Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I spent this weekend surrounded by 200 incredible activists from around the country at the Power Up! Fossil Fuels Convergence. At the end of a whirlwind three days (and an intense few months of planning), I’ve emerged from the weekend inspired by the people I spoke to, excited for the work ahead of us, and also challenged, because I know that the movement for environmental justice, economic justice, and climate justice will not be an easy one.
The participants in Power Up! were students—170 of them—from 70 schools, all of whom are working on divestment campaigns on their campuses. We, Swarthmore Mountain Justice, brought them here to share skills, build analysis, and construct a national strategy, and I must say that we were even more successful than we could have imagined. The energy that I got just from being in the room with these students is astounding.
On Saturday afternoon, I participated in a small group discussion about how to build this movement going forward, and I was blown away by the participants’ enthusiasm and intelligent ideas about our next steps. The group was adamant about the importance and power of building a national youth movement for environmental justice. “I don’t want a non-profit organization telling us how to run our movement,” one student said. “This is our movement, and we are the ones who are going to organize it.” At the same time, students were well aware of the fact that they are not the only ones in this movement. As another student said, “this isn’t just a student movement, and divestment isn’t the only tactic.” Throughout the weekend, it was clear that the movement for environmental justice is one that includes activists on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and consumption and that the work we do is in solidarity with the work that they have been doing for decades.
Solidarity organizing was one of the central themes of the weekend. We heard from activists who are fighting hydro-fracking and mountaintop removal, activists whose neighborhoods are surrounded by oil refineries, activists with pipelines being built in their communities, and indigenous activists whose lands are being destroyed by extreme oil extraction in their backyards. Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta Canada, one of the keynote speakers, described the destruction of her community, but also reminded us that “just because you don’t live in these communities doesn’t mean you’re not affected,” underscoring the need to act in solidarity, and the impossibility of stating that these problems are not relevant for us.
At the beginning of the weekend, Swarthmore students and frontline activists met with various administrators and members of the Board of Managers who have repeatedly dismissed our demands for divestment. One thing that they have told us is that we need to wait, or that our job now is to learn, and once we’ve graduated, we can go off and create change. This weekend made clear the impossibility and absurdity of their demand. I spoke to frontline activists my own age who have never been able to drink their own drinking water and are organizing right now because they need to in order to survive. And I spoke to people far older than myself who have been organizing since they were younger than I to protect their land, protect their air, and protect their and their children’s lives. It became clear that the ability to wait to act is a luxury and a privilege that many people do not have, and it is a luxury and privilege that many students do not have. On Sunday, convergence participants participated in a direct action where we brought our message of resistance to Parish Hall. Many students who were participating in the convergence spoke about their own experiences with environmental racism and injustice, describing relatives whose homes were being threatened by rising sea levels or the experience of growing up near pipelines exuding toxins into their air and lungs. The Board of Managers needs to realize that environmental destruction and climate change are not just threats to future generations, but are a threat to people, many of them within the Swarthmore community, right now. The immediacy of the crisis reminds me why we demand divestment and emphasized the reality that, until we do divest, we are culpable.
Lameman addressed this culpability when she spoke of the “magical bubble” surrounding Board members and others who ignore the consequences of our actions. She told us of the need to come to terms with those consequences and to change our actions when that is what is necessary. Aura Bogado, another keynote speaker, reminded us that our culpability runs deeper than even our investments, and explained the concept of climate debt—that those in the Global North, with a mere 15% of the world’s population but 80% of its resources, have contributed 75% of carbon emissions. It is the people of the Global South who disproportionately feel the impact of that pollution and destruction. It is time for those of us in the Global North with power and resources—and, in the case of college students, access to large endowments—to begin to counteract that destruction and injustice. After this weekend, being surrounded by some fierce organizers with great ideas for building a national movement, I have hope that we can find a way to begin to repay this debt and start a movement towards climate justice and sustainable communities.
Op-Ed submitted by Ali Roseberry-Polier