Out of Africa
Published Apr 1, 2009 9:00 AM
Adam Sterling '06 didn't go to UCLA to change the world.
"I had perfected the art of walking from one end of Bruin Walk to the other without taking a flier," he admits. But that changed with one class: Political Science 151 — "Cultural Pluralism in Africa," which included the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
"I had grown up with this strong understanding of the Holocaust, and yet during my lifetime, this genocide [in Rwanda], where close to a million people were killed in a hundred days, occurred, and nobody did anything about it," says Sterling, who lost family in the Holocaust. "It kind of blew me away."
The political science/Afro-American studies major responded by reading every book on genocide he could find. Around that time, news started coming out about Sudan and the mass killing of civilians in the country's Darfur region. Sterling joined the fledgling Darfur Action Committee, which helped raise awareness by writing letters to the president and Congress, bringing speakers to campus and, yes, passing out fliers on Bruin Walk.
But it wasn't enough.
"We felt like we really wanted to make an impact on the ground, beyond just kind of telling others that they should do things," Sterling says. "We wanted to do something ourselves." The result was a proposal for the University of California to implement a policy of divestment. To generate support, the student activists traveled to other UC campuses and bused 200 students to a Regents' meeting at UC San Diego.
In March 2006, the Board of Regents adopted a model of "targeted divestment" that focuses on the worst-offending companies doing business in Sudan, making the University of California the first public educational institution to take such action. Six months later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, flanked by Sterling and actor-activists Don Cheadle and George Clooney, signed two divestment-related bills into California law.
"Then we started getting inquiries from legislators across the country, saying, 'Hey, we want to do this in our state,'" Sterling says. Since then, Sterling's Sudan Divestment Task Force, now part of the Washington, D.C.-based Genocide Intervention Network, has helped univer-sities, pension funds, and local, state and foreign governments to divest from companies operating in Sudan. They also lobbied to get President Bush to sign the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007, authorizing states to adopt the SDTF model.
Sterling's hard work and dedication haven't gone unnoticed: He was one of six people featured in the 2007 documentary Darfur Now and one of nine finalists for the 2008 Do Something Awards, which honor young humanitarians. And this fall, the 26-year-old will take on a new challenge: law school at UC Berkeley, where he hopes to participate in their human rights law clinic. After that, "I'm interested in becoming involved in California state politics," he says.