We are always grateful for the opportunity to talk with other Carleton students about the work that MPIRG does, on our campus and across the state, to fight for a more just and more sustainable world. Especially in the spring, when the fully refundable $7.50 MPIRG fee comes up for its annual renewal, we expect and welcome a lively discussion on MPIRG’s successes and shortcomings over the past year. Nevertheless, the article written by three current and former CSA senators in last week’s Viewpoint section urging a “no” vote on the MPIRG fee referendum was based in a misleading and, frankly, false depiction of who MPIRG is and what we do. In the interest of an honest and fair debate, we feel that we must correct these erroneous allegations.
Carleton’s MPIRG chapter is part of a statewide nonprofit organization that empowers students to make their voices heard in the political process. Each spring, students from all over the state gather together to vote on what issues MPIRG will pursue over the coming year. MPIRG’s all-student Board of Directors, like any other nonprofit organization’s board of directors, is charged with setting the organization’s budget, hiring MPIRG’s staff, and providing an overall direction for the organization. At the campus level, Carleton students decide which issues and projects MPIRG will undertake at Carleton and in the Northfield community. MPIRG’s decision making process begins and ends with students.
Because we, as students, cannot be at the State Capitol every day to lobby our elected representatives, speak with the media, testify at the legislature, or represent students in statewide coalitions, MPIRG students hire a staff of professional organizers to research and advocate on our behalf. An MPIRG Campus Organizer is a trained professional in the area of grassroots advocacy and civic engagement who is paid to work with Carleton students to help us plan and coordinate our campaigns with the statewide office, run an internship program on campus, and train us to be more effective student leaders.
It is true that many student organizations do terrific work on campus with small budgets. But MPIRG is one of the few organizations at Carleton that seeks to accomplish change not only on campus, but across the state. In order to make this change happen, MPIRG, like any other statewide nonprofit, must pay for its organizers’ salaries as well as office space, telephone service, and yes, the occasional photocopy. These sorts of expenses cannot be covered by the occasional 50- or 100-dollar allocation from the CSA. The refusable/refundable $7.50 MPIRG fee is the only way for our campus to provide a stable, dedicated source of funding so that MPIRG can continue to advocate for our interests on a statewide level.
The MPIRG student fee system is a reflection of the democratic nature of the organization. Rather than seek support from a few multimillionaire donors or corporations, MPIRG’s campaigns are funded through the contributions of thousands of students of all backgrounds across the state of Minnesota. At Carleton, the MPIRG fee is the only part of our tuition bill that is completely refusable, meaning that each individual student is free to choose not to pay the fee if they decide they do not support MPIRG’s mission. The fee is also refundable: students who have paid the fee and then change their minds have the opportunity to get that money returned to them.
Carleton students can rest assured that their money has been well-spent over the past 38 years in producing tangible, meaningful change in the lives of students and of all Minnesota residents.
In the 1970s, MPIRG ran a successful six-year campaign to pass the federal legislation that created the Boundary Waters wilderness area, the sole paddle-only zone in the United States. In recent years, MPIRG secured $8 million for mixed-income housing in Minnesota and $110 million for the protection of natural areas across the state, and helped pass the nation’s strongest renewable electricity standard here in our state.
The Carleton MPIRG chapter can take pride not only in the support we have given over the years to statewide campaigns — through phonebanking, letter-writing, and lobbying — but also in a number of victories on our own campus. We were instrumental in bringing fair-trade coffee to Carleton and helped create the first Dorm Wars nationwide. This year, despite significant membership turnover from last year, we have played an important role in supporting MPIRG’s initiatives to limit automobile pollution and reduce the number of toxic chemicals in consumer products.
Working with MPIRG staff, Carleton students generated phone calls to State Senator Kevin Dahle urging him to support the Clean Cars legislation. This gave him the level of constituent support he needed to vote yes on the bill, which resulted in the bill being passed through a tough legislative committee.
Carleton MPIRG also helped collect postcards and generate phone calls in support of a bill to eliminate Bisphenol-A, a known carcinogen, from children’s products. The legislation has passed both houses of the Minnesota Legislature, and if signed by Governor Pawlenty, will be the first such ban nationwide.
Next year, we are excited to support MPIRG’s new campaigns for expanding access to health care and building a better public transportation system in the state of Minnesota.
Carleton needs MPIRG because MPIRG is one of the few opportunities for students to engage in activism on a statewide level. If the MPIRG fee were voted down, MPIRG would not wholly abandon our campus, but Carleton would no longer have an official MPIRG chapter. Our students would lose any voice in the decisions that are made by the statewide organization and lose access to the support of professional staff and the power of a statewide student leadership network. We would turn our back on our longstanding ties with a vast and highly productive network of activists and organizers beyond the bounds of our campus. We Carleton students, who like to think of ourselves as conscientious global citizens, would no longer be carrying our own weight in addressing the problems that face the state of Minnesota.
If we believe in broader access to health care, better public transportation, and fewer toxins in our lives, then we must be willing to do our small part to support the organization that is working on those issues on our behalf. By choosing to pay the fee, even if you are too busy to get involved with our chapter, you will own a piece of all of MPIRG’s successes, past and future.
We are proud of MPIRG’s past accomplishments; we are proud of all that we have done this year; and we are confident that Carleton students will have good reason to take pride in our work in the years ahead. That is why we urge you to vote “yes” on the MPIRG fee referendum.