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Sunrise referendum on 1991 divestment ban passes

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On April 19, a Student Government Organization referendum introduced by climate activism student group Swarthmore Sunrise passed with 87% approval. The referendum calls for the Board of Managers to remove a clause from its investment guidelines requiring that the Investment Committee manage the endowment so as to “yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” The board has cited this guideline, which was added in 1991 following divestment from Apartheid South Africa, as a reason not to divest its fossil fuel company holdings. It remains unclear how the Board will respond to the referendum, though the Board has historically not made policy changes from similar student initiatives.

In the referendum, Sunrise makes two demands for the Board. First, they demand that “a discussion of the repeal of the 1991 Ban must be on the agenda for the next Board Meeting, set for May 11th and 12th.” Second, Sunrise demands that “the Ban must be replaced with a holistic investment policy that takes into account both long-term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility.”

Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, also ran an SGO referendum in February 2017 calling for partial divestment. That referendum passed with 80.5% approval, though President Valerie Smith and then-Board chair Tom Spock ’78 swiftly released a statement affirming its 2015 decision not to divest.

Compared to last year’s partial divestment referendum, the turnout for this referendum was slightly lower. 40.7% of the student body voted on this most recent referendum, compared to 54.3% for the 2017 referendum.

Of those who did vote, 87% approved of the referendum, while 11.5% voted against it. 1.5% students indicated “no preference.”

In May 2015, following a 32-day sit-in in Parrish led by Mountain Justice, then-Board president Gil Kemp ’72 released a letter reporting that the Board had decided against divestment. In the letter, he made an explicit reference to the 1991 investment guidelines as a reason why Board members chose not to divest. The Board reaffirmed this decision in 2017, following the partial divestment referendum.

“What the school has told Sunrise for the past few years has been ‘oh, we can’t divest because we have this policy in place,’” Sunrise member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 said. “Our decision was, if that’s the reason we’re given, these are the terms we’re going to talk about.”

Sunrise leaders Shiney-Ajay, Gabriel Brossy de Dios ’20 and September Porras Payea ’20 met with President Smith and her assistant on April 5, prior to publicly introducing the referendum. In this meeting, Smith promised that if the referendum passed, she would bring it up at the May Board meeting.

“We have been in contact with her since and have confirmed that she will personally present it to the Board, though perhaps not necessarily express her opinion on it,” Porras Payea ’20 wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Ultimately the president of the college is hired by the Board, so her influence is limited, but this is a big step in comparison to past conversations and referendums [sic] she’s been involved with.”

However, it is unclear whether the Board will carry through with the terms of the referendum even if President Smith presents the referendum at the next meeting. The Board has a mixed track record of responding to student referenda; the most recent instance it carried through with the terms of a student referendum was in 1994, when 61% of students voted to fly the American flag above Parrish, an action that many Board members already supported.

“I think it’s really difficult to say the exact impact of the ban on whether [the Board divests],” Shiney-Ajay said.

Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown has also come out in opposition to repealing the 1991 ban. In an op-ed published in The Phoenix, Brown asserted that he, as well as members of the Board, believes that lifting the ban would be a meaningless gesture.

“The College’s investment policy takes into account broader concerns, such as climate change or changes in an investment manager’s stated strategy, when they might materially affect the financial performance of the endowment upon which we rely to support our core mission and goals. Changing the investment policy to make a moral statement with no tangible effect could have the effect of diminishing performance and reducing funding available for critical mission-centric initiatives such as financial aid and academic programs, which is why the Board believes our current policy is the right one for the College,” Brown wrote.

However, Brossy de Dios believes that even if the Board doesn’t repeal the ban, having the referendum in place will give student activists more leverage to push for fossil fuel divestment.

“I worked on the campaign with Mountain Justice and was here for the referendum on partial divestment last year,” Brossy de Dios said. “One of the things around that was that having that referendum even though they had rejected it right-off, it still laid the groundwork and put a lot of pressure on them.”

The guideline was established in 1991, not long after the college had fully divested itself from Apartheid South Africa. In the November 7, 1997 issue of The Phoenix, former College president Alfred Bloom, who assumed his position in 1991 around the time the ban was instated, defended the ban as a means to protect Swarthmore’s educational quality.

“Given the primary responsibility to use our endowment to support our educational mission, there would likely be very few times when we would want to take risks with the financing of that educational purpose by using the endowments to make social… statements. [However], joining the initiative to undercut apartheid, in my opinion, was one such rare moment,” Bloom wrote.

The endowment did lose value following South African divestment, which resulted in temporary pay cuts for staff and a possible decrease in financial aid. However, the actual loss of returns on the endowment, as compared to peer institutions that did not divest, was $917,000, which was considerably less than the $2 million the board allocated to cover endowment losses.

Whether the 1991 ban was an ethical decision was the center point of debate that SGO moderated on Monday night between representatives from Sunrise and representatives from the Swarthmore Conservative Society, who argued against the referendum. Students and faculty members packed into Science Center 101 on Monday night to watch the debate. SGO Co-President David Pipkin ’18 estimates that about 110 people attended. SGO also live-streamed the debate on its Facebook page, which was viewed by 565 people.

Starting with their opening statements, the debaters dove into conversations about whether the 1991 ban was ethical. Porras, who debated on behalf of Sunrise, argued that the ban reflects poorly on the Board’s commitment to social justice.

“The institution of this ban raises a really pressing question: does the Board of Managers regret divesting from South African apartheid?,” Porras said. “The Board of Manager believes that investments should be solely managed for financial reasons. If they truly believe that, then they don’t believe that divesting from apartheid is the right decision. If they do believe that divesting is the right decision, there is no logical reason for this ban to be in place … It very much does not align with our values.”

Swarthmore Conservative Society member Matt Stein ’20 argued that the ban is essential because it prevents the school from taking a stance on issues where the student body has heterogeneous views. He made reference to the Overton window, a term describing the range of ideas considered acceptable within public discourse for politicians.

“The school by divesting from fossil fuels, or any other thing that has views that can be defended within the Overton Window, is essentially saying that those views are antithetical to the university’s values and that students should not be advocating for those views,” Stein said. “That’s completely the opposite of what the university is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas.”

Stein went on to adopt a similar line of reasoning as did Bloom and Dean Brown, and argued that the Ban is a safeguard against divestment for anything but the most extreme cases.

“There are clearly stances such as South African apartheid where views defending are clearly not within the Overton Window, and we should divest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all divestment should be on the table,” Stein said.

Sunrise members pushed back against Swarthmore Conservatives’ argument that divestment ought only to be used in “extreme” cases.

“You mentioned that the Overton Window applies to things that are outside of intellectual discussion, things that deal with overt racism, and cited South African apartheid as dealing with that,” Porras said. “Well, climate is racist. The climate crisis is specifically targeting people of color and low-income communities that are politically, socially and culturally disenfranchised.”

Another concern that the Swarthmore Conservative Society debaters raised was that lifting the ban would make the Board susceptible to future divestment movements. Though the college’s Board of Managers has not faced serious pressure in recent years on issues other than fossil fuel investments, some Board members have expressed concern that fossil fuel divestment might lead to a “slippery slope” toward divestment from private prisons and from companies that support Israeli occupation.

“The fact is that we open a big door by taking away this ban. We open a door to divesting from a bunch of different of things. It’s basically the slippery slope argument,” Stein said.

However, Porras feels that it is antithetical to the college’s values to have a ban on all divestment. She feels that students should have space to have discussions with the board.

“I’m looking at this policy and it’s something specifically… that goes against Swarthmore’s values,” Porras said. “I also think that if there are things on this campus that students feel like looking at they realize they don’t want to be invested in and it’s financially viable to divest from, that’s something students should have the pathway and… be able to have that discourse with the Board without this blanket ban that none of our peer institutions hold.”

The debaters also sparred over whether fossil fuel divestment, specifically, would affect the endowment returns.

“Possible financial returns on the endowment are a social good in itself, in order to make sure that low-income students have greatest opportunities to come here and to make sure that students get the highest quality education possible here so they can continue on to do good things,” Conservative Society President Jorge Tello ’20 said.

Shiney-Ajay argued that the partial divestment proposal they introduced with the 2017 referendum would absorb most of the potential costs of divestment. The proposal calls for the college to divest from its fossil fuel holdings in separately managed accounts, or funds that solely respond to the college. For funds managed by other organizations, Sunrise would have Board request that investment managers move its holdings to fossil-free accounts, which would eliminate the costs of hiring another manager. She also argued that fossil-free funds are a better long-term investment given current market trends.

“There’s no reason to think that divesting from fossil fuels would significantly lower our endowment,” Shiney-Ajay said. “Even if it were, one, [the endowment has] really high returns, and two, there are choices other than financial aid the school could choose to cut back on. Sunrise Swarthmore has said repeatedly that we won’t be supporting any plan for divestment that cuts back on financial aid.”

Susanna McGrew ’20, who attended the debate, did not know how she felt about the referendum and the ban. As of Monday night, McGrew had not decided whether to vote in favor or against the referendum, or whether to vote at all.

“The ban, I think, is kind of immaterial, because the ban just prevents us from making these decisions, it’s just a stop-gag in a way,” McGrew said. “I think that it’s probably an okay stop-gag to have because most of the time I think we don’t want to divest, but does the ban prevent us from considering exceptional cases? Maybe it does. There’s no language about that in the ban. Should it be amended to make way for exceptional cases? Probably not, because I think that could get into the whole ‘slippery slope’ argument.”

Reuben Gelley Newman ’21 felt more confident about his vote on the referendum.

“I’m voting ‘yes’ because I think Swarthmore has to back up its professed social justice values with real action on an institutional level,” Gelley Newman wrote to The Phoenix. “The Board’s investments should obviously make financial sense, but must be true to the values held by students, faculty, and the institution as a whole.”

If President Smith keeps her word, the referendum will go before the Board in May, whose response will determine whether or not social considerations should be taken into account for the college’s future financial decisions.

Students Lead on Divestment — When Will the Board?

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Seven years ago, a group of Swarthmore students took a trip to West Virginia, where they witnessed the brutal injustice of mountaintop coal removal. Horrified in the face of the climate crisis, they decided to take action and launched the world’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign — Mountain Justice. Divestment aims to move investments out of the fossil fuel industry in order to stigmatize the industry socially and politically. It is immoral for an institution like Swarthmore, which prides itself on social responsibility, to continue to invest in companies that threaten our futures and the safety of our communities.  

Fast forward seven years, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns have spread across the world. By 2016, the third annual Arabella Report revealed over 688 institutions across 76 countries had committed to divesting over 6 trillion dollars. Recently, New York City chose to divest from fossil fuels, following on the heels of the Rockefeller Brothers. Institutions ranging from Yale and Columbia to Pitzer and Barnard have divested as well. Divestment is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored. As these victories pile up, they send a clear message: the fossil fuel industry has outlived its welcome, and the end of its era is here.

The clearest evidence of the movement’s success comes from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is attempting to render divestment illegal, claiming that it unfairly burdens them because “stigmatization [from divestment] makes it difficult for an industry to engage with its customers, attract employees and more importantly access capital for investment purposes.” The Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” Last January, when over a hundred students from Swarthmore walked out of class calling on the school to divest, a Twitter account called ‘Divestment Facts’ run by the Independent Petroleum Institute of America even tweeted #stayinclass in an attempt to dissuade students from showing moral leadership.

But as the fossil fuel industry often cites, as the tide of international victories for the divestment movement grew, Swarthmore has remained silent. Last year, a referendum on divestment passed by a landslide: 80.5 percent of voters agreed that Swarthmore College should divest from fossil fuels. The referendum shows a clear mandate from the student body for the Board to take action on divestment. Yet despite overwhelming support from faculty, students and staff, international news coverage from the New York Times and the Guardian of our campaign, and the UN climate chief calling on Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, the College has refused to divest.

To understand why, we need to look a little further back into our history.

Sunrise’s (formerly Mountain Justice’s) fossil fuel divestment campaign is not the first divestment campaign on Swarthmore’s campus. Swarthmore students began to organize against apartheid in South Africa as early as 1965, and in 1978 they launched a divestment campaign with a petition highlighting the injustices of apartheid, the College’s investments in companies involved in South Africa, and the College’s Quaker values.

The anti-apartheid divestment campaign spanned eleven long years: eleven years of being ignored, sidestepped, and rejected by the Board. Students circulated petitions, staged sit-ins, invited speakers, formed human chains, and slept on Parrish porch. Despite the Board rejecting divestment four times, students and faculty persisted, taking increasingly escalated action, and in 1989 the Board committed to a plan to divest from apartheid by 1990. Due to student efforts, the College finally decided that it was morally and politically unthinkable to continue to support apartheid.


In 1991, following the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board adopted new investment guidelines stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” In other words, they decided to never again take ‘social objectives’ into account.  This 1991 Ban implies that divesting from apartheid was a mistake — and that’s unacceptable.

Today, we are in the midst of a terrifying climate crisis. 2017 was a year of natural disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, and record temperatures ravaged our communities. Those most impacted by the crisis — indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities— are the first to be hit and the last to be rebuilt. Every passing year shatters previous records, and people across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed about the climate crisis.

Sunrise is going to make 2018 the year when no politician can take money from fossil fuel billionaires and claim to care about our future— and that goes for our institutions too.  We’ve just seen an incredible victory for our divestment campaign— SGO has made the decision to follow the student mandate from last year’s referendum and invested in a fossil-free fund. This decision is an incredible testament to student leadership and the Swarthmore community. It’s a huge victory, and it should be celebrated— but it isn’t enough.

This Friday, the Board of Managers is coming to campus for the first time this semester. Sunrise and SGO will be hosting a joint press conference to announce and celebrate our divestment victory in Parrish Parlors at 12:30. Join the student body in calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels and lead with us.

Anti-pipeline candidates elected with help from Sunrise

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Sunrise lead a successful effort to elect opponents of the Mariner East II pipeline, currently under construction, to township boards in Chester County. Four officials who won last Tuesday’s municipal elections promise they will enforce local ordinances designed to protect community members from the dangers of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline.

The pipeline connects the Marcellus Shale formations of Western Pennsylvania, an area rich in natural gas, to a shipping terminal in Marcus Hook, a town nine miles from Swarthmore. Petroleum manufacturer and distribution company Sunoco intends to export much of the natural gas to Europe.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved the pipeline in 2014, but there is currently a lawsuit being reviewed by an intermediate appeals court in Harrisburg arguing that local townships can assert zoning control. The Commission has banned drilling in West Goshen Township until a hearing regarding the site of a valve scheduled for April of next year. Sunoco started construction on the valve earlier this year, but a judge halted construction, arguing the property was not covered by an earlier agreement.

Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, announced Wednesday that completion of the project would be pushed to the second quarter of 2018 despite the fact that 99 percent of the pipeline will be in the ground by the end of 2017, according to Stateimpact NPR. The delays are due to regulatory disputes with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over the practice of horizontal drilling. The project has ninety reported drilling fluid spills in forty locations, NPR said. In one case, the company had four spillages in less than a week at its East Goshen drilling operation, and the DEP must decide whether the company has violated soil erosion permits.

If the pipeline can be held up by the courts, costs may be high enough to justify scrapping the project. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, the government halted construction on federal land when it angered the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The resulting delays cost the owner of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, $450 million.

“Now that we’ve elected township supervisors that are committed to enforcing the ordinance, it should be able to hold up the pipeline,” said Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a leader of Sunrise. “The more these things can be delayed, eventually people can want out.”

Sunrise, founded this year, is an extension of a previous group at the College called  Mountain Justice. The group focuses on divestment, grassroots organizing, and anti-pipeline activism to pursue the broader goal of stopping climate change. The group drove nine students to knock on doors the Saturday before the election in West Goshen and Uwchlan townships, where there were four anti-pipeline candidates running. Sunrise partnered with Food and Water Action, a political advocacy group supporting clean water and sustainable energy, which spent $40,000 on the election, Philly.com reported. The election saw anti-pipeline majorities on the Board of Supervisors for each township.

“We talked to voters that were very supportive but needed that extra push, needed someone to contact them to get them to the polls,” said Seitz-Brown. “It feels good when you know you’re the difference.”

Construction on the entire pipeline was held up in August by an emergency order blocking horizontal drilling practices used by Sunoco after it contaminated residents’ water wells. In one case this summer, 15 households in Chester County were without water for weeks after Sunoco punctured an aquifer, said Stateimpact NPR.  The company reached a settlement with environmental organizations requiring it to better notify residents, improve its geological evaluation techniques, and offer to test the wells of nearby residents.

Olivia Robbins ’21 emphasized the importance of prioritizing environmental concerns in policy.

“The environment ought to be weighed most heavily because it will have the longest lasting impact,” she said. “The economic concerns that develop out of environmental travesties end up being far greater than the economic incentive.”

The closest the pipeline runs to the college is about three and a half miles. Its impact zone, which is identified as a 1,300-foot radius around the pipeline, includes 105,419 people and a total of 40 public and private schools. Middletown High School in Dauphin County is only seven feet away from the pipeline, making an emergency evacuation almost impossible should there be a leakage. It also crosses through four environmental justice areas dominated by poor and minority communities, reported Fractracker.

“The first thing you need to think about is who the economic benefits are going to be allocated to,” said Robbins. “ I care a lot if Chester, which is a pretty impoverished area in general and one of the most under-resourced school systems, didn’t get a huge economic benefit. From my understanding of the pipeline, it’s not.”

Chester County Charter School for the Arts is located 419 feet from the pipeline, enrolls 98 percent Black and Hispanic students, and will likely receive little tax benefit from the pipeline. Philly.com reported the terminal at Marcus Hook will contribute an additional $4.8 million in property taxes next year, raising property taxes for the site to $7.1 million. While Chichester schools will receive $5 million, only an additional $700,000 will go to Delaware County, a county with a tax revenue of $353 million making little impact on other school districts.

FracTracker Alliance, an anti-oil and gas research organization, reported 4,215 pipeline failures since 2010 resulting in 100 reported fatalities and 470 injuries. The property damage exceeded $3.4 billion.

Although the election itself happened in Chester County, this victory is one for Delaware County residents as well. With the pipeline currently held up in court until April, and opponents of the pipeline pledging to enforce local zoning laws, the completion date looks to be far away.

President’s sustainability research fellowship expanded, refined

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Amos Frye ’18, a fellow of the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship program, worked first as a landscaper and farmhand in high school, then as a volunteer for the Student Conservation Association, working on trails in Hopewell Furnace, Pa., and Kenai Fjords, Alaska. Over the last two summers, he has worked for two different Conservation Corps, one based in Salida, Colo., and one based in Cedar City, Utah. He has spent most of his working time pulling weeds, digging holes for water retention (biotension) basins, removing invasive plant species, and managing trails — until his PSRF project allowed him to direct a sustainability effort in his own community at Swarthmore.

“I’ve worked in conservation a lot, but I’ve never been the person who manages the project; I’ve just been the grunt who does the work,” Frye said. “It’s interesting to get on the other side and see what goes into those issues of restoration and conservation [and] what work goes into the planning process.”

The PSRF program, which is a hybrid of a two-credit, yearlong course and an internship, assigns projects and staff and faculty mentors to a select group of students. There are 17 PSRF fellows this year, seven more than there were during the program’s pilot year in 2016 – 2017. Departments can request PSRF projects, but they are funded outside of the academic departments.

“All the things that would have been done, there’s just no one around to do them — that’s essentially all PSRF projects,” Frye said. “[Administrators, staff and faculty] saw the potential for improvement, but they don’t have the time or the resources. Since we’re paid outside of each department [and] we’re not paid much, that allows for that work.”

This year, the PSRF program has expanded and evolved to include the Alumni Sages, a group of alumni with careers in sustainability who provide resources and insider knowledge as well as new planning mechanisms, new work spaces, and changes to the yearlong timeline of the class. Projects this year focus on improving environmental friendliness all over and surrounding the campus, from Sharples to the Athletics Department to the office building at 101 S. Chester.

Frye currently works on the Crum Woods Stewardship and Engagement project, which Gabi Mallory ’17 and Brittany Weiderhold ’18 began during the last academic year. His project includes four distinct subprojects: preventing erosion by restoring native plants at Morganwood Slope, a retirement community near Mary Lyon residence hall; evaluating and managing peak flow and erosion at the Lang Swale, a ditch behind Lang Concert Hall that absorbs around 99 percent of stormwater from the academic quad; working on a comprehensive restoration plan for the Crum Woods; and planning engagement events with the office of sustainability’s community outreach coordinator.

The PSRF project directed by Natasha Markov-Riss ’20, which aims to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices at Office of Student Engagement events, has led to an interesting discovery.

“It seems like one big area where we need to get better with sustainability is the red Solo cup issue,” Markov-Riss said. “They’re #6 [plastic], so they’re not recyclable. At every party, we’re using two to three bags of them, upwards of 200, and those are all being thrown away.”

But when Markov-Riss began researching alternatives for red Solo cup usage, she discovered that students were reluctant to give them up.

“There’s more of a connection to and love of red Solo cups than we originally anticipated,” she said. “They are super entrenched in [the] culture of American drinking, they’re regulation for different drinking games, and people aren’t super willing to move away from them.”

Markov-Riss instead decided to search for recycling programs that would recycle the cups for free.

“So that way, instead of going upstream, we may try and tackle that problem downstream just because the goal is to create sustainable solutions that are in themselves sustainable, and we want people to be on board with them,” she said. “One of the goals of this project is not just to force sustainability solutions in students.”

Markov-Riss plans to create a strategic sustainability plan for the OSE that will include recommendations for the next one to two years. She also hopes to hold a launch event for students and to implement one or two of her recommendations before the year is over.

“Right now I’m doing a really thorough baseline analysis of where the campus is at right now in terms of sustainability,” Markov-Riss said. “I’m interviewing all the different people involved in all the different programs under the OSE, and that’s more people than you would expect: van coordinators, everyone who runs Paces, everyone who’s in charge of any event on campus — so that’s PubNite, [Delta Upsilon], Phi Psi, [Mary Lyon] breakfast, [and] Swat Team.”

In contrast, much of Frye’s work involves hydrology, the study of how water moves over land on campus. Peak flow rate is an important metric for this study because it gives an idea of how a 25-year or 50-year storm event (storms that have a 4 or 2 percent chance of occurring each year) would affect the campus. Biotension basins, which are large ditches filled with hardy plants, are one of the ways the college decreases peak flow rate by increasing surface area over which water can slowly percolate into the soil.

“There’s a lot of interesting stuff on campus that they’re doing with stormwater now,” Frye said. “It’s sort of the biggest modern issue when it comes to civil engineering for big buildings, because there’s been recently a lot of laws passed and you can’t have peak flow rates any higher at a construction project than they were before for a 50-year storm. Swarthmore does better than that because I think [it’s] going for a silver or gold star.”

The College aims to earn a gold star from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Bridget Scott is an office of sustainability intern and Teaching Assistant for the PSRF class. Her PSRF project last year involved helping to creating a STARS report, which contains 63 different credits of sustainability, for the college. Last year, the college received a STAR rating of silver, which lasts for three years.

“Silver rating is really, really exciting because it means we’re doing well, but we can definitely do better,” Scott said.

The student engagement component of Frye’s project involves the Crum Woods tree planting event. The event was traditionally a mandatory activity during orientation, but it has been since made optional and moved to the spring. Frye also feels that the goal of PSRF engagement activities is to balance attendance with healthy student interest.

“It’s kind of hard to get people excited if they’re forced to go,” Frye said. “The idea is you want to get people who are actually interested or at least adjacently interested first, because if you force someone out into the woods and they don’t want to be there, you generally don’t engender positive feelings.”

Holding engagement events such as the Crum Woods tree planting involves a lot of  planning time, as does every aspect of the PSRF projects. Last year, students began the class by studying why sustainability is necessary on college campuses and learning other environmental science concepts, but this year, co-instructors Aurora Winslade and Carr Everbach switched the order of the class in order to incorporate time for fellows to plan projects and anticipate setbacks before they occurred.

“[Last year] we kind of developed our projects in the fall and carried them out more in the spring, but this year the fellows started and they just went off running,” Scott said. “Last year we didn’t really give ourselves enough time to plan our projects out for the totality of the year, so this way, the fellows came in with a much more clear sense of what the purpose of their project was.”

This fall, the co-instructors of the course have taught methods of planning and executing projects instead of beginning with studying applied environmental science concepts.

“The first part of the class focuses a lot on project management, because they want everyone to get the projects off the ground,” Markov-Riss said.

According to Scott — whose job includes taking feedback and handling difficulties that PSRF fellows bring to her — one of the most common problems is communication with project mentors as well as faculty and staff in the department connected to the project. Though the project board is a very helpful tool for facilitating this communication, she says, the amount of people involved can complicate planning.

“One of my favorite parts of the PSRF projects is that for each student, they have a faculty mentor [or] a staff mentor, but then they also have their project board … That’s the approval board that moves your project forward for each stage of the game,” Scott said. “[But] in communicating with all those different people, information is really likely to get lost.”

According to Markov-Riss, the changes made to the program this year have improved the ability of students to communicate with their approval board and to carry out their projects effectively.

“We’re sending out weekly updates to our project board. The project feels very well mechanized and very well [systematized], so you definitely feel like you have a direction and you feel like there are support systems in place, so I’ve definitely learned a lot about project management. I think they refined the whole class.”

Many of the changes to the program were made in response to student feedback from last year, which Scott compiled during her internship this summer. One concern from students was the amount of work they put into the project. Eight paid hours per week and 10-12 academic hours are built into the program, but some students last year would go over the allotted amount of hours. According to Scott, changes are also being made by the class’s co-instructors as well as Eugene M. Lang Professor Denise Crossen to clarify the difference between work hours and academic hours.

“A difference this year is that — this is actually great, this is one of the most exciting parts — is that the Innovation Lab in the Lang Center [for Civic and Social Responsibility], the Social Innovation Lab, has become a space for PSRF,” Scott said. “Last year we would do our work hours whenever we wanted to, but this year it models more of a job system, which is nice.”

For all of these projects, fellows will create a handbook or plan containing the best practices in their project area at Swarthmore in the future.

“Institutional memory [is] a huge part of the program,” Scott said.

The program’s dual nature is meant to both give students experience and to provide a way for sustainability improvements to occur all over campus without relying only on departmental resources.

“That’s one of the main purposes of the PSRF program: to give students the power and the resources to carry out these projects and to get that real life experience [with] sustainability in their own communities,” Scott said. “But it’s also really to create these structures at Swarthmore that will last and really push sustainable change.”

PSRF fellows will present their findings — including baseline analyses, effectiveness of changes already implemented, and plans for the future — to the Swarthmore community in a public meeting in April.

From Hanoi to Crum Creek

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Squatting on a little wooden stool on the sidewalk, I am captivated by the story of a small-framed 60-year-old woman who has lived in the Dong Da District of Hanoi for over 50 years. She sits across from me on the other side of a small wooden coffee table, also known as the entirety of her family’s small business. While hopefully awaiting her next customer, she tells me the tale of the Tu Loc River and how a natural feature that was once an amenity has become her greatest source of suffering.

The woman speaks slowly but deliberately and with obvious pain in her eyes. She begins her story by describing the beauty of the river 20 years ago, when the water was blue and people took for granted their ability to swim and fish. She then guides me to the critical point, when too many residents and community members began dumping their trash in the river, thinking nothing of the plastic wrappers, oil, and household cleaners carried away by the river and into the great unknown. As years passed, human waste built up in the river, swimming became unsafe, and fish started to disappear.

As she reached the climax, it was clear this story had no happy ending. Despite government initiatives to clean the river, they couldn’t keep up with the amount of waste people had added to the water. Now, 20 years later, the river is an ominous pool of toxins smelling of sewage, or “rotten eggs” as the woman described it. The woman walked me across the street to the river, showing me the translucent film covering the water supposedly treated by the government. It was clear that swimming, fishing, or even admiring the beauty of the river was no longer a realistic activity for the residents of the community.

In the United States, and particularly in our Swat bubble, we Swarthmore students like to believe such a scene could never happen to us. Surely, the idea of needing to both boil and filter water before we can safely drink it, is one of a third world country. The United States takes better care of its water system. Especially locally at Swarthmore, we would never pollute the Crum Creek in the same way as the residents of Hanoi.

Except our optimism bias couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Swarthmore students and community members are already severely polluting Crum Creek. Last year at the Little Crum Creek Clean Up, 40 Scott Arboretum volunteers removed tires and plastic bags from the creek only to find more bags of trash floating in the river the next day. After 19 clean-ups last year to protect the Ridley Crum Watershed, 620,000 pounds of trash was removed from the river. Still, students and community members are tossing beer cans or snack wrappers into the creek to be carried onto the great unknown.

Yet, particularly with Crum Creek, the final location of our pollutants aren’t so unknown, and the pollutants are already negatively impacting people’s lives. The Crum Creek is part of a watershed that flows into Springton Lake Reservoir and the Delaware River, providing at least 19 million gallons of water per day for over 200,000 Delaware County residents. According to the Chester Ridley Crum Watershed Association, the Crum Creek is a special protection stream, home to the largest cold water fishery and native trout population in the area. Yet, fish populations and other wildlife have been substantially decreasing. Breeding populations of native brook trout and American Shad have disappeared from the creek altogether, indicating a decline in water quality and serving as a warning that the water source many of us depend on is facing the threat of an ending not much different from the Tu Loc River in Hanoi.

The good news is that for the outside community and us Swatties,  actions can be taken to protect our water source for recreational and necessary uses before the fish completely disappear or Swarthmore begins to smell as rancid as the Tu Loc River. While environmental issues like climate change or the fossil fuel industry can seem daunting, there is a simple yet powerful solution to protect our water source. Our smallest responsibility as Swatties can be to not leave trash in the Crum Woods and to bring a trash bag to remove other garbage from the creek and woods. While it may be another person’s trash, it will affect the whole population. As Swatties, perhaps we can even expand our responsibility to join with the outside community and attend Crum Creek Clean Up days because, while their efforts may seem small, any less trash in the river can make a huge difference.

After concluding my interview with the woman, she locked eyes with me and pleaded, “I just need someone to clean up the Tu Loc River because I don’t want to suffer anymore.” Other residents have begun to give up on the river, stating they’d rather build a road over the water since the water serves “no purpose and causes only harm.”

While I cannot yet create a solution to solve the issues of the Tu Loc River in Hanoi, we Swatties can learn from the experiences of these residents and play an active role in protecting our own water source before future generations are forced to suffer from our mistakes. In Hanoi, the residents 20 years ago did not realize the beauty of their river and all the joy it brought to the community through giving them a place to swim, fish, and drink water. At Swarthmore, it is our duty to recognize these amenities and privileges now, and play a small yet active role in protecting one of nature’s gifts and necessities.

 

Mountain Justice Joins National Group Sunrise, Broadens Goals

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After a busy past year, Mountain Justice is rebranding. They’ve joined Sunrise, a national “movement to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process,” according to their website.

“Last year I remember hearing about Mountain Justice just about every week,” said Matt Palmer ’18, who has not been part of environmental groups at Swarthmore. From a campus-wide panel about divestment to a sit-in in President Smith’s office, the climate justice organization was incredibly visible last year. This year, they’re trying something different, but they hope their impact on campus will be even greater.

Sunrise was launched this past June by a group of 12 people, including four Swarthmore Mountain Justice alumni. The founders come from different sects of the climate justice movement, including the environmental organization 350.org and anti-pipeline groups as well as pro-divestment activists. With these varied backgrounds, Sunrise aims to mobilize Americans concerned about climate change and pressure elected officials into action. Swarthmore’s “hub,” or chapter, will remain focused on Mountain Justice’s original mission of getting organizations to divest from fossil fuels while pursuing these broader goals.

“Divestment has done an incredible job in building people power … It’s mobilized thousands of young people across hundreds of campuses, and that’s so exciting,” said Aru-Shiney Ajay ’20, a coordinator for Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub. “But … it’s not enough to just have people mobilized and ready to protest. We also need to make sure that our elected representatives are going to be standing up for climate action; we need to be able to take power at the highest levels of government … And it’s out of this recognition that Sunrise really arose, that while we’ve been doing good work we need to do so much more in order to win.”

Nationally, Sunrise has already made a splash, particularly at one of their #ShineALight events in August. September Porras ’18 crowdfunded her way into a fundraiser to confront Marco Rubio on his donations from the fossil fuel industry. At the event, Porras couldn’t speak to Rubio directly, so she called out in the room.

“Senator, if you really care about young Americans,” she said, “why did you take three-quarters of a million dollars from fossil fuel executives in your last Senate election?” PolitiFact Florida rated Porras’ claim half-true because the number she cited included funds from Rubio’s 2016 presidential run as well.

According to PolitiFact Florida, Rubio avoided the question. He said he was glad he lived “in America where she can say that,” as opposed to some other countries where she could “go to jail. He then called for the U.S. to achieve energy independence.

“It was our kickoff event for Sunrise across the nation,” Porras said. The event was videotaped and is available online.

Although Sunrise’s other actions probably won’t be as dramatic as Porras’ confrontation of Rubio, Porras said her actions were in keeping with the group’s goal of putting pressure on elected officials.

“The point is less to make our elected officials suddenly change their minds about climate change … [and] more to show people how corrupt they are,” said Porras.

To work toward this goal and mobilize young people, Sunrise has planned a full calendar of events both nationwide and here at Swarthmore. This Tuesday they had a watch party in Roberts with a livestream from national Sunrise leaders. Over the course of the semester, they plan on talking to community members about what they love and have to lose from climate change, gathering objects that represent individuals’ concerns. They aim to put these objects in a time capsule and take them to Harrisburg, Pa., when they march on the state capitol in November. That month, they’ll also be marching in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with other Sunrise hubs, protesting President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s representation of the U.S. at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Although they’ll be protesting global events, Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub will still be focused locally.

“Sunrise functions on an intersectionality basis … and they recognize that fighting for climate [justice] in different communities looks different,” Porras said. “I think here, we’re really focusing on fracking in Pennsylvania … and for Swat that would also translate to still working with on divestment, because for us that’s what looks like climate work in our community.”

There are many other environmental groups working on campus, and sustainability and environmental awareness are stated goals of the administration.

Institutionally, Swarthmore College recognizes the importance of addressing climate change,  using natural resources in a sustainable manner, and educating its community to be responsible stewards of the environment,” says Swarthmore’s Sustainability website.

In an email, Sustainability Director Aurora Winslade affirmed the administration’s support of students working to fight climate change, and that the Office of Sustainability has opened a dialogue with Sunrise.

“I am not familiar with the specifics of the Sunrise Movement,” she said, “but I applaud the leadership and engagement of our students and alums in these issues … The Office of Sustainability is happy to work with all students and student groups who are interested in sustainability. For example, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier ’14 recently invited representatives from the Sunrise Movement to present to the College’s Green Advisors.”

Like Winslade, Matthew Palmer ’18 is unfamiliar with Sunrise, but he thinks it shows promise.

“I can’t say I’m familiar with Sunrise,” Palmer said, “but it seems like a really good set of goals and a way to broaden their exposure and provide students with new perspectives. I like that they’re targeting other issues rather than specifically divestment. I think that policy measures and things of that nature might be more effective than trying to lobby the administration for how they invest their endowment.”

Despite their broader focus, Sunrise will continue Mountain Justice’s effort to pressure the administration to divest. They will remain focused on holding the administration accountable along with the rest of the Swarthmore community, arguing for change not only in rhetoric but in action.

“Right now it’s almost seen as enough if someone says, ‘Oh, I support the Paris agreements,’ and they’re hailed as a climate champion,” said Ajay-Shiney. “And we’re saying that’s actually not enough. It’s not enough for the administration to be having a recycling run on campus, it’s not enough for this small carbon tax. We need to address things at an institutional level.”

Cherishing our Crum Woods

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Following my morning routine abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am riding the bus from my host family’s house to my classes at Hanoi Medical University. I am mesmerized by the thousands of motorbikes on the road. At least half of the riders are wearing facemasks to protect themselves from pollution. As I exit the bus, I can’t help but notice how difficult it is to breathe as my lungs feel caked in dust and particulate matter.

While I am smiling as I am transfixed by the motorbikes honking at me to move despite walking on the sidewalk, the traffic and horns are a sharp contrast to the peaceful environment I have come to appreciate in the Crum Woods and on Swarthmore’s campus. At Swarthmore, the smell of Japanese honeysuckle and fresh rain accompany me to class each morning, but in Hanoi, the odors of smoke from street vendors, gasoline from motorbikes, and trash from garbage left on the side of the road overwhelm my senses. Back at Swarthmore, when in need of clearing my head, I can stroll through the Crum and get lost in listening to the rushing water of the creek and the chirping of the birds. Here in Hanoi, I am always aware of the motorbike sneaking up behind me and the street vendors yelling, asking me in Vietnamese to purchase something from their stand. I cannot lose myself completely in my thoughts, or else I will not be able to keep up with the quick pace of this city that is unlike any I have ever experienced.

The outdoor space on Swarthmore’s campus, both inside and outside of the Crum Woods, is a precious resource that has become especially dear to my heart these last two years, and even more so now that I must try and seek solace in an area with little to no actual green space. The Crum Woods provides space for students and community members to meditate, reflect, and get lost in their own thoughts. It provides space for students to become the responsible, ethical, and balanced citizens that Swarthmore’s mission demands its students become. In a study conducted last year through the President’s Sustainability Research fellowship, the three most common words students used to describe the Crum were “beautiful,” “diverse,” and “peaceful.” Students discussed enjoying the Crum Woods because they use it for exercise and retreat from the college’s grueling academic atmosphere. Overall, they offered it relieves some of Swarthmore’s pressure that can sometimes become overwhelming. The Visioning Process Final Report the college published last year also found that better use of outdoor space was one of the top desires of students on campus.

Still, students are not taking advantage of the natural spaces that exist on campus because they are “too busy.” However, what if making time to enjoy the natural resources that we have on campus became a priority? After all, studies show that time spent outdoors can actually make students more productive. According to the Huffington Post, two researchers from Stanford University found that walking outdoors boosts creativity, and researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found outdoor activity is likely to improve concentration. Lee and Ingold, in their article “Fieldwork on Foot,” describe the value of the outdoors best when they state, “the rhythms of movement are very different and people draw attention to the specific qualities of the outdoors,” compared to the almost static movements of the indoors.

I challenge you, Swatties, to make embracing the Crum Woods and the arboretum, in which you are all lucky enough to live and immerse yourselves, a goal this semester. Make time to take a walk in the woods, to listen to the sounds around you, and to notice how the natural environment actually improves your wellbeing, and perhaps even motivates you to finish your studies. While you’re at it, use events like the Scott Arboretum Tree Planting and Crum Woods Tours to motivate yourself to enjoy and conserve our woods. I challenge you to let the Crum Woods change you the way that the woods have changed me.

It is because of the Crum Woods that I have come to understand the serenity that exists in the world although our fast-paced and routine-oriented lives attempt to tell us otherwise. I’ll never forget the comfort of the woods last semester when I was practically in tears after failing a paper. I was completely overwhelmed when I realized that I had to quickly recover from that paper because I had a biology exam and other readings to complete. I found myself storming into the woods to walk out my frustration. After a few minutes in the woods, my heart began to slow and my eyes began to dry. Hearing a Carolina wren in the distance and watching a squirrel happily scurry up a tree, a small smile spread across my lips. Though academics are important, there is so much more to the world than one paper. The woods are a constant reminder that there is so much more to explore and so much more life beyond stress. It is because of this peace from the Crum Woods that I have been able to reaffirm my own values and discover where I belong in society.  

Of course, as I am away from the Crum Woods this semester, I still wouldn’t trade exploring for Hanoi for anything. There are aspects of Hanoi that I love and that I could never find at Swarthmore. I can’t even begin to describe how astonished I am by the simplicity of life many people follow, eating pho for lunch on a little blue stool resembling that of a four-legged children’s seat from my childhood. I love the vendors who opt for pedalling around a bike to transport their fruit and goods in baskets, content with wearing a rice hat to cover themselves from the beaming sun. At Swarthmore, we complain about having to sit in our dorm rooms without air conditioning, never mind pedalling a bike in the 100-degree hot, humid weather, but that argument is for another article.

Even so, there’s something to be said about valuing a luxury that many of us students don’t fully realize we have on campus. My experience in Hanoi has showed me how lucky we all are to not have to walk around campus with facemasks or smell garbage and toxins every time we leave the indoors. This privilege must motivate us to cherish and protect our woods even more, and we should make a conscious effort to appreciate and care for our natural environment the way it cares for us every day.

You’ve Been Saving Water and You Didn’t Even Know It

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Throughout this school year, you probably saved around 1,122 gallons of water. And chances are you, you didn’t even realize it.

This past summer, I worked on behalf of the Office of Sustainability and the engineering department to research ways that resources, particularly water, could be conserved on campus. After preliminary investigations into water uses on campus such as irrigation, food services, and laundry, I found a large potential for feasibly saving water in shower water usage.

In the spring of 2016, a Green Fund proposal by Shane Loeffler ’16 jump-started a trial run of low-flow showerheads in the field house. After winter break, several low-flow showerheads were installed in the men’s and women’s locker rooms to gage student response. The main concern with the project was student complaints against the reduced flow. The relatively quiet response paved the way for a broad scale implementation of low-flow showerheads in the rest of the athletic facilities and in dorms throughout campus.

Before recommending the relatively small, but nonetheless significant, investment in purchasing low-flow showerheads, I wanted to confirm that low-flow showerheads could indeed save water. There was a concern that lower water pressure would cause students to take longer showers, thus rendering the low-flow showerheads ineffective at actually saving water.

If you lived in Willets over the summer, this might sound familiar to you. I attempted to quietly change half of the showerheads in Willets (as discretely as a girl in a dress with a wrench can get in the men’s showers of Willets). The new 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) showerheads replaced old 2.5 gpm showerheads, therefore ideally saving 1 gallon of water per minute of shower use.

To test how much water was actually being saved, I first manually measured the flow rates of 1.5 and 2.5 gpm showerheads throughout campus (it turned out that 2.5 gpm labeled showerheads actually delivered an average of 2.22 gpm and 1.5 gpm labeled showerheads delivered an average of 1.32 gpm).

I also asked Willets residents to time their showers over the course of a week in July and record the times on slips of paper. Despite a few minor setbacks (someone stole my homemade data collection shoe box, along with the data, on Day 5 in Willets 2nd North), I was able to collect 111 shower times and determine that there was not a significant difference between students’ average shower times of the two types of showerheads. Therefore, I concluded that the low-flow showerheads could indeed save water.

I spent the next few weeks installing over 200 low-flow showerheads in dorms across campus. I ran into some fairly legitimate challenges to being able to install low-flow showerheads in all showers on campus, like construction in ML, a different showerhead type for handicapped showers, as well as some less impressive obstacles. Despite breaking a sweat, I simply could not get off a handful of the 2.5 gpm showerheads in Mertz and Worth – I like to blame the wrench for that one. Also, I had thought that no one was living in some of the smaller dorms over the summer, but an awkward encounter with a German exchange student in Woolman proved me wrong and prevented me from installing low-flow showerheads in some of the smaller dorms in use over the summer.

With over 200 out of the total 318 showerheads in Swarthmore’s dorms  replaced with lower flow showerheads, as well as all of the showerheads in the field house and Ware Pool locker rooms, chances are, you’ve cut down on your shower water usage without even realizing it.

Much more can be done, though, to promote Swarthmore’s conservation of water. I chose to save shower water through low-flow showerheads because it involved no behavior change on the part of the student. However, behavior change could further save water. I found that the average shower time for Willets residents was 7 minutes and 27 seconds. I understand that the stress of Swat can make standing under a hot shower seem like a daily necessity, but quickening the pace of a shower or reducing the time allowed for the water to warm up can lead to substantial water savings.

There is also room for energy conservation by reducing the temperature of showers. Last year, more energy went to heating showers in Willets than actually heating the dorm. Not only would taking shorter showers work to save energy, but sacrificing a few degrees can further save resources.

Being aware of the environmental footprint of your shower is the first step in working to conserve resources. Even though you’ve been saving water without even realizing it, a shorter shower or reduced temperature can further contribute to the conservation of water and energy that you have already unknowingly been contributing to. It is important for Swarthmore’s campus and students to take responsibility in a global effort to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

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