Justice Now

Solutions in Sight: Social Justice


Student Environmental Action Coalition

A Conversation with
Chris Ford
May 1997

When Chris, now 26, was growing up in Arizona he saw the city spread until it took over areas that used to be rural. This awakened his desire to protect the environment. As a college student he was looking for a group with which to do environmental work. When a friend told him about S.E.A.C. (pronounced "seek") he found his life's work.

The InSite: What is S.E.A.C. all about?

Chris: We're a student run and student led national network of progressive organizations and individuals whose aim is to uproot environmental injustice through action and education. For us the "environment" includes: physical, economic, political, and cultural conditions. By challenging the power structure which threatens these environmental conditions, S.E.A.C. works to create positive change on a local and global level. We were founded in 1988 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by a group of students who thought it would be a good idea to form a national network of student groups working on environmental issues. They put an ad in Greenpeace magazine looking for interested students and they were overwhelmed by the number of responses that they got. We now have 10,000 members in over 600 chapters across the country. Each of our chapters is completely autonomous. That means they work on whatever issues they want to. And we are the only [national environmental] group in the country that is entirely run by students and youth.

TI: There are lots of young people who are very committed to doing the right thing. They just need to gravitate towards other people who are going to do it with them.

Chris: Right!

TI: Can you describe some of your current social justice campaigns?

Chris: We've taken on as a national campaign the Restoration of Democracy in Burma. We work very closely with the Free Burma Coalition which is run by Burmese exiles and is the first major organization that was founded, run, and completely operated over email. Right now it is the fastest growing student movement in the U.S.

TI: Specifically what are you doing to restore democracy in Burma?

Chris: One way is by boycotting corporations that are doing business in Burma because the people of Burma have asked that sanctions be imposed on all those organizations. Unical is the biggest U.S. corporation doing business in Burma right now. They are in partnership with Total Oil to build a huge pipeline through Burma which is being built by slave labor.

...when the soldiers get close to the town they force the people to work on the pipeline.

TI: Slave labor?! Are these people who are incarcerated?

Chris: Some are incarcerated. Others are villagers... when the soldiers get close to the town they force the people to work on the pipeline.

TI: And S.E.A.C. has confronted this U.S. company with these facts?

Chris: Yes! Many, many times.

TI: What do the people at the Unical say?

Chris: Basically their position is that they are a corporation doing business and that they don't get involved in the politics of the country they're doing business in.

TI: Sounds pretty lame!

Chris: Yeah! [laughing]

TI: What do S.E.A.C. members do to show Unical that you guys mean business?

Chris: We hold demonstrations at Unical gas stations across the country and at their headquarters. We write and make phone calls to the president of the corporation and officers telling them that we are opposed to it. We contact our Congress persons and the President and let them know that we are opposed to their practices in Burma.

TI: What successes have you had?

Chris: Pepsico is a major corporation that just pulled out of Burma because of the pressure that we put on them.

TI: How long did it take for you to accomplish that?

Chris: It took about a year and a half.

TI: Not bad! So how did you swing it?

Chris: Basically schools across the country like Stanford, University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and others were canceling their contracts with Pepsico.

TI: This is the company that makes Pepsi?

Chris: Yes and they also own Frito Lay, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell. So we were applying large amounts of pressure on them. We had a huge boycott going on. And they found that they were losing more business in the U.S. because of their practices in Burma than the money that they were actually making in Burma.

TI: Did Pepsico ever acknowledge that what they were doing was contributing to a bad political situation in Burma?

Chris: No. They basically said, "We're losing money. We'll stop doing it."

Levi Strauss [said] it was impossible to do business in Burma without directly supporting the military dictatorship.

TI: So you don't really care if you change their mind as long as you change their behavior?

Chris: Exactly. Now when Levi Strauss pulled out of Burma in 1993 on their own, they wrote a statement saying that it was impossible to do business in Burma without directly supporting the military dictatorship.

TI: What is left to focus on, aside from Unical, in Burma?

Chris: The U.S. just imposed some weak sanctions against the Burmese government. We want full sanctions. We want all U.S. corporations to pull out of Burma. 'Cause the U.S. is Burma's largest supporter through U.S. corporations doing business there. Most notably Unical but also Texaco and ARCO as well.

TI: Have you established a boycott of these oil companies in the U.S.?

Chris: Yes we have.

TI: And how is that publicized?

Chris: Mainly through email over the Internet. Like I said, this is the largest movement that is almost completely run over the Internet.

TI: Do you have any other social justice issues in the U.S. that you are targeting?

Chris: Yes. One of our big things is immigration. We are completely opposed to the attack on immigrants that this country is embarking on right now. We try to operate as an educational book and inform people as much as possible about the truth. What's really going on. On campuses S.E.A.C. chapters set up tables, hold demonstrations, and tell other students what's going on. Contact Congresspersons, etc.

TI: You probably are faced with very vocal opposition. What might be a typical argument you hear from the other side of the immigration issue?

Chris: Basically that immigration takes away American jobs and that we are paying for the immigrants being here through welfare. And that immigration is bankrupting the U.S. government.

...the majority of "welfare"
goes to corporations,
not to immigrants.

TI: And how do you respond to that?

Chris: We tell people that immigration is actually helping the U.S. economy. And if you look at welfare as it is, the majority of "welfare" [free money in the form of tax breaks] goes to corporations, not to immigrants.

TI: How did you personally get involved in this kind of work? Were you one of these kids who was always looking for a cause?

Chris: Yeah, exactly! I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and I saw the city just completely grow around me. We lived in what used to be the extreme outskirts of the city and now it's basically in the center of the city. So it was always something that was really visible to me. The loss of habitat. Expansion. Those sorts of things. So I grew up with it. For one of my classes at Arizona State University I had to read "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey, and that pretty much put me over the edge. Then I moved to Seattle and tried to get involved in the environmental movement, but it was pretty tough 'cause all people wanted was canvassers [people who collect donations door-to-door]. So I moved back to Phoenix, and this friend of mine came to visit and he said, "Chris, you really have to move to Tuscon. I'm hooked up with these people - Student Environmental Action Coalition. It's exactly what you want to be doing!" So later I moved down here and got involved.

TI: What would you say to young people who are interested in environmental and social justice issues but are not actively involved in anything?

Chris: The main things I'd say is that they really can make a difference. S.E.A.C. chapters all across the country... we've been stopping incinerators, fighting logging, we've been really helping get ahead today. We've been changing many people's outlooks. We've had many, many victories. And it is possible to make a difference in this world. And you should go for it because we need you out there!

TI: What do you see yourself doing in five years?

Chris: I see myself still working on environmental justice issues. I've dedicated my life to changing the world as it is today and making it a better place where all people are equal, justice prevails, and we don't have environmental destruction.

TI: What would you say is the most harmful thing to society?

Chris: Apathy. There are a lot of people who feel, "Oh I want to work on something..." There are certain people who have a certain edge, something in them clicks where they want to get out and do something. For a lot of people there are a lot of social pressures where they don't want to get involved because maybe their friend might not like it or something like that. That plays a major role, especially when we're organizing on campus, you can really see that. So we try to make our demonstrations fun to show that it's a cool thing to help the world. The main thing is to explain what's going on around you. You say you don't have time for this but if you keep on saying you don't have time for this eventually you're not going to have what you have. It's all going to float away from you because you're not doing anything about it. You're not trying to protect the world. You're not trying to protect yourself. In order to do what you want to do you need to get active!

...if you keep on saying you don't have time for this eventually you're not going to have what you have.

Want to write to Chris? Email him at: [email protected]

Check out S.E.A.C.'s web site at http://www.seac.org


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