Julia Baskin hasn’t done a single damn thing to rid the world of nuclear weapons, nor to stop our government from torturing or to alleviate global warming. She’s just a senior at Washington University in St. Louis who arrived on campus from New York City in the fall of ’05 looking to acquaint herself with social justice issues and pick one where she could contribute to a solution. She quickly settled on joining a small group of students who worked on fair trade issues. When she arrived, the group was a year old and was working to see to it that the coffee served on campus was fair trade coffee. (Instead of taking whatever price was offered by corporate coffee buyers, fair trade coffee growers join cooperatives that deal for them and get them a fair price.)
By the end of her freshman year, the group had achieved its goal, and when its president graduated, Julia … to say “took the reins” would be misleading. She became the nominal leader, yes, but it’s a very egalitarian bunch. My subconscious must have prompted me to pick the word “bunch”. Because their next project was getting the campus to buy only fair trade bananas.
They had settled on that because bananas are one of the most popular fruits in the world, and banana workers are among the most exploited.
Without Fair Trade, fruit farmers often receive only a few cents a pound for their crop, far below the cost of production. In Ecuador, the cost of basic necessities for a family of four is $9.60 a day, but on non-Fair Trade farms, workers may earn as little as $3 a day, according to TransFair USA.
So, in hopes of easing life for Ecuadorian or Guatemalan Okies, Julia set to work. She approached the director of campus food services with some trepidation, expecting anything from indifference to hostility. What she found instead was a man with an open mind. Once they had agreed that Bon Appetit, the food service, would use fair trade bananas if she could supply them, she set about locating a banana co-op for the university to do business with.
And hit one dead end after another. Co-ops in the banana business are still few and far between, which is all the more reason for people like Julia to persist and encourage their growth.
Even as she became more discouraged about that part of the job, her group was doing all it could to make students aware of the issue. They showed a movie about the problem, they passed out lit, they had an event in the coffee shop, attended by forty or fifty people, where they served banana fondue. But no co-op surfaced.
She finally went to the director of food services to talk about the problem, only to find that he had appointed one of his employees to look for sources and that the person had been successful. Knotty problem solved. The additional good news was that the food service department could afford to absorb the small extra cost.
When the first box of fair trade bananas arrived, Julia was so excited that she peeled a sticker off one of the bananas and put it on her cell phone. From then on, by posting placards around campus, the group made sure that Wash. U. students knew the bananas they ate were fair trade bananas. Implanting consciousness of fair trade issues is, to Julia and her cohorts, contributing to the student body’s education.
And the group moved on to its next project: getting the campus bookstore to stock only “sweat shop free” items. That’s a long term goal. The other long term goal is to spread the news of what can be accomplished to other campuses–starting with campuses also served by Bon Appetit. OK, they’re not about to put Dole and Chiquita out of business, but persistent effort will someday make the giants aware that another business model is competing against them.
In a couple of weeks, Julia will be gone from campus for good, moving on to a job with the Jewish Service Corps, AVODAH. She’ll be assigned to the Cambodian Assn. of Illinois, based in Chicago, working with Cambodian adolescents to promote the arts in city schools and to make students aware of worldwide genocide problems.
It’s going to be awhile before she rids the world of nuclear weapons, but anytime she might happen to hear Belafonte wailing, “Hey, Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana,” she can remember with satisfaction a small job well done.
This posting is the fourth in a regular series about activists that I’m writing with the assistance of the St. Louis Activist Hub. The first three postings are here, here and here.