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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.

Divest, with care

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Sunrise has recently been advocating for a referendum on Swarthmore’s investment policy. The group has called for a vote on whether or not the college’s board should revoke the ban on investing ethically, put in place immediately after the school divested from South African associated funds in 1990. More power to them; students should advocate for the direction they want the college to take. But for the referendum to be in any way meaningful, it has to be representative, and the application of any investment decision has to be extremely limited.

There is nothing wrong in principle with ethical investing, obviously. I don’t think anyone serious believed that divesting from the Apartheid state was a bad idea. The morality of fossil fuel consumption is more blurry than Apartheid South Africa; owning or working on an oil rig is indisputably different from using political and violent means to deny basic human rights to an entire class of human beings, based on a vicious racial ideology. To try and create a clear line between right and wrong in this is a fool’s errand. Developing countries are going to have to balance the economic merits of fossil fuels with environmental questions, and to say the choice between long-term risk and certain short-term poverty is clear is wrongheaded. Even though these considerations are less of an issue in America, pretending that we don’t have to make constant compromises about our use of energy is extremely misleading. I mean, I’m writing this piece on a computer powered by fossil fuel energy. And no one is advocating for pulling a Wendell Berry and preferring a typewriter to a computer because of environmental concerns.

But, the danger of climate change is anything but blurry. Divestment is of limited value, as I’ve written in an earlier column, but there is something to it. It’s certainly better than getting medical doctors to inform their patients about the dangers of climate change, which was oddly suggested in my Biology lecture. Fairly moderate in its costs and its impact, divestment also has few direct effects on the college. If a legitimate majority of students supported it, Swarthmore should choose to divest. A community has the right to balance the ability to determine its own direction with its ability to decide what issues are up for debate. But this referendum is not forcing every professor to drive a hybrid to work, or demanding every student vote for politicians who focus on climate issues. It’s a limited step toward solving an agreed-upon issue.

I do worry about the larger implications of “banning the ban,” as Sunrise likes to put it. In the current political climate nationally and on campus, the danger is for the school to be constantly embattled about who exactly to divest from. You could easily envision a slippery slope going from companies that are irresponsible in the use of fossil fuels to… well, hummus. Taking a limited action to attack a limited and very specific problem is what divesting from fossil fuels would be. Broadly condemning an entire society and anyone who supports that society, on an issue that is much more debatable than the threat of climate change, is extremely problematic. Activists should be very careful in what issues they choose to address with school divestment.

Another concern is that a referendum would not be representative of the whole student body. The vote could potentially suffer from extreme selection bias, with only students who care or even know about the referendum attending. Of course, Sunrise cannot compel people to vote, but they could take other precautions. Setting a target number for participation and reholding the referendum if it is not met would be one good idea. Or, holding it over a fairly long period of time like several weeks could help increase participation levels.

And of course, putting the college’s investments up for debate means that they should be up for debate. An attempt to make Swarthmore yet another monolithic institution would be disappointing. Making moral stands should also mean being open to the possibility that you are wrong, and that other people can be right or possess part of the truth. That’s the point of the liberal arts: to be truly liberal in education and life, to work across disciplines and ways of seeing the world. But if “ban the ban” opens a floodgate that leads to the campus community taking increasingly doctrinaire and moralizing stands on each and every political issue, giving no quarter or compromise on any grounds, then Swarthmore could slowly shift into the progressive version of a fundamentalist college. The conclusions are already reached and our only job is to learn how to get to them.

 

Sunrise pushes for new divestment referendum

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Sunrise Swarthmore collected digital signatures last week in an effort to call a Student Government Organization referendum on the school’s investment in fossil fuel companies and the 1991 ban on political considerations when investing. That petition passed with 197 signatures, 29 more than were needed. Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, describes itself as an organization dedicated to stopping climate change and promoting job creation. As Mountain Justice, Sunrise activists were responsible for the student referendum on fossil fuels last academic year

“We are the representative of the student body so if a group of students want to bring up an issue and want to hold a referendum, our goal is to help in the execution of that,” said Nancy Yuan ’20, Co-President of SGO.

To call an SGO referendum, Sunrise needed to collect signatures from 10 percent of the student body. This got the referendum on the SGO ballot, after which SGO assigned a 48-hour voting period beginning Mon. April 16 at 8 p.m. and ending Wed. April 18 at 8 p.m. Students will be able to vote online during that time. There will also be a debate, per the new SGO constitution, on the referendum on April 16 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Sci 101. Sunrise needs one-third of the student body to vote in favor of the referendum to pass.

“The part that is important to us is the debate that will happen, so that people who also have opposing views to this can express their concerns, so the student body can be the most informed they can be about this, because this is a campus issue,” said Yuan.

Sunrise is asking the college, but more specifically the Board of Managers, to divest from fossil fuel companies. The divestment campaign began at the college in 2010 and is the longest-running fossil fuel divestment campaign in the world, according to Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, a student leader in Sunrise.

The group is also asking that the Board repeal the 1991 ban preventing the board from divesting for social reasons. The Board announced their decision to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1986 following over a decade of student activism. By 1990, the school had fully divested In 1991, the Board adopted a new investment strategy, specifying that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”

The first time that the board announced it would stick by its 1991 financial decision was in September 2013. In 2015, students staged a protest in Parrish Parlors for 32 consecutive days calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Last year, an SGO referendum passed calling the Board of Managers to divest. In response, the Board reaffirmed their 2015 commitment to the 1991 resolution.

To a portion of students on campus, that 1991 strategy appears morally incomprehensible when juxtaposed with the 1986 decision to divest.

“The precedent the school set [by instituting the 1991 ban and not listening to last year’s referendum] was that the school was wrong in divesting from apartheid which means that the school is saying they should not have done that and they should have continued to support that,” Yuan said.

But Timothy Burke, a professor specializing in modern African history and chair of the History Department, has been critical of these efforts. In an opinion piece for The Phoenix published in 2015 titled “Against Divestment,” Burke writes that divestment from oil companies is perhaps simply window dressing. He argues that many other companies that the college is likely to invest in are as responsible for human rights violations, climate change, and armaments as are oil companies.  

“If the goal is moral purity—a college without dependence upon destructive, exploitative, unethical businesses or institutions—it is hard to imagine the investment screen that could accomplish that to general satisfaction,” wrote Burke.

Nevertheless, Shiney-Ajay and Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20, another member of Sunrise, say that the Board of Managers is resisting efforts to repeal the ban and divest because they had such a negative experience in 1991.

“After the Board of Managers divested from apartheid in 1991, they [supposedly] cited the process as being too scarring for them. And I think that points to the Board of Managers being very avoidant and not being completely comfortable answering moral and social questions about investment, and I think that is very antithetical to Swarthmore’s stated purpose to take into consideration social and ethical concerns,” said Shiney-Ajay.

“It’s just a matter of time before the Board has to engage with these questions,” said Becerra Reyes.

Sunrise, SGO, SBC to invest surplus money into a fossil-free fund

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On Friday afternoon around 12:30 p.m., the Student Government Organization, Student Budget Committee, and Sunrise Swarthmore gathered in Parrish Parlors to announce that they would be working together to invest unused money from student clubs into a fossil-free fund. This fund will be run by BlackRock, a large investment management firm with a commitment to long-term social and environmental sustainability.

The event was attended by about 20 students and faculty members. It was moderated by Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 and included a line up of speakers from SGO, SBC, and Sunrise Swarthmore who support this initiative. One of the speakers was Sunrise member Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20 who shared a personal story about how climate change affected her family during Hurricane Irma.

“This anger is what drives me here today,” Becerra said.

The event in Parrish was organized to coincide with a Board of Managers meeting taking place in Kohlberg Hall. September Porras Payea ’20, one of the leaders of Sunrise Swarthmore, describes the event as both a celebration and a reminder to the Board that divestment is still a priority for many students on campus.

“We felt this event was especially necessary to both celebrate the action of SGO as a representative of the student body as well as to bring divestment back as a focus of our campaign,” Porras said.

Sunrise Swarthmore leaders publicized the investment of student money from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account as a small victory for students advocating for divestment. In a press release, they explained how investing unused student activity fees into a fossil free fund is a win for the divestment campaign.

“In a huge victory for the divestment campaign, SGO has announced that they are divesting all $600,000 of student-controlled money from fossil fuels … SGO’s decision reiterates where we stand — and it creates a new impetus for the Board. Students have chosen to divest our funds. We call on the Board of Managers to lead with us and divest from fossil fuels.”

Sunrise Swarthmore, previously Mountain Justice, has been pressuring the board to divest the endowment from fossil fuels since the group was founded seven years ago. In 2015, after a student sit-in organized by MJ, the Board announced their firm decision not to divest. This decision was based a policy created in 1991 that the Board would not take social issues into consideration when discussing the budget. The Board made clear their 2015 decision not to divest by creating the sustainability and investment policy, which asserts the Board’s decision “not to divest from fossil fuels, either on a full or partial basis.”

Sunrise Swarthmore’s most recent attempt to get the board to divest from fossil fuels occurred last spring, when they launched an SGO referendum for students to vote on a plan for partial divestment. The referendum demonstrated that, of the 880 students who voted, 80.5 percent of students supported divesting from fossil fuels. The Board of Managers and President Valerie Smith responded to the referendum by re-affirming the Board’s 2015 decision not to divest, citing the sustainability and investment policy.

Nevertheless, Porras expressed Sunrise’s excitement for their collaboration with SGO and what the partnership means for the divestment movement on campus.

“We are inspired by the passion of the student body when organizing events like these. The initiative taken by SGO to keep student funds fossil-free was exciting for us, and it has been amazing to create a strong partnership through both of our forces. Furthermore, discussions on campus, from classrooms to friends in Sharples, around divestment has been growing, and to be able to bring the fight back to campus has been an exciting moment for us,” she said.

For SGO, the referendum is one reason why they are collaborating with Sunrise Swarthmore to invest student funds into a fossil-free account, as the referendum is seen as a representation of the student voice. They explained that this partnership with Sunrise Swarthmore aligns with one of their many new objectives for this spring. For example, SGO co-president Nancy Yuan ’19 cited how SGO also sees the investment into a divested fund as a method of eliminating the activities fee in the future. She asserted SGO’s role in advocating for students while also establishing a lasting impact on campus.

“As SGO, we are here to support students and amplify voices for students. We really want to be the student voices,” Yuan said, “and lower tuition is something all students can support. In terms of institutional change, this is something we can really change.”

Yuan explained how this fund works and why SGO supports the fund as a more fiscally responsible option.

“At the end of the year, if clubs don’t use all the money, it goes into the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account. Right now, the money is just sitting in a bank account losing value because of inflation. The smarter thing to do is invest this money.” Yuan said. “We support investing it because it is a smarter use of student money, and over 30 to 40 years-time, it should eliminate the need for the student activities fee.”

While the Board will not divest the endowment from fossil fuels, SGO and Sunrise are asserting a student approach to divestment; they are advocating for investing surplus student activity funds from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account into a fossil-free fund that three members of the Board of Managers established in 2015 with BlackRock, a socially-conscious investment fund.

SGO hopes to use the returns from the fund to eliminate the activities fee for future students, which currently costs each student $398 per academic year. By investing in a fossil-free fund, SGO and Sunrise feel they are upholding both economic sensibility and social justice.

Grant Brown ’21, another student from Sunrise Swarthmore, explained why investing the surplus student money in fossil free funds is necessary for upholding environmental justice.

“Divestment represents a true commitment to the core values that found and sustain Swarthmore,” he said. “It shows that we are still committed to equity, selflessness, and acting on ethical principles no matter the pressures from external influences.”

Yuan also mentioned the need to affirm social justice in our actions, explaining how investing in a fossil-free fund is one way of modeling this value.

“Since BlackRock is one of the largest socially-conscious investment funds, it makes a lot of economic sense,” Yuan said.

Ethan Chapman ’19 views the investment of student activity funds into a fossil-free account as a positive action taken by student organizations that demonstrates the interests of students to the Board.

“I am happy to see school organizations acting responsibly for a change. All that really matters is convincing the Board to address its conflicting interests,” he said.

As the semester continues, Swarthmore Sunrise and SGO plan to continue to collaborate on the BlackRock investment of student funds. Yet, both groups will also continue to further their individual missions as well. For Swarthmore Sunrise, this means further pressuring institutions and policy makers to reinvest in just solutions to the climate crisis. They hope to continue to organize around divestment while also engaging in political action off-campus to elect officials who are dedicated to fighting climate change.  For SGO, this means carrying out the wishes of students, including strengthening their relationship with affinity groups and encouraging groups to use more of the activities budget through a SEPTA ticket program.

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.

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

Dear President Smith,

Since the founding of Swarthmore in 1864, the college has educated students in terms of global impact and social change. From Helen Magill to Micah White, students have been encouraged to engage in community and speak out against injustice; to become righteous voices in troubling times and recognize the responsibility that such an education endows upon them.

It is only fair that we call on our own leaders to do the same.

Here in Pennsylvania, methane from fracking is polluting our air, oil pipelines are spilling into our water, and rising temperatures endanger the economy and our lives. On the west side of our country, we’re burning, and on the east, we’re drowning. All the while, Swarthmore continues to have an endowment invested in the fossil fuel industries that catalyze this destruction.

In addition, our federal government is recklessly rolling back environmental protections that affect targeted regions and groups of people within the country. Right now, world leaders are gathered in Bonn, Germany, negotiating how to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement after the world’s biggest economy has withdrawn. Across the nation, local leaders, from mayors and governors to college and university presidents like you, are committing to show leadership when our President refuses to.

But we are at a turning point in history, and must make our commitments real by standing up every time that our voice is needed. We write to you, as your students, asking that you choose to stand on the right side by endorsing divestment from fossil fuels.

On November 18th, the Sunrise movement will be hosting ceremonies in Philadelphia and over two dozen other cities across the country, commemorating what we love and have to lose to climate change. We will be building our legacy, and burying a time capsule that will be unearthed in 50 years. It will be a time for mourning, for reckoning, for uniting, and for building our future.

If you meet our request, you are invited to join us on the 18th at the Philadelphia City Hall and contribute your commitment and a letter or item to the time capsule. We have asked our politicians to refuse money from fossil fuel billionaires, commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and halt the construction of dangerous new fossil fuel infrastructure. Swarthmore has committed to be carbon neutral and is growing its sustainability initiatives, but we continue to profit from the fossil fuel industry that we are otherwise trying to stop. Just as we want our political leaders to represent us and reject fossil fuel money, we want our educational leaders to represent us too.  If Swarthmore wants to be remembered as a leader on climate, we must divest from the dangerous fossil fuel industry.  

Overwhelming majorities of students, faculty, staff and alumni have made clear time and time again how we want to be remembered. We know the Swarthmore we are proud of, and we are committed to forging ahead and building a just and equitable future, where all people have access to clean water and safe homes. We would love nothing more than for you to lead with us, and be remembered as somebody who chose to stand up in the face of corrupt politics and fossil fuel money.

But if you choose to remain silent, we will document that as well. In 2067, when the time capsule is unearthed, Swarthmore has two potential legacies. Students might remember Swarthmore as a leader in the fight against climate change: the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement, supporting necessary measures to move our society away from the coal and gas of yesterday and towards the clean energy economy of tomorrow.  

Or, Swarthmore could look back upon 2017 as the year of a lost promise. When local leaders across the world were pledging to take action on climate change, the institution of Swarthmore chose to remain silent in the face of climate devastation.

President Smith, there are two paths in front of you: one where you stand with the fossil fuel billionaires who endanger our health and wellbeing, and another where you stand with the students of Swarthmore who are asking you to be the kind of leader they are taught to be.

This is your chance to choose your climate legacy. You have until November 18.

Sincerely,

Gabriel Brossy de Dios, September Porras Payea, and Aru Shiney-Ajay
Members of Sunrise Swarthmore

(Formerly Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

Mountain Justice Joins National Group Sunrise, Broadens Goals

in News by

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.”

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