Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive

sit-in

Divestment dialogue leads to sit-in

in Around Campus/News by

On Friday, Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization hosted a forum on divestment in the Friends Meeting House that included President Valerie Smith, Mountain Justice Coordinator, Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, Professor and Chair of the History Department Timothy Burke, Associate Professor and Acting Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department Lee Smithey, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, Chair of the Environmental Impact Committee Tiffany Yu, ’18, and President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19. The panelists sat in a semi-circle and the discussion was moderated by Duke Fisher, a professional mediator, who asked questions that were emailed by students to SGO.

Mountain Justice expressed frustration after the event, releasing a video and an official statement on their Facebook page in the days following the event. The group felt that their questions were not properly answered, and have since responded with a sit-in that is taking place in President Smith’s office and the surrounding hallway. Aru Shiney-Ajay expressed that she feels she did not hear an adequate answer about the 1991 ban, whether or not divesment and on-campus sustainability are an either- choice, and a response about financial concerns of partial divestment versus full divestment.

“I hope to hear the questions that we’re asking answered. We outlined three questions that we posed at the forum that the administration sidestepped, I would hope to hear some type of response, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. ” she said.

President Smith had a different opinion about the event, and felt that it facilitated dialogue about the issue of divestment. She also noted that there is a lot more work to be done outside of divestment in order to protect the climate.

“I don’t believe that any of the speakers dodged questions or refused dialogue.​ If we don’t agree with one another, it doesn’t mean there’s been no dialogue. Dialogue in my definition means listening to another point of view, sticking scrupulously to the facts, and being open to discussing them… We have so much work to do to combat climate change, especially in the current political environment. For example, we can work to retain the effectiveness of the EPA, to uphold environmental regulations, and to keep true sustainability advocates in advocacy roles. There is a march in Washington this coming weekend for the People’s Climate Movement, ​and​ MJ, other student groups, and the Office of Sustainability are sponsoring buses from campus​. There are any number of ways for us to come together in common purpose,” said Smith.

During the forum, President Smith expressed that the college’s central mission was to educate students and that the college may not be as able to fund as fully if MJ’s potential changes to the endowment were made.

“The decision not to divest emerged from about four years from about four years of extensive conversation, debate, reading, discussion, on the part of the managers with both members of the campus community as well as external advocates and activists […] at the end of that four year period of consultation the board decided that they would not divest, and I think they made this decision for a variety of reasons that are consistent with our core mission, one of which is that to do so would jeopardize our endowment returns that would then have the potential to negatively impact our ability to support students and to support the core educational mission. They were unwilling to do that, to threaten the endowment returns and to threaten the core mission to support a mission that at the end of the day would not have a demonstrable effect on corporations or on our energy consumption,” she said that the forum

Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown was skeptical of the effectiveness of divestment and focused on the consumption side of the issue. He also said that the Board of Managers considers climate change in its decision making.

“Just looking at the producers doesn’t deal with the problem […] We survey [managers] asking them a very simple question for which we want to see a real answer: how does climate […] affect your decision making in how you make investments. .. if you’re not thinking about climate change it’s probable that we may not think about keeping you as a manager,” he said during the forum.

A divide exists between Mountain Justice and the administration, highlighted by their sit-in in the President’s office, on the topic of divestment. Whether or not the Board of Managers will divest is yet to be seen, but Mountain Justice has put an increasing amount of pressure on the administration in the last week. The sit-in began on Monday and is still ongoing.

The SGO Forum and the Failure to Listen

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The SGO forum on divestment last Friday appears to have produced more tension than dialogue. This is largely due to Mountain Justice’s curious interpretation of the event after the fact. By their account, expressed in the op-ed “Friday’s Forum: An Exercise in Futility” written by Mountain Justice member Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20 , the organizers only allowed “one student representative when there were three from the administration… the administration repeatedly danced around questions, refusing to give concrete answers.”

The implication that the organizers of the event were trying to stifle student dissent by only allowing one student representative from Mountain Justice is simply unfounded. The forum was about divestment, not Mountain Justice, and the organizers succeeded in finding a diverse array of backgrounds and positions. There were three students: one for divestment, one against it, and one that was neutral. There were two professors: one for divestment and one who was at least skeptical of it. And there were three administrators: the President of the College, the Vice-President of Finance, and the Sustainability Director. It is hard to see how having another Mountain Justice member would have improved this lineup in any way. Regardless, the pro-divestment contingent of Shiney-Ajay and Professor Lee Smithey had by far the most speaking time, and were in no way impeded by the moderator, who gave them plenty of permission to speak on nearly every question, which they did.

Mountain Justice’s second point of contention, that the administration agreed to the forum as a show and had no intention of listening to students, is frankly hypocritical. It is highly doubtful that any member of Mountain Justice, who showed up prepared with cameras, pages of notes, and trendy finger snaps, came to the forum with the intention of listening to any doubts of divestment at all. This is a shame, because despite the awkward fishbowl format there was still a lot of valuable information that came up in the panelist’s statements and interactions. For example, Shiney-Ajay actually convinced me that the 1991 decision to forbid social causes from influencing the management of the endowment is fundamentally at odds with the decision to divest from South Africa, and by extension implies that only one of those decisions was correct in the eyes of the Board. For their part, if Mountain Justice’s delegation had done less talking and more listening, they might have had enough time to hear the answers they are now indignantly demanding. Or perhaps they would have heard Professor Timothy Burke’s warning that as a young activist he had overrated the importance of his own activism work in the context of a larger movement. It is hard, of course, to hear these criticisms over the sound of your friends snapping their fingers as you deliver a pre-written speech that takes up most of the time allotted for discussion and leaves you with no time to hear actual answers.

The real regret I have from the fallout of this forum is the way Mountain Justice has treated President Valerie Smith. Apart from her initial statement and other direct questions, President Smith sat in silence and spent the most time actually listening than any other participant in the forum. For this effort her office was soon the subject of a sit-in by the people at the forum who had listened the least. This is a serious impediment to further dialogue between the administration and students, and pro-divestment students should recognize that dialogue is as much a chance to listen as it is to speak.

Mountain Justice sit-in wraps as national escalation and coverage mount

in Around Campus/News by
divest21z-a
Ian Holloway/ The Phoenix

Over the course of the past month, Swarthmore Mountain Justice has increased its visibility in the national spotlight by intensifying its push for the Board of Managers to divest the endowment from fossil fuels through ramped up on-campus demonstrations.

The escalation began when 43 students and alumni began their sit-in in the Investment and Finance Office on the second floor of Parrish Hall on March 19. This core group of students remained in the office for 48 hours continuously, after which the group started rotating shifts of students remaining in the office until the sit-in ended earlier this past week.

One of the reasons that Mountain Justice’s escalation has become more visible in the past month, has been a series of endorsements from alumni and other prominent activists. Within a week of the start of the sit-in, renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben came to Swarthmore and joined the students and alumni in solidarity, leading a 150-person rally in Upper Tarble to call on the Board to divest.

MJ received another boost to its visibility when Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres ’79 endorsed the sit-in and called on Chairman Gil Kemp ‘72  to move forward with divestment. The endorsements continued to arrive as the month of March carried on, including support from 350.org, Dana Lyons ’82, and Ladule Lako LoSarah ’09, the first Swarthmore alum to play Major League Soccer. Mountain Justice also received a letter of support from social justice movement leaders including poet Andrea Gibson, United We Dream, Melina Laboucan-Massimo from the Lubicon Cree First Nation, Ed Whitfield from the Fund for Democratic Communities, and Gopal Dayeneni from Movement Generation, among others.

MJ also received attention from the national media. A story on Figueres’ endorsement of the sit-in, as well as the sit-in itself, was published in The Guardian the day after her endorsement went public. The Chronicle of Higher Education also covered the escalation of the divestment movement, focusing on Divest Harvard’s HarvardHeatWeek, Mountain Justice’s sit-in, and the McKibben rally at the college earlier in the month. Former Senator Timothy Wirth also penned an op-ed in support of divestment in the Washington Post, further pushing the divestment movement into the public eye.

The mobilization of student activists at Swarthmore also sparked the beginning of similar escalation movements at other college and university campuses across the country. Students at University of Mary Washington, Bowdoin College, Yale University, and Harvard University all mobilized sit-in demonstrations at their campuses in response to Mountain Justice’s mobilization efforts at Swarthmore. Members of Fossil Free Yale and Divest UMW were eventually arrested at their respective campuses when they refused to end their pro-divestment demonstrations.

Participants in the Swarthmore divestment movement’s actions over the last few months believe that the sit-in and other related escalation tactics have caused significant intensification in the push for divestment.

“I think the sit-in was incredibly effective; it was the right action at this point in the divestment campaign,” said Sarah Dobbs ’18, a member of MJ, in an email. She said that previous rallies, marches, and petitions as actions have helped the movement’s visibility. Dobbs also believes that the support from students not directly involved with Mountain Justice was also integral to the sit-in’s success.

“It was not just the action; it was the timing, the spirit, and the response we received within the Swarthmore community and beyond,” she said.

Two of the most significant responses Mountain Justice received as a result of the sit-in were a commitment from the Board to seriously engage with their proposal for divestment at the Board meeting in early May, and a faculty resolution formally recommending that the Board of Managers divest from fossil fuels.
Still, even though the divestment movement has many supporters on campus and achieved many successes in the past month, some members of the community have expressed reservations about the effectiveness of Mountain Justice’s tactics in the push for divestment, and others oppose divestment entirely. Divestment is still a divisive issue on campus, and many students have expressed reservations about Mountain Justice’s tactics.

“I think much of our school’s collective energy has been focused on divestment … And it may have drowned out other issues at times,” i20 Co-President-Elect Damien Ding ’18 wrote in an email.

Despite some conflicting opinions on campus, Stephen O’Hanlon ’16, one of the student leaders of Mountain Justice, believes that the escalation movement has been successful and has high hopes about the upcoming Board of Managers meeting taking place in May.

“Our endowment is one of our most powerful levers for creating social change… [and] we took escalated action in order to show the mandate from the Swarthmore community for action,” he said.

McKibben leads rally for divestment, sits in

in Around Campus/News by
MJ_rally
Sophia Zaia/The Phoenix

Last Thursday, Bill McKibben, founder of the nationally recognized environmental group 350.org, spoke at a Swarthmore Mountain Justice rally for divestment in Upper Tarble. Over 200 people attended the rally, including students, alumni, faculty, and even supporters from the Philadelphia area. The talk was followed by a sit-in training session conducted by two activists from the Earth Quaker Action Team, one of whom is a Swarthmore alum.

These events took place as Mountain Justice’s widely publicized sit-in in the college’s Finance and Investment Office began its second week. The escalation of the movement has led to national and even international recognition. The sit-in was covered on its first day by UK newspaper The Guardian; the McKibben talk was covered by several major media outlets, most notably NPR.

The training session after the talk was led by Matthew Armstead ’08 and Ryan Leitner, both members of EQAT, an environmental nonviolent action group. Armstead, based in Philadelphia, works as a core trainer for the social action training group Training for Change, and has contributed to a variety of different movements, including the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy National protests. Leitner is a recent Bryn Mawr graduate who has been involved in EQAT and Tri-Co environmental initiatives for several years.

McKibben, who wrote what is considered the first popular book on climate change in the United States, spoke of the importance of Swarthmore being a leader in the divestment movement, hoping to spur other universities and organizations to follow suit.

“If Swarthmore divests, it will be a powerful signal to important communities that fossil fuel is filthy and old, and the time to shift has finally come,” McKibben wrote in an email.

Students who attended McKibben’s talk felt it was an invaluable experience to have the sit-in be recognized and validated by “one of the most esteemed environmentalists in the U.S.,” as May Dong ’18 put it.

“The fact that Bill McKibben felt that our campaign and the college’s decision was important enough to visit and directly support shows our campaign’s success on the national and global scale, and reinforces the historic nature of the opportunity before the Board,” said Annie Zhao ’18.

McKibben’s argument that the college needs to reaffirm its status as a national leader in social justice resonated with many attendees.

“He warned that the college would lose its reputation by failing to respond to the urgency of this crisis,” Stephen O’Hanlon ’17 said. “He [said] that divestment is the most powerful tool Swarthmore has to call for a just and stable future. Swarthmore needs to take this opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

For McKibben, the intelligence, charisma, and dedication of the college’s students makes Swarthmore an ideal source of inspiration for the national push for divestment. He highlighted this point in his speech and in an op-ed he penned for last week’s Phoenix, and was just as enamored after his visit.

“I thought they were the perfect combination of earnest and good-humored, persistent but not pious,” he noted. “I was impressed at [the group’s] size, spirit, and seriousness. Clearly the Swarthmore community — students, faculty, and alumni — have decided this is a priority issue and they want action.”

Leitner agreed with McKibben’s review of the students.

“I was so grateful to be working with such an engaged group of students and community members,” they said via e-mail.

One point that McKibben emphasized was the background of investment banking that many members of the Board of Managers Investment Committee share. He partially blames the Wall Street mentality for clouding the judgment of Board members. The initiatives by prominent organizations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Unitarian ministry to divest are proof, he argues, of irrational judgment by the college’s leadership.

“Places that paid attention to their students a few years ago and divested have bigger endowments as a result, can offer more scholarships, can fund more important work,” McKibben said, referring to schools such as Stanford University, Pitzer College, and Hampshire College, all of which have divested from fossil fuels. “If Swarthmore had had the good sense to listen to its students when they raised this issue five years ago, then Swarthmore would be in an even richer spot than it is in now.”

McKibben thinks that there is no way for the Board to avoid eventually choosing divestment, after all of the efforts and media attention the issue has received. “I can’t imagine the Swarthmore Board won’t finally do the right thing,” he said in his talk. “When Swarthmore decides to divest, as it inevitably will, the significance will echo far and wide.”

The action training was geared towards how to make the sit-in sustainable for an extended period of time. Armstead and Leitner also focused on strategies for continuing Mountain Justice’s efforts after the sit-in concludes, although it does not currently have a set end point. The trainers re-emphasized techniques that have worked in previous instances of environmental justice sit-ins and in Mountain Justice’s own efforts.

Leitner, like McKibben, is a strong believer in Swarthmore’s status as a role model for social change.

“The fact that fossil fuel divestment is being met with such resistance from institutions such as Swarthmore, that have been recognized as socially responsible, means that the students conducting the sit-in are indeed working to shift power,” they said.

The gravity of the situation, in Leitner’s view, is undeniable.

“Divestment is a crucial part of moving towards justice for all,” they said. “This sit-in will be an important part of the history of Swarthmore and our country coming to terms with climate injustice.”

The effects of the sit-in are already being seen outside of campus. At least two schools, Bowdoin College and the University of Mary Washington, have begun sit-ins for divestment. The group Bowdoin Climate Action directly credits Swarthmore’s group as inspiration, especially with the refrain “we have no plans to leave,” for taking action in their own community.

Divestment events are gaining prominence across the nation. Syracuse University announced on Tuesday that it would divest from fossil fuel investments. In Paris, the city council made public this week its support for divestment, pending mayoral approval.

Mountain Justice continues Parrish sit-in

in Around Campus/News by
photo by Anjali Cadambi

Mountain Justice’s sit-in outside the college’s Finance and Investment Office stretched into its second week today. So far, the sit-in has garnered national media attention, a response from Interim President Constance Hungerford, and a letter endorsing the action and calling on the Board of Managers to re-engage with divestment from Christiana Figueres ’79, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This afternoon, Bill McKibben, environmentalist and founder of 350.org, which describes itself as the first planet-wide grassroots climate change movement, will join the sit-in and lead a rally in Upper Tarble.

The sit-in is both the first extended one of its kind for fossil fuel divestment and the largest in the movement to date. Its participants ask that Chair of the Board of Managers Gil Kemp ’72 and Board Investment Committee Chair Chris Niemczewksi ’74 “return to the negotiating table and agree to end the College’s investments in a rogue industry that violates Swarthmore’s Quaker values and recklessly imperils a just and sustainable future for our generation,” according to Mountain Justice’s press release on the sit-in.

The sit-in began on Thursday morning, when 43 students, alumni, and professors entered the Finance and Investment Office. The Guardian broke the news of the action shortly after, and, several hours later, Hungerford made a statement to sit-in participants and sent an email to students, faculty, and staff.

In her statement, Hungerford wrote, “On behalf of the Board and the College, I want to tell you that we hear you. We are listening to your voices, and to all of the voices of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. We are considering what we hear thoughtfully. We respect your decision to engage in peaceful protest.”

Hungerford went on to clarify that the Board of Managers had made a consensus-based decision not to divest two years ago after careful consideration and analysis. But, Hungerford said, “The Board is already planning to continue this discussion at its meeting in May.”

She then explained that sit-in participants’ desire to meet with Kemp and Niemczewski was currently untenable, as Kemp is engaged with philanthropic work in Asia. Additionally, she said, even if Kemp or Niemczewksi were available, “neither could unilaterally change a Board decision. Following our Quaker tradition and our governance procedures, that requires a consensus of the full Board of Managers. So we all need to look forward to the May meeting for the full board to gather and deliberate.”

Hungerford added that the college cares deeply about climate change and its effect on the future of the planet.

“The Board has been addressing climate change at each meeting this academic year, and is prepared to make significant commitments,” she said, citing the Board’s December allocation of  $12 million to carbon neutrality for the planned Biology, Engineering and Psychology building.

Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17, a Mountain Justice member, said that sit-in participants were particularly encouraged by Hungerford’s response. O’Hanlon noted that the announcement that the Board would discuss divestment at its May meeting came just months after Board members had declared the conversation on divestment closed, and he called Hungerford’s statement “a major victory.”

On Sunday, McKibben announced that he would join the sit-in and lead a rally calling on Swarthmore to divest. The next day, Figueres sent a letter to Kemp, Niemczewski, and the student body,  endorsing the sit-in and calling for the two Board members to divest.

“Simply put, we are running out of time to do the right thing,” Figueres wrote. She then elaborated on the risk-return analysis of fossil fuel investments and encouraged Board members and students to “support and encourage” the transition away from fossil fuels.

“Using the power of our capital, be it small or large, we can drive innovation to promote climate change solutions in a planned and sensible manner,” Figueres wrote. She concluded, “It is financially prudent to be on the forefront of this transition … As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, I see that history is calling on all of us to smoothly usher in the next phase of global economic development. Swarthmore cannot determine the pathway of global endowments, but it can protect its endowment and play its part in history.”

O’Hanlon was enthusiastic about Figueres’ and McKibben’s contributions to the sit-in. “The endorsements from Bill McKibben and Christiana Figueres further exemplify the untenable inconsistency between Swarthmore’s investments and values,” he said.

In the first week alone, around a hundred students and professors have joined the sit-in and participated in a series of teach-ins, workshops, planning, and discussion meetings. Mountain Justice considers the action successful so far. O’Hanlon was optimistic that the Board would come around. “We fully expect that our Board will join us in building the path towards a just and sustainable future,” he said.

In a statement emailed to the Phoenix about the sit-in, Kemp and Niemczewski echoed Hungerford’s respect for the sit-in and said that they were paying close attention to the range of community members’ views.

“We want to affirm our respect for Mountain Justice’s decision to peacefully protest, having peacefully protested ourselves back in the day,” Kemp and Niemczewski wrote. “Of course we are also respectful of a wide range of community members’ views we have been hearing, including that of Christiana Figueres. We are listening very carefully.”

Kemp and Niemczewski clarified that the Board had already decided, after a discussion in February, to discuss investment options at the May meeting.

“Among other considerations, the Board will need to decide if it is willing to change the Board’s guidelines which prohibit the use of the endowment to express opinions on social issues,” Kemp and Niemczewksi wrote. “Both by virtue of our strong Quaker tradition, and our governance model, our board makes its decisions through consensus. So in order for anything to change, a consensus of the Board must be reached.”

Kemp and Niemczewksi added that the Board would also discuss at its May meeting a full range of initiatives from the recent Sustainability Charrette, including proposals concerning renewable energy, potential investment strategies, and green building standards.

“We have an ambitious agenda for May and we are confident that the results will prove meaningful in our efforts to do part in stemming climate change,” Kemp and Niemczewksi wrote.

Mountain Justice and sit-in participants hope that Kemp and Niemczewski will work with them in the coming weeks in order to ensure a productive and serious discussion at the May Board meeting, according to O’Hanlon.

“Divestment can’t happen overnight, but that’s no reason to do nothing. The urgency of this crisis requires us to gradually but deliberately end our investments in fossil fuels,” he said. “Our sit-in and our campaign have put Swarthmore into the international spotlight. We might just be a small college in Pennsylvania, but at this moment we have a chance to make history, to take a big step towards climate justice in the 21st century.”

The sit-in is the latest escalation in a series of continuous activism and a set of on- and off-campus victories on the part of Mountain Justice.

In September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic institution which controls nearly $900 million in assets, announced that it would divest from fossil fuels. The Fund’s announcement brought the total amount of money pledged towards divestment by various institutions and individuals to more than $50 billion.

In November, the college’s largest financial consultant, Cambridge Associates, announced that it would provide a fossil-free portfolio option for institutions that wished to divest. Cambridge advises 71 percent of the largest college and university endowments, and is the highest-paid financial advisement firm hired by the college.

The next month, students delivered the signatures of the more than 800 students who had signed on to Mountain Justice’s petition calling for divestment to the Board of Managers. The total number of signatures has since risen to nearly 1,000, and around 1,100 alumni and faculty have signed the petition as well.

In February, five members of Mountain Justice met with five members of the Board of Managers to discuss a proposal for divestment. The proposal asked that the Board of Managers commit to full fossil fuel divestment by 2020, the same year which the United Nations says that global emissions must peak in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Members of Mountain Justice developed the proposal after consulting with Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown and Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz.

At the beginning of March, following the Sustainability Charette, Gregory H. Kats, a longtime investor, penned an opinion piece for the Daily Gazette discussing what he termed the financial advantages of divestment. Kats has served as Managing Director on the investment committee of a fund which controlled $500 million a year.

Mountain Justice’s sit-in is just the first in a wave of historic, coordinated, sustained action by divestment campaigns on campuses across the country. The actions will culminate with Harvard Heat Week in April, a week of action calling on Harvard to divest from fossil-fuels.

Go to Top