Holding signs reading “Carbon emissions – air pollution – 8 million deaths a year” and “Rhonda Cohen – Board of Glenmede Trust – $1 billion in Fossil Fuel Industry,” 18 members of Mountain Justice, accompanied by Professor of Religion, Mark Wallace, staged a demonstration at the Philadelphia offices of investment and wealth management firm Glenmede Trust on Wednesday morning. Their aim was to expose the conflict of interest that they allege has unjustly clouded the ability of Rhonda Cohen ’76, member of the college’s Board of Managers, to impartially adjudicate on whether the college should divest from fossil fuels. Since 2008, Cohen has served on the Board of Directors of Glenmede Trust, which holds more than $1 billion in assets in the fossil fuel industry as well as $297 million in the Exxon Mobil Corporation. The Mountain Justice activists were escorted out of the Glenmede’s lobby by the building’s security, but continued their demonstration outside.
“After finding out that several board members have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry, we felt that we needed to shed light on the situation, not only for transparency but because it is unjust that these persons were allowed to sit in on the decision making process last spring and stop divestment from fossil fuels at Swarthmore from going forward,” explained Christopher Malafronti ’18, a member of Mountain Justice. “This action was a direct result of those board members from refusing to recuse themselves from future conversations on divestment … We were hoping to bring continued pressure on the board, specifically Rhonda Cohen, one of the board members with significant ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
Last fall, Mountain Justice’s core organizers received information from Lil Sis, a free knowledge database, which indicated that Cohen, as well as Harold “Koof” Kalkstein and Samuel Hayes III, are tied to investment firms that hold a collective $3.6 billion dollars in assets in fossil fuel companies. Since then, the group since has staged several demonstrations at board meetings on campus, demanding that Cohen, Kalkstein, and Hayes III recuse themselves from all future board votes on divestment at the college in order to enable objectivity in the college’s decision-making process. Despite Mountain Justice’s efforts, however, neither Cohen, Kalkstein, nor Hayes III have stepped down.
“Swarthmore’s Board even has a conflict of interest policy stating that they should not vote on issues when they have financial conflicts of interest invested in the outcome,” explained Sophia Zaia ’18, a member of Mountain Justice. “It is unconscionable for board members like Rhonda Cohen to vote on divestment at Swarthmore … This leaves us no choice but to escalate and ensure that the conversation on divestment from fossil fuels, an issue that leaves us literally without a moment to lose, are transparent and free from compromising financial conflicts of interest.”
Choosing Cohen as the target of their protest due to the close proximity of her office in Philadelphia, the 19 demonstrators assembled in the lobby of One Liberty Place, displaying their signs. Some were in costume for the theatrical interpretation of the alleged conflict of interest that the group planned to display, while others held signs or carried leaflets.
“We knew we couldn’t get upstairs … so we were just going to do it in the lobby, but the security guards immediately came up to us and were like ‘What are you doing? You can’t do this here, we’re going to call the police,’” Zaia explained. “I tried to talk to him, but he just immediately was like ‘We’re going to call the police’ and we had told everyone that it wasn’t an arrestable action or anything, so we went outside, and we just did the theatrical piece on the sidewalk.”
As a video livestreamed from the demonstration on Mountain Justice’s Facebook page shows, demonstrators played out a scene in which Swarthmore students ask investigators why the board will not divest from fossil fuels, given the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industry.
“It’s not just a moral necessity, it’s a financial one,” says Jeremy Seitz-Brown ‘18, playing the role of a Swarthmore student. “Divesting will protect our endowment from plummeting fossil fuel stocks. We just don’t understand why Swarthmore won’t make this obvious choice that the Rockefeller’s, the nation of Norway, and Stanford University have already made.”
As the scene plays out, other members of Mountain Justice playing the roles of investigators come to the conclusion that the Board’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels is the product of its inability to impartially consider the issue, given Cohen’s professional ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“Board members can’t make an objective decision on divestment if they have a personal financial stake in the fossil fuel industry,” May Dong ‘18 says. “It is unconscionable for board members like Rhonda Cohen to vote on divestment at Swarthmore.”
“Swarthmore’s bylaws say that Board members with conflicts of interest should recuse themselves from the vote,” adds Shana Herman ‘19. “The fact that Rhonda Cohen sits on the board of a company with such large investments in the fossil fuel industry certainly appears to constitute a conflict of interest.”
The performance concludes with all of the Mountain Justice demonstrators shouting in unison, “Board member Cohen, recuse yourself!”
Demonstrators then returned to the lobby of One Liberty Place – this time undisturbed by security guards – and sang two popular movement songs about climate change, which are often used by activists at larger demonstrations. The group concluded their demonstration, chanting “I believe that we will win,” as suited professionals passed by, baffled.
“This action was important because we continued to leverage the power built up last year to show the board that we are fully committed to divestment and are not going away,” Malafronti explained.
Zaia agreed, explaining that Mountain Justice planned to send Cohen a message about their demonstration in order to make sure that she was made aware of what took place in her firm’s lobby.
“I don’t know how she’ll react, but I would hope that she would take seriously the commitment that students have to ensuring that the conversation on divestment continues in a transparent way free of conflict of interest,” Zaia explained. “But obviously, I really don’t know how she’ll react.”
The next meeting of the Board of Managers will take place on the weekend of May 6th and 7th, marking the one year anniversary of the board’s decision to not divest last spring, but whether or not the board intends to vote on, or even discuss, divestment remains unknown. Neither the college administration nor the Board of Managers have yet to respond to Wednesday’s demonstration, however, Zaia and her fellow Mountain Justice members hope that Cohen, Kalkstein, and Hays III heed the group’s plea for increased fairness and objectivity on the board.
“Climate change is one of the most urgent issues of our generation, threatening the lives of frontlines community members each day and actively making our planet uninhabitable,” Zaia explained. “We cannot sit idly by as our college continues to align itself with an industry that is literally incompatible with our future on this planet, despite a mandate from our community and the clear urgency of ceasing to legitimize companies who … lie and deceive the public.”