I first heard about Nelson Mandela and apartheid at Princeton, but it was not until I was a young lecturer at Stanford that he became real for me.
A national political student movement had started during those years, aimed at educating students at elite private universities to demand that their universities' boards of trustees divest the universities of all their stock in companies that did any business in South Africa.
When we young teachers and lecturers learned about apartheid and about the extent of Stanford's investments in companies that supported and did business with that brutal regime, it simply made sense to us to use our white privilege to speak up and speak out as part of the divestment movement. That was when all of my friends and our students simply held our classes outside the university president's office, in the quadrangle.
Stanford was a pretty conservative university in those days, politically speaking (Condoleeza Rice was the provost!), and so it was only a matter of time before this caught the attention of the regional news media.
Several times a day, the university president had to pick his way through a sea of privileged white kids, sitting on the cobblestones, teaching and learning and protesting peacefully. And these were not exactly the optics the administration was looking for.
This growing scene helped to create the pressure necessary to bring about Stanford's divestment from South Africa.
It would be almost another ten years before Nelson Mandela would be freed from prison, but it was inspiring to be a part of the divestment movement. At a time when a national motto seemed to be, "Greed is good," it gave me a belief in the power of ordinary good people speaking up peacefully.