Often in U.S. history, college students have been ahead of governments in recognizing and fighting for important issues. In 1961, students launched a historic journey into the Deep South on the Freedom Rides, risking their lives in pursuit of civil rights. More recently, students across the nation have stood alongside janitors and cooks from their campuses to fight for fair wages and other rights. Now students from across California are proving their mettle again, this time by fighting to end the unthinkable genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Sudan’s brutal Khartoum regime has waged a campaign of genocide in the country’s Darfur region, a conflict that has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced over two million people. For the first time in history, the U.S. government, along with numerous other political and nonprofit entities, has declared that an ongoing massacre amounts to genocide. While humanitarian groups have courageously assisted the millions of displaced in Darfur, international action has been shamefully underwhelming. The magnitude of the crimes in Darfur combined with the failure of the international community to stem these horrors has given states, cities and institutions across the U.S. impetus to act.

At the forefront of those motivated to act, California students have helped lead a growing campaign to halt the atrocities taking place in Sudan by putting financial pressure on the perpetrators of this genocide. The UC Sudan Divestment Taskforce was successful in pushing the University of California to adopt a divestment plan that targets companies who are doing business with the Sudanese government and whose revenues support the Sudanese military.

After the historic victory at UC, the Taskforce took this important fight to one of the nation’s largest public investors, joining State Treasurer Phil Angelides – a board member of the $141 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) – in calling for that fund to divest its holdings in companies with business ties to the Sudanese government. The CalSTRS Board on April 6th overwhelmingly supported Angelides’ divestment motion and as a result of that vote, CalSTRS will develop a divestment plan modeled after the policy adopted by the University of California regents in March.

The UC Taskforce and students from across the state converged at the board’s meeting in Sacramento, creating a groundswell of support for divestment that couldn’t be ignored. The April 6 vote marked the largest Sudan divestment action to date by a major investor, and a significant shift for the CalSTRS board, which just two months ago voted 7-1 against Angelides’ proposal to divest the fund’s holdings in PetroChina, a company with reported longstanding ties to the Sudanese government.

As the nation’s second largest pension fund, CalSTRS’s action speaks volumes in the financial marketplace and turns the financial heat up on companies with ties to the Sudanese government. CalSTRS is the largest investor to join the chorus of institutional investors who have taken divestment action: In addition to the UC, Brandeis, Brown, Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities, and Amherst and Dartmouth colleges have each restricted Sudan investments. The states of New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois and Maine have also passed divestment legislation and are currently implementing these plans.

The fight is far from over. Sudanese government-backed militias continue their assault on innocent men, women and children in Darfur. CalSTRS’s action should be a wake-up call; American investment funds should not support a regime that has perpetrated systematic attacks against its own citizens. California’s students have taken notice, and investors should as well.

Members of the UC Sudan Divestment Taskforce have now teamed up with the national Sudan Divestment Task Force to help pass legislation through Providence, Rhode Island, making it the first city in the U.S. to divest from Sudan. This tag-team effort, with the support of Angelides, is now working with the states of Kansas, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island as well as dozens of universities across the country to pass similar legislation.

Faced with the first genocide of the 21st century, the students of California are taking the lead in making sure that the suffering stops.

Phil Angelides is California State Treasurer and a member of the governing board of CalSTRS. Adam Sterling and Jason Miller are co-chairs of the UC Sudan Divestment Taskforce.