Like the artisans who send the products of their talents across oceans and countries to the Seed, volunteer Sarah Brennan is hard pressed to keep her passion for fair trade strictly in CoMo.
In fact, her love of fair trade started in CoMo, branched out to Michigan and came back home for the summer.
Brennan grew up in Columbia and always knew about the Seed, but didn’t get involved with it until this summer when she came back from Michigan. She said this summer she “wanted to do something creative that would satisfy (her) art desires, but also something that’s serving a great cause.” Her job was a hybrid of an internship and volunteer position and included duties like starting a fundraising project called “Feed the Seed,” to be launched in the coming months.
Her interest in social justice started at Rock Bridge High School, where she was a member of the Global Issues club. In her senior year she served as vice president and helped raise $1,300 for the Heal Africa organization, which helps women who have been victims of human trafficking. “By that point this what I wanted to do. I want to pursue art and do something with that in my life, but I want to do it for something that means more than just painting for myself.”
With a new school year dawning, volunteer Sarah Brennan is about to high-tail it out of CoMo and back to the University of Michigan, where she will start her junior year as an art and design major and political science minor. Michigan is trying to get fair trade certified, thanks to students like Brennan who worked last year to start the process.
As part of the College Democrats’ “Justice Dems” sub-club, which focused on social justice, Brennan worked with 20 other students on the club’s goal: to get the university its fair trade certification.
The University of Michigan had recently severed ties with Nike, their number-one sports apparel provider, because of its questionable labor sources. When a massive backlash from students occurred because word got out of Nike’s use of unfair labor, “we kind of took that as an example that, okay, this is plausible. People do care where their stuff is coming from.” They started taking the next steps.
The club had a fair trade campaign of events, including a “Taste of Fair Trade” that showcased restaurants in the area that met a list of “socially responsible” standards and a panel of professors speak about fair trade and answer questions “to get people aware of what it is and get them on board,” Brennan said. An online petition went out, too, getting 61 supporters.
“It was hard to gage how effective it was because you’re not raising money. You’re really trying to get awareness out and generate interest,” Brennan said.
To be a fair trade certified university, Brennan said, you have to sell two fair trade products, like coffee and chocolate, at every student union. University of Michigan sells fair trade coffee and chocolate in all of its unions and offers fair trade coffee at its dining halls, but hasn’t added chocolate to the dining hall menu. Achieving that is the easy part — it gets more difficult as time passes to maintaining certification because that requires adding two more products every year. It gets even harder when a university has a partnership with Nike.
“It’s different going from Nike to Adidas,” she said. “It’s an entirely different thing going from Adidas to some small fair trade certified brand.” That was where Michigan ran into trouble and where other universities, like Mizzou (who has ties with Nike) might run into trouble.
Mizzou isn’t too off the mark, however; this academic year they have opened a brand new line of fair trade apparel from Alta Gracia at the bookstore, and the Museum of Anthropology’s gift shop is a member of Co-op America’s Fair Trade Alliance.
Brennan said the key to making a university fair trade certified isn’t the same as an average fundraiser; instead of money, it’s awareness and interest that must be created as well as preserved.
“It’s a given that everyone wants football games,” she said. To succeed as a fair trade certified university, you have to “generate that same public interest among the student body and maintain it. Make it something that they care about, that they want, because it is something that has to be upheld over time.”
In 10 years, Brennan says she sees herself “still making art, still getting my voice and opinion out working for an organization serving a larger cause than myself.”
“I would love to be doing art and creative things and coming up with ideas, but I think that honestly as an artist you kind of have to devote yourself to something other than just making art about the issues.”