Convergence Activists Join to Fight for Divestment

Isabel Sacks '15 gleefully gives the judges a correct answer
Isabel Sacks '15 gleefully gives the judges a correct answer

Nearly 200 students from over 70 colleges and universities converged on campus last weekend to discuss divestment from fossil fuel companies, collaborating with frontline activists to shape what students described as the most unified and energetic youth climate movement in years. However, meetings between students, activists, and Board of Managers members to discuss divestment were largely unproductive.

Laura Rigell ’16, a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, which began the movement to divest college endowment funds from fossil fuel companies, described the governing vision for the convergence as one of unity. “The idea was to bring other people from divestment campaigns to the same place so they can realize they’re not the only ones doing it, to develop as a movement, and start calling ourselves a movement,” Rigell said.

The convergence brought students together to join in developing goals and strategies for a strong, unified movement. Participants shared organizing skills and attended training sessions focused on decision-making, campaign strategy and media, as well as creative tactics, which involved crafting the art for group actions.

Participants such as Dan Juberlirer, a sophomore member of Tufts University’s divestment group, saw the convergence as vital to building the national student movement.

“It was the first time that we as students have all come together and talked about what our priorities are,” Juberlirer said. “I have a much clearer sense now of the direction of the national movement and how divestment can play into climate justice.”

Rigell said that a strong sense of direction is crucial at this point in the movement, since the number of divestment-focused groups at colleges and universities has exponentially increased in the last year. The movement originated at Swarthmore in the fall of 2011, expanding to five or six other colleges by the spring of 2012 and exploding to over 250 campuses with campaigns by the time of the convergence.

“The explosion is partially due to press given to Swarthmore and to us spreading the word,” Rigell said, referring to coverage of Swarthmore Mountain Justice by major news outlets such as National Public Radio and The New York Times. However, Rigell added, the two non-profit groups 350 and the Responsible Endowments Coalition also drove the popularity of the movement. The organizations have directed resources towards traveling to different campuses to educate and galvanize student activists, Rigell said.

Rigell also linked the movement’s popularity to what she sees as its distinct appeal. “It’s the divestment tactic that has fired people up,” she explained. “It’s really unique. The youth climate movement hasn’t been so energized or united in at least the past four years.”

The convergence also helped to facilitate solidarity with frontline communities, areas in places such as West Virginia and Texas which are affected by fossil fuel industry practices like hydraulic fracturing, coal mining and mountaintop removal. From Friday through Sunday, frontline activists spoke at rallies and panels, sharing their own stories of fighting climate injustice in communities reeling from fossil fuel destruction.

Juberlirer said that the contributions of frontline activists greatly enhanced his understanding of how marginalized communities around the world bear the brunt of climate change impacts. “Divestment is the way to be in solidarity,” he explained.

Pat Walsh ’14, a member of Mountain Justice, spoke to this broadened view of divestment as part of the larger movement for climate justice, a theme which emerged throughout the weekend. “Fossil fuel divestment is now nationwide, but it is just one piece of a greater environmental movement, a broader movement for environmental justice and climate justice,” Walsh said. “While students are working on these campaigns they should engage in the overlap with people from impacted areas fighting fossil fuel extraction, or those who live in poor communities surrounded by oil refineries and polluting facilities, such as Chester,” Walsh said.

The convergence also helped participants to develop a more complex, intersectional view of the problem of climate change and of the divestment movement.

“We need to acknowledge how other axes of oppression and other movements for social justice intersect, whether economic, for labor rights, or indigenous rights, or for gender, racial, or sexual justice. They’re not categories that we should be listing,” Walsh said. “They’re all encompassed and intersecting in the work that we aspire to be doing.”

He added that divestment movements should actively seek out people working on these other types of campaigns, and build upon the connection in their movements. “We’re really all working for a more just, more livable, more sustainable future,” Walsh concluded.

Despite the convergence’s success in creating a solid network of a student-run groups, facilitating solidarity with frontline communities and broadening views of climate justice, Mountain Justice members and frontline activists were largely frustrated by a meeting with members of the Board of Managers to discuss divestment.

One frontline activist from a community affected by coal mining grew extremely upset at the lack of productivity in the meeting after sharing his story of losing family members to lung cancer, and walked out, as did a Board member.

Mountain Justice member Ben Bernard-Herman ’15, one of the meeting’s facilitators, said that the goal of the meeting was to clarify the motivation for beginning the divestment movement at Swarthmore.

“Swarthmore Mountain Justice came out of trips to West Virginia and talking to people who work against mountaintop removal,” Bernard-Herman explained. “We thought it would be helpful for the administration to have a conversation with these people, so that they could understand where we’re coming from and why we’re doing this.”

Bernard-Herman and other Mountain Justice members believed that meeting frontline activists could change the opinions of some Board members.

“It’s one thing for the administration to say certain things to us about the campaign, about divestment…but it’s another to say that to someone who’s lost family members to fossil fuel destruction,” he said.

Bernard-Herman added that many members of Mountain Justice are cushioned from the immediate, direct effects of fossil fuel destruction, but that activists on the frontlines bear the brunt of these effects.

Perhaps due to a difference in expectations about the meeting, Mountain Justice members did not feel much progress was made. Bernard-Herman described the meeting’s tone as “aggressive and confrontational” on both sides. “The meeting didn’t end up happening in a way that brought out the best in people’s ability to listen,” Bernard-Herman explained.

Vice President for College and Community Relations and Executive Assistant to the President Maurice Eldridge ’61, who planned and facilitated the meeting along with Bernard-Herman, said that confusion surrounded the purpose of the meeting.

“I’m not sure what their expectations were of the meeting,” Eldridge said. “The feeling was that this would be an informal, off-the-record conversation so that people could hear each other’s side.” Eldridge too questioned whether productive discussion had occurred at the meeting.

Eldridge explained that the Board of Managers does not consider divestment to be an option for a variety of reasons, mainly that Board members do not believe divestment would be the most efficacious method of fighting climate change.

“The Board doesn’t really want to go down that road,” he said of divestment. “The Board is going to continue to listen to student voices, students will be heard, and they’re not going to shut them out, but it’s not going to be an easy sell.”

However, Eldridge said, the college and the Board recognize the urgency of fighting climate change and will pursue a number of alternatives to divestment, including a Climate Action Plan, which involves carbon neutrality and hiring a Sustainability Coordinator for the college. Eldridge said that the preliminary version of the plan, presented by the Sustainability Committee last weekend, was well-received by the Board of Managers.

Eldridge added that he and Board members believed that directing student energy towards changing the political climate in order to advance climate change legislation would be a better use of student efforts. He also said that he was unsure whether enough students saw divestment as the top issue in terms of fighting climate change. “Putting divestment aside for a moment, what else may we do?” he asked.

Bernard-Herman felt that the administration’s ideas in their current form were not sufficient alternatives to divestment. “The only ideas they’ve come up with so far are conversation and education,” he said. Bernard-Herman feels that while this is commendable and important, it is not enough. “At some point, if you only engage in conversation, the conversation begins to take on a second purpose of not just education, not just learning, but systematically delaying action,” he said.

Looking forward to Mountain Justice’s future after the convergence, members say that they want to focus on creating student support for change in the college’s investment policies. “We’re going to be trying to build a lot of support on campus, because that’s the only way a big action would become effective,” Rigell said. “The Board would realize that it’s not just a handful of people who think we need to do something.”

It appears that despite administrative resistance, Mountain Justice, joined by a vast network of newly unified, student-run groups across the United States, will persist in efforts to build student support and convince the college to divest from fossil fuel companies. It remains to be seen whether student and media pressure on the Board of Managers will change investment policies.

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