A Call for Divestment in Sudan

The U.N. says Sudanese officials are trying to force people to leave refugee camps before January, when a U.N.-African Union coalition of 26,000 peacekeepers will deploy to Darfur. News like this motivates Adam Sterling, founder of a group calling for investors to pull their money out of Sudan. Sterling is featured in the new documentary Darfur Now documentary

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Now, as the film is about to open, the news about Darfur is next. The U.N. says Sudanese officials are trying to physically force people to leave refugee camps before January, when a U.N.-African Union force of 26,000 peacekeepers will deploy to Darfur.

News like this motivates 24-year-old Adam Sterling, one of the people featured in the "Darfur Now" documentary. Adam founded a group calling for financial divestment from Sudan, but his activism came to him late in life, as he explained to me the other morning.

In the film, you are very open about your political involvement coming later on in your life, sort of a newly found passion. Did you have an epiphany, something that made you realize you really wanted to plug in on an issue?

Mr. ADAM STERLING (Activist): I did, and I think that was when Darfur was declared genocide by the U.S. government, marking the first time in history that our government's declared genocide for an ongoing crisis. I grew up knowing about the Holocaust, but really didn't connect it to anything current. So I think when that happened, that really woke me up.

STEWART: Did you have family that was involved in the Holocaust?

Mr. STERLING: My grandma left Germany shortly before the war broke out, but her father, my great-grandfather stayed behind and was in one of the concentration camps.

STEWART: So you have this sort of this empathy because of your family, and then you have this epiphany when you hear the word genocide. And how did you get involved? What was your first step?

Mr. STERLING: You know, it wasn't - didn't wake up and decide to start a global divestment campaign. That came later. We definitely started smaller. Our first step was - I was at UCLA at the time, and a few of us that were in this class decided, you know, we should start a group. And I remember the first goal was just getting people to our meeting. Unfortunately, only four people came to the first meeting, and that was the four of us that started the group. So, I mean, it is difficult at first. It definitely took a while before we were getting entire states on board.

STEWART: Yeah. One of the interesting things in the film that shows you trying to hand out fliers to people who - some who just - are just want to have their day, and they don't really want to deal with it. Were people informed at all and just didn't want to deal with it at that time, or are people uninformed about the situation, generally?

Mr. STERLING: Of course, that was over a year ago and unfortunately, I wish I cold say more people are informed. You know, it is difficult, and people don't often want to take a flier. But, you know, I always felt that if I passed out 10 fliers and one person stopped and took the time to learn about what was happening, you know, I was successful, and it was really those one out of 10 that I was looking for.

STEWART: There's an interesting scene in the movie where you get to schooled pretty directly by a local political type who really takes you to task, you and your partner, for not really working the system the right way with your fliers and not getting the unions on board in terms of printing your fliers.

(Soundbite of movie, "Darfur Now")

Mr. STERLING: We made thousands of these postcards. People are signing them and sending them back to us, and then wanted to bring 2,941 of them for Assembly Bill 2941 to the governor's office.

Unidentified Man: Did you print them in the state?

Mr. STERLING: Yes.

Unidentified Man: You are in a state that is union-oriented. And this piece has no union bug. You don't know want folks to say this is a bunch of inexperienced white boys who don't know how to deal with the unions and people of color when this is a people of color issue.

STEWART: What did you think at that moment?

Mr. STERLING: Yeah. I just thought, well, I just spent a few hundred dollars of my own money to make all these postcards, and it's like, what am I going to do with them? So, you know, it was embarrassing, but, you know, ultimately, I think we found out that it was a union printer, and we realized any new postcards that we made, we had to put that sticker on it.

STEWART: On the flipside, it shows a great level of sophistication on your part to go after the money chain, to go after organizations who were invested and demand financial divestment from mutual funds in companies who do any kind of business with Sudan. Why did you decide this was the route to take for your organization?

Mr. STERLING: Well, we took a lot of time. We actually spent a summer, basically, deciding what would be our best approach and how could we impact the situation in Darfur most effectively, and we found two things.

First, we found that Sudan is generally a poor country. But despite of that, the Sudanese government brings in billions of dollars a year in oil revenue, and they can't do this by themselves. They have to bring in these foreign oil companies which bring the money and the technical expertise to turn the country's reserves into revenue. And we found that that money wasn't going to development, to debt relief, it was going to military spending. And we also found that the Sudanese government, historically, has responded to this type of economic pressure. So the next was - step was to figure out, you know, a plan to, you know, look at the investments in these companies and how we can influence that.

STEWART: Other people that we see in this film are very familiar faces - George Clooney, Don Cheadle figured prominently. And it's interesting, as I was watching it, they had so much access. They were able to get to places and into places that you, who - somebody who's devoting your whole life, you're waiting tables and you're spending all this time doing this, that you weren't able to get into. Did it ever get frustrating for you that celebrity is so powerful, as opposed the message?

Mr. STERLING: You know, I guess it's all relative. I look back on my life in these last few years, and think I have gotten pretty good access. You know, we've now written a bill that's making its way to the U.S. Senate, and I testified a couple of weeks ago in front of the Senate Banking Committee. So for somebody that, you know, was just a student and a waiter, I think I've gotten pretty good access.

On the other hand, you know, it is frustrating that, you know, a celebrity can just go and, you know, meet with the government of Egypt. But fortunately, you know, our celebrities on this cause, they know what they're talking about. Both Don and George have been to the regions many times. I worked with Don about a year before we started on the film, and, you know, they've been devoted. And so if you're going to have spokespeople, I can't think of two better ones.

STEWART: Adam Sterling, thanks for spending time with us.

Mr. STERLING: Thanks for having me, Alison.

STEWART: Good luck with the film.

Mr. STERLING: Thank you.

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