steps I would need to pass a resolution. I saw at once that Dr. Greenwald was ambitious and optimistic. Most importantly, he believed that students could make a difference.

In the work that followed, I became so mentally and emotionally invested in passing a resolution that I no longer cared about my paper or the letter grade I would receive. Learning about Congo and fighting for this cause seemed to put so many things in perspective. I became so focused on achieving a specific outcome, that the process of getting there seemed unimportant. I had stopped chasing a high GPA and started seeking global change.

On May 20, 2014, my resolution on conflict minerals passed in my university’s Academic Senate. The resolution required Cal Poly to publicly acknowledge the conflict in Congo and favor conflict-free products made with minerals from Congo when they are available. Just two months later, the resolution was signed by the university president, making it official school policy. Shortly after this, I found out that as a result of Cal Poly passing my resolution on conflict minerals, the entire California State University system decided to revise its policy on conflict minerals. We have real hope now that the entire public university system in California will be conflict-free in the near future.

This journey started out as a simple project, but turned into something so much larger than me, and so much larger than my California college by the sea. If you told me that I would help amplify the voice of young people like me in war-torn Congo when I embarked on this project, I would have said you were crazy. It turns out, when you are able to channel your passions in a direction with intention and purpose, miraculous things can happen.

Even if at times you feel as though you are completely alone on your endeavor, if you think no one else around you cares about same things as you, I guarantee that there are other people out there like you. There is a vibrant, thriving, global community of individuals, both young and old, who are trying to make the world a better place. Caring people are everywhere. Find them. Join them.

Congo today is far from peace. Many parts are still ravaged by conflict. Women are still raped, children are still killed. But today, I can say that a few more people know about this issue because of my efforts. We will never know who we touch with our words and actions, or what light we might spark in others to enact change. They say every race beings with a few steps. If in the big picture I have taken a few small steps on the path towards a peaceful Congo, then hey, that’s not a bad start.

Katie Hoselton