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Paychecks with a justice payoff


It’s commencement season, time for this spring’s crop of college graduates to choose: What’ll it be, getting a job to make a buck or to make a difference?

For Rosanne Steller, a University of Maryland senior graduating this month, it will be the latter. This summer, she will be on the staff of the Appalachian Service Project in eastern Kentucky. In October, Steller, a family studies major at Maryland, will be employed in West Africa by Cross Cultural Solutions, a humanitarian group.

For those like Steller who have used their college years to take stands against social injustices -- Third World sweatshops, the School of the Americas, corporate globalization, low wages for campus janitors and maids -- an opportunity exists to rise to another level beyond what might have been just a fling. It is the Graduate Pledge Alliance. Whether taken at a public ceremony before, during or after graduation exercises, or embraced solitarily, the pledge says: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.”

Coordinated as a national campaign since 1996 by Professor Neil Wollman of Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren school in Indiana, the voluntary pledge is taken by graduating seniors willing to be conscientiously selective about which companies or organizations they will work for -- ideals before dollars.

Wollman estimates that as many as 100 campuses are part of this spring’s Graduate Pledge Alliance movement, nearly double the number in 2000. The schools range from such small liberal arts schools as Skidmore and Olivet to Harvard, Stanford and other major universities.

Although this year’s graduates face an economy less flush than 12 months ago, large corporations, governmental agencies and public interest groups still scout campuses for possible hires. Pledge-taking students are saying that before the lures of a paycheck, first a moral check.

“I think it’s crucial to be aware of whom you are working for and the overall mission of the organization,” Steller said. “So many times, employees are unaware or unconcerned about ethical issues. You make excuses: ‘I didn’t know. I just took orders.’ ”

The Graduate Pledge Alliance is a way to focus on a few questions. What are the ethics of my potential employers? Do their products or services increase or decrease the public good? What is the employer’s record on antitrust, health and safety issues, age, race or gender discrimination, pollution, animal testing, profit sharing? What are the salaries of the executives at the top compared with workers’ pay at the bottom? In the company’s theology a theology of wealth? Is worshipping the dollar-god the sole article of faith, with no heed paid to victims of structural violence?

“Instituting the pledge gets at the heart of a good education and can benefit society as a whole,” Wollman said. “Not only does it remind students of the ethical implications of the knowledge and training they received, but it can help lead to a socially conscious citizenry and a better world.” To help college career centers organize a Graduate Pledge Alliance campaign or to inform individual students, specifics are available from Wollman at NJWollman@Manchester.edu

One of the most resourceful campus organizers last spring was Sinead Walsh, an Irish-born literature major at Harvard. She promoted the pledge by bringing speakers from Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Grameen Foundation USA, Clean Water Action and the Campus Green Vote to the school for panel discussions on public service and ethical work. Last year’s pledge-takers were well above the 271 who filed past the statue of John Harvard in 1999 to make their promises during Class Day ceremonies. Walsh herself went to India to do human rights work

In the high school, college and law school courses I teach, I tell students about the pledge and encourage them to consider taking it. What’s the purpose of teaching if it doesn’t include calls to idealism and reminders that a money-centered job soon becomes passionless drudgery? Earning money is fine, but finite.

As Steller, Walsh and thousands of graduates like them understand, a paycheck for money must come with a payoff for justice. Otherwise, no deal.

Colman McCarthy, editor of Solutions to Violence, a high school and college textbook, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001