Divestment Convergence Builds Movement for Environmental Justice

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.

Fossil Fuels divestment convergence February 23-24 from The Daily Gazette on Vimeo.

Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) hosted students and frontline activists from across the country this weekend to discuss, strategize, and learn about fossil fuel divestment at the Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels convergence. Around 170 students from 77 schools attended the convergence.

Over the course of the weekend, students engaged in discussions and training sessions and listened to panels and keynote speeches. On Friday, MJ kicked off the weekend with an action directed at the meeting of the Board of Managers’ Social Responsibility Committee. Participants marched silently from Sharples to the meeting in the Scheuer room to echo the committee’s “silence” on the issue of divestment. A banner was hung above the entrance to Parrish Hall with the slogan, “This is what Social Responsibility Looks Like.”

Throughout the convergence participants sought to connect the divestment movement to the struggles of people in “frontline communities,” places that have been directly affected by tar sand extraction, fracking, or mountaintop removal. This was emphasized in the keynote speeches on Saturday night, where Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree nation in Alberta, Canada talked about the negative impact of the exploitation of tar sands in her people’s ancestral lands. “As long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the grass grows we will have an obligation and inherent right to the land,” she said.

Kat was another activist who works in frontline communities. Kat has recently been working in Texas with the Tar Sands Blockade protesting against the Keystone XL pipeline, a major construction project that is “just miles away from Houston’s toxic East end.” Kat told The Daily Gazette, “People of color, and in low income communities, must be at the center of the movement,” because they “will bear the brunt of toxic emissions.”

The convergence closed with another action on Sunday, when students gathered in the amphitheater and received cardboard fists. They then marched to Parrish hall and gathered in front of the main staircase. Some people placed their fists onto a cardboard tree, which convergence organizers intended to symbolize  “sowing the seeds of resistance.” Laura Rigell ‘16, a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, said that she felt this action was the “climactic moment” of the weekend. She also said it showed “the interconnectedness of all issues.”

Some activists attended the convergence as trainers, running workshops to teach students how to organize movements. Students attended these workshops as well as planning meetings throughout the weekend to increase and strengthen their campus divestment movements.

MJ also held a meeting with Board members on the Social Responsibility Committee and frontline activists on Friday night. The Committee responded unfavorably to the idea of divestment at the meeting. “The tone was really negative, unfortunately,” Rigell said. She witnessed members of frontline struggles who were present at the meeting, “speaking truth to power,” but “we had different priorities in the room,” she said. “We will continue engaging with the board.”

Lameman, who was at the Board meeting, mentioned some of the Board members’ reactions in her keynote speech the next night. She talked about the “deliberate ignorance” of the board members’ comments, but she said that such comments “motivate and mobilize people.”

 “I don’t think the Board has much belief that divestment of fossil fuel companies is an effective way to achieve the goals that we all share,” said Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp ‘72 in a phone interview. However, on the issue of global warming, he said, “I think we are committed as a Board to doing more.”

Many participants said that one of the biggest things students learned during the convergence was the human side to divestment. This was a point that was stressed throughout the weekend, from the panels to Sunday’s gathering in the auditorium. Betsy Helm, a Bryn Mawr student, said that a major theme of the weekend was that “Divestment is the tactic, but environmental justice is the goal.”

Kat saw “a lot of great energy from students,” and that people should be “looking beyond divestment campaigns” towards direct action, which is “using one’s body to physically stop” environmental injustice.

The convergence also emphasized planning for future campaigns. “We must address what happens after divestment,” said Sally Bunner, a student at Earlham College, Indiana, suggesting that schools “invest capital in affected communities.”

In her keynote speech, Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, also stressed the importance of taking the funds divested from fossil fuel companies and re-investing them in sustainable companies. “If you own fossil fuels, you are climate change,” she said, “What’s crucial is that the reinvestment side has a big impact as well.”

Andrew Karas contributed reporting.

Photos by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette

This article has been changed to reflect the following connection: The article originally stated that Kat primarily works with RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival). Kat does not work with RAMPS and has been working recently with Tar Sands Blockade.


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