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Students, faculty attend walk-out and teach-in for climate justice

in Around Campus/News by

There is no shortage of public outcry across the country in protest of the newly established Trump administration. As recently as Monday, January 23rd, members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, in collaboration with over 50 other colleges across the country, organized a walk-out / teach-in aimed at calling attention to the environmentally-threatening rhetoric of the Trump administration.

The walk-out / teach-in, though student run and organized, was a collective effort between Mountain Justice and appointed faculty to rally the general college population to reject climate denialism. A walk-out is a form of protests where participants walk out of their workplace or classroom to gather for a rally; a teach-in refers to a somewhat casual lecture made by expects aimed at educating protest participants.  For Mountain Justice, an organization whose main focus is to push the college to divest their endowment from fossil fuel companies, the proposed policies of the Trump administration are especially troubling as they hinder environmental justice on a larger scale.

Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, a longtime member and coordinator of Mountain Justice, spoke about how the Trump administration’s policies conflict with the cause.

“[On Friday,] Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States. At noon, when I guess he officially took office, all of the information on climate science was taken off of the White House webpage. He’s nominated Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon … Companies like Exxon have been imperiling communities around the world and the very future of our generation, and now, they have [a] huge influence in this administration,” he said.

Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State has been hotly contested because of his 40-year leadership role in ExxonMobil, an American oil and gas company attributed with the exploitation and ill-treatment of marginalized communities, as well as his well documented climate science denialism.

One example of this was a statement made by Tillerson during a 2013 annual shareholders meeting where he denied the existence of climate change, a phenomenon scientists have been consistently providing evidence for since the 1970s.

“If you examine the temperature record of the last decade, it really hadn’t changed … I know you will like to hear that as it don’t comport to some of the views of others, but last ten years’ temperatures had been relatively flat,” he purported.

Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, Coordinator for Mountain Justice, called for Swarthmore to be proactive in its efforts to be socially and environmentally conscious.

“It’s a message to the Swarthmore community and board that, in an era of Trump’s administration with climate denialism so rampant, that Swarthmore can no longer afford to be neutral,” she said.

Protesting the Trump administration on different fronts is not new for Swarthmore’s population. In November, a few short weeks after Trump’s election, students organized a walk-out where hundreds of students, faculty, and staff joined in solidarity with immigrant populations to advocate for their rights and safety. This included the demand, which was eventually met, of the college becoming a Sanctuary Campus. Again, the pro-activism sentiments shared by many at the college was evidenced by the number of students participating in the Women’s March on Washington and Philadelphia to advocate for women’s rights in addition to healthcare, environmental justice, and the rights of marginalized groups.

Melissa Tier ’14, Sustainability Program Manager, lent her support to the students during the walk-out/teach-in, praising the efforts made by the students to protest.

“I certainly think that interacting, having a conversation, taking action against the climate denialism of our current administration is essential. That takes a lot of different forms; a teach-in is fantastic way to go about it, it’s one of many and I hope it continues,” she said.

On the topic of campus protest, Tier also spoke about the history of protest at Swarthmore and campus activism, noting that she thought that mass participation from the campus community was wonderful.

“A teach-in is an excellent approach, one that’s actually not new to Swarthmore…during my time as a student at Swarthmore, we definitely had teach-ins, some of them focused on sustainability and climate justice. I’m always in favor of multi-pronged approaches, both because they can address topics in different ways, and because they can attract different people. I think the more people you can get involved with a topic, the better,” she said.

The news of protests both on and off campus have served to mobilize many students; but some admittedly do not share the same fervor.

Ibrahim Tamale ’20 offered his opinion on participating in protests and why he doesn’t.

“I have not felt any effect socially, or any injustice done against me to go and protest or to take any action. I believe actions should be taken as a reaction to something, but if nothing’s being done to you personally or as a society, then I don’t see why you should be moving forward to take action. Actions should have goals, … and if there are no goals, I don’t see any precedence for taking action at the moment,” he said.

What warrants protest, in Tamale’s opinion, is tied to how deeply one’s sentiments runs for the cause they are protesting for.

“I believe people should only attend rallies and protests if they deeply align with the goals and the motives of those rallies and protests. Based on the friends that I have that have participated in protests in Egypt and Tunisia, I believe it’s all about willing to die for that cause … If people are deeply aligned with the cause and do believe that their rallying and protesting is not going to stop until their cause has been fulfilled, then yes. But if they’re going to do it for one to two weeks then stop, then no,” he said.

Mountain Justice Lead Organizer Abigail Saul ’19 explained the importance of engaging in protest against climate denialism.

“We all have a stake in this issue, and the stake looks different for everyone. Climate justice affects everyone, but it is an inequality multiplier, so it affects certain populations a lot more than it affects others. So, I think it’s important that we all recognize that and stand together with each other, as well as with communities that are going to be most affected by these issues,” she said.

Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey made mention of some of the things he commented on during the event.

“One of my fields of study is social movements; I talked for a couple of minutes about micromobilization … I then said that the calls for divestment shared by students, faculty, staff and alumni is a perfectly reasonable request under the circumstances … The fossil fuel companies’ dangerous business model is to try and make as much profit as they possibly can off of their product even if it means rejecting climate science … by extension, through our investments here at the college, we’re participating in the same plan. I challenged us all to ask really serious questions about that plan,” he said.

Smithey also spoke about the support provided by faculty and staff.

“I think that we are in a historic moment right now with the new administration. I think that there is wide concern among many faculty, staff and students because there are so many different fronts that are under threat at the moment … I counted at least 25 faculty and staff there. I think we should acknowledge that 20 minutes of sacrificing class time is not insignificant in a busy semester, and the fact that many faculty and staff turned out signaled support for the walk-out,” he said.

O’Hanlon asserted that it was imperative for the students and the college to take action in the wake of the new administration.

“As young people, we need to stand up for our futures, for communities around the world, and we need to call on our institution, Swarthmore, as an institution that espouses social justice values, to really stand with our generation, to stand with communities around the world, and to stand for basic science,” O’Hanlon asserted.

Eric Jensen, Professor of Astronomy, made a statement during the event which resonated with many participants, receiving the Swat-famous snaps of approval.

“Just because you don’t know exactly what to do, doesn’t mean you should choose to do nothing,” he said.

In this time of confusion and fear for many across the country, many students glean strength from the support of their peers. On the same token, with the same fear and outrage, many take it upon themselves to mobilize and actively rally against injustices. The pro-activism sentiments at Swarthmore have yet to dwindle and, in the coming years and policy changes introduced by the Trump administration, it remains to be seen what next students will participate in.

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