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Community members discuss advocacy and carbon pricing at Safe Climate PA conference

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On Saturday, Oct. 7, Swarthmore students and administrators attended a Safe Climate PA conference in Harrisburg. The conference serves as “an opportunity to learn about carbon pricing policies and how to effectively engage with elected officials, the media, and our campus communities to advocate for climate solutions,” according to its website.

Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier, Nathan Graf ’16, a climate action senior fellow in the office of sustainability, and Aaron Metheney ’18 helped organize the conference.

Twelve Swarthmore students attended, as well as students and representatives from many universities in Pennsylvania, including Temple, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, and Villanova.

The conference began with an opening address delivered by Winslade, who discussed the potential of carbon pricing and the importance of student voices on climate issues. It also included  workshops on meeting with elected officials, media engagement, campus engagement and endorsements, local government endorsements, carbon pricing policy, and storytelling around issues of climate change.

Graf facilitated the carbon pricing policy workshop and presented on climate change and carbon pricing, while Metheney facilitated the local government endorsements workshop.

Carbon pricing, which can take various forms, is a tax on carbon pollution to encourage polluters to reduce their emissions. Graf described it as the most feasible way to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius from its current temperature, at which, according to many climate scientists, the negative effects of climate change would become irreversible.

Ideally, according to Graf, a carbon tax would make it unprofitable to burn more than the 565 gigatons of carbon necessary to stay under that limit, raising the price of fossil fuels to more than the price of renewable energy sources. Because the fee would be assessed when carbon enters the economy, however, the cost would be passed on to consumers and could have a disproportionate effect on low-income people. A possible solution could be using the revenue from the price to create a universal basic income, which would offset the costs, although there are many other possible uses of the revenue.

“It is an unfortunate reality that while a price on carbon makes for very good policy, it won’t happen when few people know or care about it,” said Graf. “The need to change that is a central driver for Safe Climate PA.”

The college already has an internal carbon pricing program, which involves a 1.25 percent charge on each department’s budget. The money goes to the college’s Carbon Change Fund, which invests in profitable, energy-efficient businesses and organizations and funds other work relating to climate change and education. Nick DiMaio ’19, a president’s sustainability research fellow, will work this year to educate the community about carbon pricing, and community members have also worked to support carbon pricing beyond the college.

Metheney got President Smith’s signature on a carbon pricing petition this spring, and President Smith wrote an open letter in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” on Aug. 8 in support of carbon pricing. Smith has also reached out to other campus presidents to encourage them to sign. Metheney is also working to get the Borough of Swarthmore to institute carbon pricing.

Two interns in the office of sustainability, Lamia-Emilie Makkar ’21 and Nusaybah Estes ’21, also helped organize the event. Makkar researched the political background of the districts from which conference attendees came and the environmental stances of their elected officials — hoping to gain insight on priorities for each district — and created resource sheets for the conference workshops. Estes organized communications prior to the conference, introduced workshops, filmed the event, and helped with logistics. Makkar will continue developing educational resources and working on implementation of action plans developed at the conference, while Estes will continue networking.

“It was great to see so many [people] share energy and excitement about paving a future for the larger use of carbon charges and look forward to the actions the different groups will be taking,” Makkar said in an email.

Estes was similarly excited about implementing students’ action plans and emphasized the diverse set of perspectives speakers brought to the conference.

“I think the speakers were incredibly knowledgeable in their fields and brought interesting views on climate change to the table,” Estes said in an email.

She pointed to the speeches of Jerry Taylor, Jacqui Patterson, and Peterson Tuscano. Taylor, a conservative commentator who was originally skeptical about the effects of climate change, discussed how he changed his views and how to make a case for carbon pricing that appeals to conservatives.

Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, talked about the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and poor communities, both through the proximity of toxic facilities and susceptibility to natural disasters, and advocated an aggressive approach to carbon pricing to make it more equitable.

Tuscano, a comic storyteller, who has worked on LGBTQ issues, social justice, and faith, discussed in a humorous speech how he became aware of climate change, how we can engage non-environmentalists like himself in climate action by appealing to their interests and identities, and how climate change is homophobic. The video footage Estes took of their speeches and other parts of the event can be found on Safe Climate PA’s Facebook page.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18 represented Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub at the conference. He shared information about Sunrise’s mission to mobilize people and pressure elected officials about climate action.

“I was really excited by the chance to learn more about what other Swarthmore students and other students across the state were doing,” he said.

Seitz-Brown took away two major things around climate change and advocacy work.

“We need more cooperation in Swarthmore, and more cooperation beyond Swarthmore,” he said.

This involves more engagement with other schools and more student education about the college’s carbon pricing initiatives. He also wants to encourage Sunrise to work with other groups on campus.

“I think we’re all doing very necessary work, whether it’s on campus policy or student organizing,” Seitz-Brown said. “I’ll be working to [help] Sunrise support the sustainability fellows and other students.”

Graf echoed the need to work with people both inside and outside of the Swarthmore community.

“To get strong climate policy in the US, it’s vital to engage grassroots and mid-level people and organizations, which is very much the goal of Safe Climate PA, and much of the other carbon pricing work we’re doing on campus,” they said.

Graf intends to reconvene the Swarthmore delegation to Safe Climate PA the week after fall break to build on the work of the conference.

”Some great ideas were brought up in the session about ways that Swarthmore students could continue this work,” they said.

The office of sustainability interns, the conference attendees, and others will work to implement those ideas and educate the community over the coming year.

Students to march on Washington for climate justice

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On April 29th, Swarthmore students will be marching around the White House, along with thousands of other protesters, for the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. Although the march is a national event, Mountain Justice, Green Advisors, and the Sustainability Office are working together to send three buses of students to the march and a student convergence the day before.

Indiana Reid-Shaw ’17 was part of a group of students who worked to send students and staff from Swarthmore to the first People’s Climate March in New York City in Sept. 2014. By coordinating with the larger 350 movement, an environmental organization, and getting funding from various departments at the college, the group was able to send 200 students and staff to the march.

“The first PCM was a huge success, and therefore we are using the same tactics to garner interest,” Reid-Shaw said.  

These tactics include advertising on dorm halls, sharing slides with professors, and running an interest meeting along with Mountain Justice. September Sky Porras ’20, a member of Mountain Justice, headed this interest meeting and is leading the effort to bring people to the march this year. Porras believes that, despite negative rhetoric about protests, the march is an important occurrence.

“I think that the People’s Climate March is super important right now. I also know there’s a lot of discourse about whether protests are effective or not. For me personally, I think that protests even though they’re made up mostly of people who are already engaged. First off it lets people feel like they’re doing something and being part of something, and second, leads them to engage with other organizations, … so it’s definitely teaching people how to be leaders in their communities and how to elect people who are good for climate justice. And then of course third, everybody who’s in D.C. at the time is going to see this. So if you don’t think this is a big deal, it’s gonna seem like a very big deal,” Porras said.

The college’s Sustainability Office, while supporting the college’s decision not to divest at odds with Mountain Justice’s recent referendum, is working with Mountain Justice and the GAs in this effort.

“We take seriously our role of serving as a liaison between students and the administration and supporting all student sustainability groups on campus. Thus, we look for opportunities to engage constructively with Mountain Justice, including our collaboration on the upcoming People’s Climate March,” Nathaniel Graf, of the office, said.

Reid-Shaw is also excited about the collaborative effort.

“I am excited about this partnership with Mountain Justice because I get the sense that some people think of these two groups as approaching environmentalism in opposing ways. I think both of our groups’ foci are essential and should work in tandem,” she said.  

Along with the march itself, many students will be attending a “student convergence” on Friday, the day before the main event. At this convergence, various organizations such as 350 will be hosting workshops on both climate justice and social justice more generally.

“It’s going to be a bunch of students, we’re going to be taking those workshops, we’re going to be interacting with other students and other student organizations, I know we’re going to be meeting up with a lot of people who have other divestment movements, so that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porras said.  

Although the 80 people who have signed up for the march this year are fewer in number than before, there is excitement about the opportunity to learn at the convergence.

“I was actually really excited to see so many people who aren’t super involved in MJ or the GAs already being excited to go to the student convergence, and I was like woah, that’s really cool, because I don’t know if I wasn’t involved if I would want to put myself out there. So I’m really like wow, that’s really great,” Porras said.  

According to Porras, in past years, some of the panelists at the People’s Climate March and convergence have been less than optimal. With the help of Stephen O’Hanlon (year), she looks forward to a more improved experience.

“Apparently … there were a lot of questionable panelists, who were, I don’t know, just very white-centrist ideas … yeah, (this year), it’s not going to be that,” she said.

Reid-Shaw remembers the “contagious energy” at the last march in 2014.

“The energy was contagious at the last PCM in 2014. It was empowering to walk with so many people all with a common interest for climate justice, but for so many different reasons. I talked to a beekeeper, an environmental justice advocate, and an indigenous activist. I remember feeling the power of the people as we marched by Times Square and all of the corporate buildings,” she said.  

However, both Reid-Shaw and Porras believe that the new Trump administration makes this 2017 march, which will be held on Trump’s 100th day in office, particularly important.

“I …  think it’s pretty poignant that it’s on [Trump’s] 100th day in office, and we’re going to be marching around the white house very loudly, so yeah I think protests and specifically this protest being so large, and in DC, and on that specific date, it’s just a very very good way to connect channels of people,” Porras said.

Reid-Shaw agreed.

“On April 29th we will march again, but this time in DC and to the White House to demand climate justice for people of color, workers, indigenous people, immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, young people, and more! As the Trump administration and their fossil fuel allies threaten communities and our future, we need to show up in force in DC to demand a renewable economy that works for all,” she said, “Our goals are high.”

The buses to D.C. have the capacity to hold about 150 people, and look to bring a large presence of students to the event.


Conversations on a Just Sustainable World

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This past Friday, the second annual “Sustainable Development in Latin America & the Caribbean Conference” was held at Yale University. Other than being able to get off campus for an extended amount of time, I was excited to engage in conversations on how climate change can be addressed in these areas. Given that most of my extended family resides in Mexico, I wanted to hear how sustainability was being implemented to negate issues like pollution, waste, water quality, etc. Is the solution to regulate emissions? More renewable energy? Carbon pricing? Windmills?

Walking out of the conference, I was reminded that in order to create a truly sustainable world, we need to do more than just recycle and talk about polar bears.

Our keynote speaker was Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, the Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations. In his remarks, he spoke on the vast environmental issues that plague Mexico. He mentioned how there are foreign owned factories, called maquiladoras, discharging harmful chemicals to the surrounding communities, deforestation is destroying natural habitats and forests, and that Mexico City has gotten to the point where the air pollution has become physically visible.

Gomez made an important point on how these environmental issues are connected to many other social issues in Mexico. The discharge of chemicals contributes to poor labor and living conditions for working class citizens, deforestation has destroyed the homes of indigenous groups, and how air pollution has affected the health of children and families being raised in the city. He spoke on how the development of sustainability in Mexico must address these other social issues. Otherwise, it isn’t sustainable development.

So, how can we begin explicitly integrating social issues with sustainability? One manner that can be done is to look at how this conference was structured to facilitate conversations that touched on multiple issues.The organizers of this panel, in my opinion, did an amazing job of gathering a diverse group of environmental leaders to speak on sustainable development.

By environmental leaders, I do not mean they invited Al Gore or Bill Nye. And by diverse, I do not mean they invited a variety of folks from “Environmental Careers.” There was no one from the EPA, no one from the Sierra Club, and not a single scientist. In fact, only two of the fifteen speakers had the words “climate change” or “sustainable” in their job titles.

Instead, these environmental leaders came from various countries, backgrounds, and professions. To showcase what kind of professions; allow me to list off a few of the panelists and their respective titles: Ms. Renata Segura is the Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council. Mr. Ronald Jackson is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency CDEMA. And Ms. Judith Morrison is the Senior Advisor for the Gender and Diversity Division GDI for the Inter-American Development Bank.

At first it may be odd to think how this group of people and their work can relate to sustainable development in Latin America & the Caribbean. On the contrary, they have everything to do with sustainability. They, as well as all of us, should be viewed as environmental leaders.

The panelists were amazing in describing the connections between sustainability and their lives. Looking at my notes; the topics discussed ranged from zero waste, violence in Colombia, gender equality, impact on drugs, multidimensional poverty, and many more. One of my favorite examples came from Jackson on how disaster management should be viewed as addressing climate change—How, when it comes to climate justice, the work of disaster management organizations is crucial for sustainable development.

What was remarkable was how organic and natural these conversations were. The panelists naturally transitioned from topic to topic without forcing the direction. And it shouldn’t be forced. Sustainability is truly connected with everything.

This idea was highlighted by our closing keynote speaker, Dr. Chantal Line Carpentier, the Chief of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. She gave a presentation on the Sustainable Development Goals that were created by the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals that was born out of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The SDG’s range from environmental goals like “Affordable and Clean Energy,” economic goals like “Decent Work and Economic Growth,” to social goals like “Gender Equality.” Each of these 17 goals has targets that need to be reached in order to achieve the goal. For example, a target for the “Clean Water and Sanitation” goal is: “by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”

Carpentier spoke at one point about a project lead by David Le Blanc, the Senior Sustainable Development Officer in the Division for Sustainable Development. Le Blanc and his team examined the SDG’s to create a network that highlights how each of the goals and their respective targets are connected to one another. They went and coded all of the goals and targets to find connections amongst them. Their findings showcased that there is a network that connects all the SDGs and their respective targets. In fact, Carpentier highlighted that, if you happen to work on at least three different SDG’s, (it does not matter which three), then you are working on all of them.

I find it a beautiful thought that the work we all do is connected. That somehow, we are all working towards one goal: creating a better world. While I may not label myself to be an environmentalist, I am happy to think that my future role as a teacher can contribute towards climate justice.

With all this being said, I do believe that we need to recycle! And I love polar bears! But I don’t believe that the conversation of sustainability has to end there. We are in an amazing position to recognize this expansion, and continue to expand what sustainability means. It means that sustainability has to work for all. That everyone needs to be included in the conversation on sustainable development, especially those who are being most affected by climate change. That barriers to participate in these conversation must be deconstructed. That those conversation are held in spaces where everyone is able to contribute their voice. That we emphasize connections and work in solidarity with one another.

There is a lot more that needs to be done to advance sustainability to just sustainabilities. Obviously, one conference and one article published for college students is not enough. But I do see ourselves in a special place and time to join together to work towards a shared goal, vision, and dream.

Divestment and the need for moral leadership on climate

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On Monday, thousands of students and faculty at colleges, high schools, and even two middle schools across the nation walked out of class to reject the deadly climate denialism of the Trump administration and demand moral leadership from our institutions.

Tuesday, the need for that leadership became even more clear. Donald Trump signed executive actions that attempt to restart the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He took this action despite clear opposition from people whose land, livelihoods, and communities will be devastated, climate scientists warning of disastrous climate impacts, and hundreds of thousands across the country who organized and protested to stop them.

This should not come as a surprise. Trump has invested heavily in both these pipelines (a spokesman says he has resolved these conflicts of interest, but refused to provide evidence). He’s also appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, along with a slew of climate deniers, billionaires, and white supremacists to his cabinet. At noon on Inauguration Day, all mentions of climate change (along with pages on civil rights and LGBTQ rights) disappeared from the White House website. And these actions are likely just the beginning. Trump’s poised to eliminate all federal climate regulations and throw out our commitments in the Paris Climate Accord.

Over the coming months, Trump and the GOP will continue to promote policies to bail out the fossil fuel industry. They are authorizing unnecessary dirty pipelines in order to enrich Big Oil executives who were, until this election, facing the slow decline of their industry. They want more money and more power to take people’s land. This will contaminate more water and sacrifice more lives.

In turbulent times here and around the world, institutions of higher education have played critical roles in standing up for rights and justice against authoritarian and repressive governments. Throughout our own history, Swarthmore has been a leader in social justice and stood up for what was right, even if it wasn’t popular. At this moment, colleges like Swarthmore must be the moral leaders our president is not, on climate justice, and on a range of social justice issues. We must be a moral anchor and a beacon of hope in these trying times.

Our $1.9 billion endowment is one of our most powerful tools for showing this moral leadership. By taking our investments out of the industry, we are saying it is wholly incompatible with our values as an institution. It isn’t about hurting share prices, but rather about stripping the fossil fuel industry of its social license to operate. We’ve already seen evidence that this is tremendously effective. five years ago, fossil fuel divestment was started right here on this campus. Today, the movement has divested $5 trillion.

The fossil fuel industry’s response shows the movement’s success. In 2014, the Australian Coal Council tried to make divestment illegal because it was threatening their profits. The Alberta Oil Magazine warned executives “to ignore divestment at their own peril.” Last year, the Independent Petroleum Association of America began an extensive PR campaign called “Divestment Facts” to discourage administrations and students from supporting our movement. The morning of the national day of action, they urged students to #StayInClass. When the Board of Managers said “no” to divestment, the Independent Petroleum Association of America applauded the decision in the press. As this industry continues to partner with and profit from the Trump administration, it is past time that Swarthmore makes sure we are no longer applauded by the fossil fuel industry.

As Trump’s administration and the fossil fuel industry continue to push through policies that will put millions of lives on the line and threaten our future, it will be hard for us to show credible leadership when we are investing in the fossil fuel industry, in companies like Dakota Access that are trampling indigenous rights and in companies like Exxon that have been popularizing for decades the climate denialism that Trump espouses. We need to use every tool at our disposal to stand against this industry and this president. By divesting, we can make a powerful statement: this industry’s business model that profits off economic and racial injustice and that is wrecking the climate is incompatible with our values as an institution.

We know divestment cannot happen overnight, but there are steps we can take right now. Some of our endowment is held in separately-managed accounts. As Board Investments Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski said in the Spring 2015 Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin, with these funds, “it is easy for a client to come to the investment manager with specific needs or requests, such as for a fossil-free portfolio.” We also know that many of our other managers of more traditional commingled accounts have fossil-free options, meaning that to divest those accounts we just need to call the managers and ask them to transfer our money to one of their fossil free funds. This would avoid the major challenge to divest raised by the Board, which is that Swarthmore would need to switch our investment managers.

When the President of the United States is actively threatening communities and the very future of this planet, there is no room for neutrality. We must take prompt action and we must show leadership. The clearest, most powerful way to do that is by ending our investments in the fossil fuel industry. Next Wednesday, Mountain Justice are meeting with President Smith and we look forward to working with her and the Board to take some of these common sense steps to stop our support of this industry.

Re-imagining the campaign: what climate justice can teach MJ

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Statement on Authorship:

The authors of this piece recognize the complexities of representation. This document is an attempt to combat the overpowering white voices that are so prevalent in many spaces, but especially in environmental movements. In the process of writing this document, we reached out on the basis of preexisting relationships to people who may share these same frustrations. We recognize that the listed authors are not representative of all students who would have wanted to contribute, and we feel as though it is important to explicitly state that this document was not spearheaded by white people.

What this document tries to do is to create a pro-environmental justice space that is critical of MJ and white environmentalism in a polarized campus context where one must either be pro-environment and pro-MJ OR anti-environment and anti-MJ. There has been a harmful dynamic on this campus where students, especially people of color (POC), are essentially forced to choose between environmental justice and racial justice, and those of us who identify as POC and refuse to choose are often made to feel as though we have to apologize. One of our hopes for this op-ed is that it helps launch a culture in which it is ok to be pro-environment and stand up for racial justice at the same time.

We recognize that this is not the end of the conversation; in fact, we hope that this can catalyze more dialogue.

In this article, we will use the terms Climate Justice and frontline community in our critique of Mountain Justice as it currently operates. As part of the larger Environmental Justice (EJ) framework, Climate Justice (CJ) recognizes that those least responsible for climate change bear the brunt of its negative impacts, and that addressing climate change requires shifting these burdens to create a more equitable world. Climate Justice demands centering and respecting the voices of frontline communities, those directly impacted by fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

I. Pro-divestment, with caveats

We believe that Swarthmore College must divest from fossil fuels. We support Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s (MJ) campaign, and we support the sit-in that is happening now on Parrish 2nd. We respect the time and energy that the MJ organizers have put into the divestment campaign. We believe that divestment is a necessary step toward building the political power to undermine the fossil fuel industry and create a sustainable future.

Since its beginning, we have seen two narratives over the course of MJ’s campaign: one that centers frontline communities’ activism and one that centers leaders of the group with a tokenizing mention of the frontlines. We have also seen a shift in the structure of the group, from inclusivity and consensus to a hierarchy that does not make space for critique.

The authors of this article come from differing relationships with MJ and environmental action. As a group, we maintain that MJ has an invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate its internal structure and cultivate authentic relationships with other activists on and off campus. Furthermore, MJ needs to commit to action in line with a fully intersectional, Climate Justice analysis that comprises other pressing issues such as racial injustice and economic inequality.

This is not an attack on MJ as people or organizers, but rather a reminder that, historically, mainstream environmental movements have tended to exclude those who are most marginalized. This tendency is a larger structural problem, not just a fault of an individual campaign, though we challenge MJ to resist that trend. We understand that it is hard to balance the practical implications of fast action with intentional community-building, but we think this is an opportune moment to make a push to focus on the latter.

Two-and-a-half weeks into the sit-in and as the May Board meeting nears, MJ could be approaching a turning point. And so, at this moment, we would like to offer suggestions to MJ to highlight both the oppression faced by and the resistance of those who are suffering the most at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.

II. Solidarity with other groups on campus

MJ’s direct action comes in the wake of  the Black Liberation 1969 project, which re-examines the events surrounding the 1969 sit-in, as well as the student-led revisiting of the protests and demands of the Spring of 2013. Unfortunately, MJ has bypassed opportunities to lift up these two histories of resistance.

MJ’s Parrish sit-in is certainly not the first. Though it may be the largest, it is important to recognize how it differs from actions of the past. Their action recalls the 1969 sit-in led by the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) in the admissions office. Neglecting the different levels of risk due to race and political climate ignores the differences between the two sit-ins. The Black students demanding increased Black enrollment, faculty, and administration, as well as Black Studies coursework and a bridge program, faced threats against their safety: alumni wrote suggesting that the students be expelled, Swarthmore police offered to remove the students, and the FBI recruited Swarthmore staff as informants. This harsh reaction demonstrated their racism and fear of mobilized POC; they focused on dispersing the organizers rather than addressing their concerns. Fortunately, today there is less threat of physical danger to members of the sit-in. MJ must ask itself why it has received so little pushback from those in positions of power at this institution and for what reasons students can participate in large numbers and not have to fear for their safety.

Echoing that sit-in could be a powerful way to remember resistances in Swarthmore’s history. It is disappointing that MJ is lauding the size of the sit-in while failing to explicitly acknowledge this tactic’s history on this campus.

In Spring of 2013, students were again met with a dismissive administration in response to a set of demands. After the series of urinations on the door of the Intercultural Center, students mobilized to resist the oppressive structures that continue to pervade administrative action and campus culture.  MJ appropriately ceded its place in the spotlight that May, by taking the microphone from notoriously inaccessible Board members at an open debate with the Board and handing it to a coalition of students who had been leading the resistance since the fifth urination, as well as leaders of other campaigns for social justice.

In the debrief after the Board meeting action, members of the IC expressed their appreciation for MJ’s decision to de-center divestment in that moment. They encouraged MJ to continue to work in coalition with other campaigns for social justice on campus. Since the Spring of 2013, however, MJ has done little to work in coalition with EJ/CJ or other social justice groups on campus. Rather, it seems that MJ has misremembered the collaboration of May 2013, describing the “Board takeover” as a 200-person action for divestment.

In short, MJ has failed to stand in solidarity with other on-campus activist groups, erasing the work of previous struggles on campus and neglecting an opportunity to retell and emphasize the history of their resistances.

III. Re-centering the frontlines

Bill McKibben was recently invited by MJ to lead a rally in support of the sit-in and the Swarthmore divestment movement. At the center of Swarthmore’s and the media’s attention, he delivered a rousing pep-talk encouraging everyone to attend the sit-in on Parrish 2nd, which he called the “white, hot center” of the fight against climate change.

McKibben’s talk needs to be put into the context of the mainstream environmentalist movement. Historically, environmentalism has centered the experiences and goals of higher-income, white men. The movement thus has a problematic legacy of benefiting white people and prioritizing false solutions to solve environmental problems at the expense of indigenous peoples and communities of color. In the name of “solving” environmental issues, people are removed from their land, toxic and nuclear waste is dumped in communities of color, and destructive extractivist industries are sited in poor communities.

Because of this persistent neo-colonial oppression worldwide, many peoples’ traditional or indigenous knowledge and relationships with land have either been destroyed or denied. The California Wilderness Act, authored in the name of environmental interests, removed California Natives from their homelands.

These systemic processes are perpetuated by lifting the voices of middle to upper-class white men and erasing the experiences of directly-impacted communities to find solutions to environmental problems. That is why the work of Environmental Justice and Climate Justice organizers requires that we center frontline activists and directly impacted communities. MJ’s decision last month to bring McKibben is a departure from their previous narrative, which highlighted people in directly-impacted communities.

In 2013, MJ planned a divestment convergence to bring together fossil fuel divestment activists from around the country. The idea was to share information and strategies about the campaign and to lift up the voices of people from directly-impacted communities. For this reason, when the option to include Bill McKibben as a speaker arose, MJ turned it down, instead inviting frontline activists resisting tar sands in Alberta, fracking in Pennsylvania, mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia, coal-fired power plants in Chicago, and a range of others whose voices are often overlooked in mainstream environmental movements.

At this moment, MJ must not only center the voices of directly-impacted communities that exist off-campus and nearby in Chester, but also students here who identify as members of such. MJ should look at whether the communities it claims to be in solidarity with are leading the movement or included in the decision-making process in a genuine way. How movements acknowledge histories of exclusion and who is chosen to speak at rallies will impact whether or not certain students feel uncomfortable and excluded from these spaces. We encourage MJ to conscientiously reevaluate who is at the “white, hot” center of the movement.

IV. Moving forward

So how can MJ learn from its past and present to move forward? As we’ve already suggested, the first step is self-reflection. We hope that this article can spark face-to-face conversations that reach across group boundaries.  Below are some specific suggestions we would like to offer as a starting point for this conversation:

  • MJ must explicitly recognize how it has borrowed tactics from other movements, such as the 1969 Black students’ sit-in. Instead of disregarding that history, MJ can make space to talk about how the struggle for Black liberation is connected to EJ. Similarly, MJ can recognize the racism inherent in many environmentalist spaces. It should ensure that members are aware of this legacy and the tension that it invokes between environmental and other social justice movements.

  • Forming deep and genuine relationships between movements and between individuals is a crucial component of the CJ movement. MJ must stand in solidarity with the IC/BCC and social justice groups on campus. Attending these groups’ events, as allies (not as representatives of MJ with the goal of talking about divestment), would be one demonstration of a commitment to solidarity.  For example, joining the upcoming discussion, “Toward Future Coalition Building: Revisit Spring 2013 Student Demands,” (on April 13 at 4:30pm) would show that MJ members are committed to retelling the history of the Spring of 2013 in a meaningful way.

  • MJ must recenter frontline communities by returning to the idea of divestment as for communities directly impacted by extreme fossil fuel extraction. MJ must not only stand in solidarity with but take leadership from the frontlines. To start, we invite you to join us in learning directly from the words written by POC, indigenous people, and people from the Global South. The sit-in is an excellent opportunity to center this kind of programming.

  • Take advantage of the sit-in space by hosting discussions about the links between EJ and allyship, with reference to the Allyship and Anti-Oppression Resource Guide; screening films about frontline resistance work; providing opportunities to discuss readings by marginalized CJ activists; and inviting students involved in the 1969 class to share their research.

We offer these suggestions recognizing that there is not one definitive set of actions that will constitute the process of Climate Justice. We all must work to establish authentic relationships with each other and people at the frontlines – not in order to “get” anything from them or “give” anything to them, but rather, for its own sake.

Divestment movements across the country look up to MJ for both strategy and direction; and so, it is crucial that MJ set a precedent for how a divestment campaign can enact Climate Justice.

All that being said, let’s divest.

We would like to especially thank the contributors to the Black Liberation 1969 database. Without their attention to keeping alive institutional memory, we would not have been able to make the connections in this piece.

Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, Christopher Chalaka ’15, Bryan Chen ’15, Matthew Chen, Natalia Choi ’15, Amie Chou ’15, Damella Dotan ’15, Ben Goloff ’15, Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso ’15, Hazlett Henderson ’17, Lillian Jamison-Cash ’15, Lekey Leidecker ’16, Daniel Orr ’16, Laura Rigell ’16, Kat Galvis Rodriguez ’17, Peera Songkünnatham ’15, Mayra Tenorio, Emily Zhang ’15 

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