One year later: reflecting on the anniversary of the divestment sit-in

Jonah Watt, class of 2018

A year ago today, I marched up the stairs at the back of H-L along with 27 other students, carrying my sleeping bag, a week’s worth of work, and a Tupperware of pasta and a dozen bananas that I had hoarded from Moulton.

Amidst a rush of adrenaline, we placed our belongings in a corner, hung up an orange banner reading “Whose side are you on?” and delivered flowers to the secretary, thus beginningBowdoin Climate Action’s (BCA) three day sit-in for fossil fuel divestment. For the next three days, that suite, with its scratchy red carpet and fluorescent lights, became our home.
Over those three days, more than 100 students, as well as several faculty and alumni, trickled in to show their support for fossil fuel divestment, the climax of a campaign that began in Fall 2012. Despite three years of gathering student petitions, meeting with the administration and even presenting to the Board of Trustees, our decision makers had not yet begun to consider divestment. As a result of this delay, we took matters into our own hands, demanding a liaison to the Board of Trustees so that we could begin conversations around divestment. When Bowdoin refused to do so, we acted and began our sit-in, in concert with more than 10 schools across the country.

After two days on the floor of the administrative offices with no response or formal recognition from any members of the administration, another student and I met with Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster. After our hour-long meeting, Dean Foster’s viewpoints became clear: while he did not support fossil fuel divestment, he was sympathetic towards the sit-in.

I was struck, however, when Foster told us that Bowdoin has never been on the “bleeding edge” and thus would not be a leader for divestment. According to him, Bowdoin has never been the first to take a bold step for social change; rather, we follow other institutions when the waters have been tested and it is safe to swim out. He asserted, as have countless administration members, trustees and CEO’s of fossil fuel companies, that we would divest once it became the norm, that we would “ride the crest” of the wave of divestment.

After three nights on that hard floor, we ended our sit-in, feeling disheartened and disillusioned after learning that Bowdoin was unwilling lead the transition to a just and sustainable future.  While the sit-in did not elicit the administrative response that we had hoped for, it demonstrated the student power that we possessed and the strong leadership present in our campaign that filled the vacuum left by the administration.

I came to Bowdoin enthralled by its commitment to the Common Good and by the Offer of the College, which boasted of “leaders in walks of all life.” I left the sit-in, however, disenchanted by President Barry Mills’ dismissal of the Common Good as a marketing tool and by Foster’s statement that we were not the leaders that we offer ourselves to be. Perhaps they were right, for how can Bowdoin be a leader, yet still reap financial benefits from the destruction of our planet and those who live on the margins of society?

Through BCA and interactions with other students on campus, I have met countless leaders fighting for change who are willing to take bold strides towards justice. Clearly, there is no shortage of leaders here, so why have we yet to act on the reality and urgency of climate change?

With over $3.4 trillion worth of holdings and more than 50 colleges across the world committed to partial or full fossil fuel divestment, Bowdoin would by no means be at the “bleeding edge.” We would not be the first school in Maine  nor the first “elite” school to divest, but we could be the first school in the NESCAC to take this step. For a school that values its prestige and touts its sustainability efforts (predicated upon precarious neoliberal principles), fossil fuel divestment would enable Bowdoin to emerge as the leader that it claims to be.

As more and more institutions divest, numerous reports indicate the precipitously falling value of fossil fuels, and energy companies contemplate filing for bankruptcy, divestment no longer becomes a question of if, but when.

When will Bowdoin choose to follow the path towards climate justice and a sustainable future? When will Bowdoin align its investment practices with its commitment to the Common Good, choosing to place people over profit? Will we choose to protect the refugees of rising tides, or will we wait until the waves come lapping at the edges of our manicured quad? If we truly are “leaders in all walks of life,” then why have we failed to lead the transition away from fossil fuels?

For the past four years, we have pushed for Bowdoin to realign its investments, but we have yet to be joined by our administration and Board of Trustees, whose decision-making ability is mired by personal ties to the fossil fuel industry. A year ago, we took action and demanded that Bowdoin seriously engage in fossil fuel divestment, and now it’s time for the investments committee to choose to stand on the right side of history. Bowdoin, will you lead with us?

We must hold all leaders accountable, even those on our side

by Julia Berkman-Hill, class of 2017

It was surreal standing at the rope line of a Hillary Clinton event in Portsmouth, NH last Saturday evening, knowing that in a few moments I would be pressing her on a question she has evaded for months. What I had to do was so simple, but my heart pounded nonetheless. I took a deep breath, reached for her hand, and asked, “Secretary Clinton, will you pledge to stop taking money from fossil fuel lobbyists?” Immediately, her face hardened and she forcefully retracted her hand without a word.

Debriefing the event later that evening, another activist mentioned that she always felt nervous putting pressure on Clinton since she felt accountable to her in a way she didn’t feel accountable to the Republicans we were also pushing on climate issues.

I found that feeling in myself, too. Clinton does share a lot of my values, and she is an amazingly effective politician. She believes in climate change, renewable energy, a woman’s right to choose, as well as lots of other liberal things. In some ways, it’s easy to feel that she is good enough. It’s easy to feel that I should be fighting for her instead of fighting for better policies from her.

At the same time, I see the effect that activism has had on her, pushing her on issues such as oil extraction on public lands. All summer, protesters publicly disrupted her town halls and rallies chanting “Act on climate!” and holding banners and signs. Shortly after Clinton came out against Arctic drilling, Allyson Gross ’16 interrupted Clinton at a rally in Portland, asking her about her position on the Keystone Pipeline. Five days after that action, Clinton came out against the Keystone pipeline as well. The first time she was pressed on each of those issues, and the fifth time or even the fiftieth, she refused to take a stand. It is the persistence of activists across the country that has led her to move steadily to the left.

Still, Hillary continues to take money from the fossil fuel industry, and she is not the only one. When I came to Bowdoin, I felt that it, like Clinton, was good enough. However, not only is Bowdoin’s endowment invested in oil and gas, but plenty of the College’s trustees are heavily invested personally in these industries, too.

When I learned that Sheldon Stone, a Trustee who sits on the Investment Committeeruns a hedge fund with $2 billion in energy investments, largely oil and gas, it put Bowdoin’s silence on divestment into perspective. If he and other trustees are profiting from the companies that are polluting our communities, he would have no incentive to engage productively on divestment from those companies. When I further heard that Greenpeace referred to Stone as the “kingpin of carbon” in 2014 and that Stone and his wife have donated generously to Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio, I understood why he and other trustees are not seriously addressing Bowdoin’s complicity in the climate crisis. Even if a concern for personal profits doesn’t directly affect his vision of Bowdoin’s future, Stone’s investments in oil and gas send a clear message that he stands on the side of fossil fuels.

A good number of first years I’ve talked to have asked me why I think Bowdoin has yet to divest. After all, barrels that transport oil are currently worth more than the oil inside of them. We have more evidence than ever that climate change is happening now and that it’s being caused by the fossil fuel industry. We know that oil refineries and coal plants are hurting our citizens’ health and threatening the existence of communities around the world who are vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather.

And still, Bowdoin stays silent on divestment and silent on its connections to the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t known how to respond to those first years, because to me, and to them, divestment seems like common sense, and the inaccessibility of the Board has been incredibly frustrating and without easy explanation.

I think the answer is pretty clear to me now. Through their personal investments, many Bowdoin trustees have shown they have a stake in the continuing success of oil and gas companies. They have yet to show, however, their stake in mitigating the effects of climate change or transitioning to a new and sustainable economy.

As students at this institution we have a right to know how and why key decisions are made at Bowdoin, and understanding our trustees’ backgrounds is a big part of that. Just like Hillary, Bowdoin is not perfect. Bowdoin knew about these ties to the fossil fuel industry. Let’s keep asking questions. Let’s keep working to make Bowdoin reflect our values.

Finding Judaism in my passion for environmental activism

by Jonah Watt, class of 2018

Originally published October 16, 2015

Every Sunday morning for 10 years, I sat in my Hebrew school classroom, passing around a small tin tzedakah box and emptying my pockets full of loose change into it. At the end of the year, we dumped out the contents and counted the money inside. In an exercise of early childhood democracy, we would vote as a class where to donate the tzedakah, and then our teacher would send a check to the animal shelter or local food pantry of our choosing.
I grew up in a Jewish family and a vibrant Jewish community, raised on the values of tzedakah (justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). I was taught how to promote justice, how to engage in acts of repairing the world and how it was my responsibility to care for the planet and to ensure that it was left in the same condition, if not better, for my children and future generations. (Finding a Jewish spouse and producing these future generations was another value imparted on me from an early age.)
When I came to Bowdoin, I attended Hillel candle lighting for the first few weeks, and then less and less, much to my mother’s chagrin. Instead, I spent more and more time at Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) meetings, an initially daunting community filled with what I perceived to be radical eco-terrorists.
For a while, it seemed that my Judaism had been put on the backburner, replaced by a newfound love for climate action. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I was asked to be on a panel for the teach-in. In preparation for this event, I dug down and found my Jewish identity and values deeply sedimented in my climate activism.
The panelists were asked to find texts from our religions that shape our relationship with nature and climate change. I struggled to find excerpts from our torah on how to avoid disastrous floods (besides ushering two of every animal species into an ark) or how to combat the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on not only our climate but our political and economic structures as well.
After reflecting on all of my Hebrew school torah study, I came to realize that there were no explicit teachings or stories that informed my stance on climate change; rather, the values that I had grown up with had become internalized and, unknowingly, drove my advocacy for climate justice.
In my work with BCA, I find examples of tzedakah, tikkun olam and l’dor v’dor. Fighting for a more sustainable, fossil-free world, we advocate for climate and racial justice and act to ensure that we can pass on an inheritable world to our children. Though I had not realized it until I was asked to find direct relations between my faith and my stance on climate change, my Jewish values had been informing my quest for climate justice since the beginning.
As I campaign for fossil fuel divestment, I think back to my days in Hebrew school, passing around the tzedakah box and donating loose change to worthy causes. Though the contents of a tzedakah box and the contents of our endowment are vastly different pools of money, I firmly believe that they should be regulated by the same guiding principles with which I was raised. And though I may not be the one voting on where our endowment’s tzedakah money is invested, I sure as hell won’t stand idly by as they go towards industries antithetical to my values.
Just as I know that five-year-old me would not have voted to donate our tzedakah money to Shell, Exxon or any other corporation that profits from the destruction of our planet and our people, I know with equal conviction that current-day me would not support such investments in injustice, either.

Standing up to Hillary and standing for divestment come from the same roots

by Allyson Gross, class of 2016

Hillary Clinton has, in my lifetime, been many things. From First Lady to Senator to Secretary of State (and email aficionado), she has been a constant presence in the public eye, and though perhaps more tangentially, my life overall. Several Christmases ago, my conservative grandfather ironically bought me a Ready for Hillary t-shirt, and I once mused as a naive first year in the Bowdoin Democrats that I would work for “whatever campaign Hillary was running” upon my 2016 graduation. In all of that time, I never really imagined I’d ever meet her—much less personally confront her.

One week ago today, that scenario became reality, as I and seven other members of Bowdoin Climate Action disrupted Clinton’s campaign stop in Portland over her wavering and unclear position on the Keystone XL pipeline. When her speech mentioned climate change, we rose from our seats and held our folded signs, calling on Clinton to “say no to KXL.” As she exasperatedly asked us to sit down, I interrupted her to ask her position on the pipeline. The rest of the scene is well-documented, both in video and print.

There are myriad reasons why we interrupted her, and why students and organizers around the country have been confronting her about the pipeline for months. Because her climate plan doesn’t address fossil fuel extraction as the root of the crisis. Because in a demonstrated lack of leadership, she was the only presidential candidate not to make her stance on the pipeline clear. Because Keystone, a shoddily-made tar sands export pipeline, comes to an end only a short drive away from my family’s home on the southeast side of Houston. That home is what has spurred me into action, both on campus and off, for climate justice in the campaign for fossil fuel divestment. Keystone does not directly relate to Bowdoin’s endowment, and Clinton has no say on the removal of our investments from the fossil fuel industry. However, the intentions behind the political pressure leveraged on both the pipeline and the candidate also correspond with the very point of divestment. To target the fossil fuel industry on all levels is to build a powerful movement contesting its longevity.

Though many may get caught up in the specifics of the tactic itself, divestment is just that—a tactic—and its meaning stretches far beyond the actual movement of money. The goal behind it is to build popular support against the fossil fuel industry. That means challenging extraction projects on the ground, pushing our institutions to cease monetary support and even, on occasion, directly interfering in the speeches of politicians with less than stellar climate policy. Our work on campus is one subset of a much larger push to shift public opinion on what it means to take climate action. From the President of the College, to the potential POTUS, I expect those who hold power to wield it in favor of a just and stable future. We must do more than just convincing them of our position. In the end, we must put social pressure on them.

This Tuesday, it was announced that endowments representing $2.6 trillion have been divested from the fossil fuel industry since 2011. Later that afternoon, Clinton announced in Iowa that she was, in fact, in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The fight may not be over, but there’s proof that this movement is powerful. Thanks to thousands of organizers across the country, Clinton may still be many things, but after this week, a supporter of Keystone XL she is no longer.

The Sit-in for Divestment

Another

Students filled out white boards stating, “Another _____ sitting in for divestment” to put a face to the individuals supporting the campaign.

In order to form a more transparent and accessible relationship with the college, 28 Bowdoin students began a sit-in of the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow early Wednesday morning. We read our request out loud, asking for a working group from the College consisting of Board of Trustees members, students, and faculty to consider the prospects of divestment at Bowdoin; we planned to stay until we were heard. It had become apparent over the preceding days of silence from the administration and the Board of Trustees that the issue had to be forced. Constructive dialogue had become dependent on confrontation. We wanted to make ourselves heard.

Over the course of the first sit-in at Bowdoin in decades, we have gathered the support of 105 students and faculty members, who personally came to support us. Not only were members of BCA participating, but also students from different organizations and clubs from across the campus joined. As members of BCA, we were humbled by the new support and inspired by the enthusiasm and dedication of other students. It has become apparent that as a result of the sit-in, a new and more constructive form of conversation had begun on Bowdoin’s campus regarding divestment.

On Thursday, over 40 students gathered to speak to President Mills. Although his personal views on the issue were well known, this meeting confirmed a new reality. Not only did President Mills consider the potential for compromise or meaningful dialogue to be impossible, but he also challenged the viewpoint that students have any role to play in the operation of the college and the method by which it holds itself accountable to the values which it espouses. This is a dangerous and deeply cynical view of higher education, and one to which we firmly object. The college’s commitment to the common good is not just a relative and hollow branding mechanism as President Mills implied, it is a firm promise upon which Bowdoin students solidify their own commitment to the college, it is the very basis upon which we are judged as we apply to Bowdoin. The offer of the college is something we as students take seriously. Equally as dangerous is the notion that viewpoints of students, faculty, and alumni have no bearing on the functional identity of the college. We hold that the core of Bowdoin is far more than the Trustees, the administration, or the financial managers with whom we entrust our money. Bowdoin is more than a business.

During our conversation with President Mills, we offered forward multiple avenues towards the middle ground. Divestment is both a tactic and a process, which can come in many forms. For instance, Bowdoin could divest only its direct holdings in fossil fuels or implement a freeze on further investments. Calls for a transparent working group to investigate the financial possibility of divestment, as other colleges have done, were also ignored. As it stands with President Mills leaving this summer, conversation has been stalled by the fact that President Mills has been allowed to act with unilateral conviction and disinterest in the opinions of the students and faculty around him. It has been made clear to us from meetings with other deans and faculty that meaningful action during the remainder of this year is no longer contingent upon anyone other than the president. This, fortunately, will not be the case in the upcoming semester with the arrival of Clayton Rose, whom we plan to engage directly on these issues.

However, constructive dialogue has in fact already begun to occur elsewhere on campus. Conversations with faculty and students have been constructive, valuable, and enlightening for many, including ourselves. The impressive campus support for the sit-in proved to us that campus momentum for divestment is both a possibility and a reality. We arrived with the expectation to be heard, and we achieved that through members of the Bowdoin community. We hope that our honest and respectful handling of the first student sit-in in decades not only sparks meaningful conversation about divestment and our obligation to act proactively on climate change, but that it also gives courage to those on campus to speak for what they believe in. BCA and those who support us will continue to push for divestment and will work tirelessly to increase student engagement with the issue. We look forward to the arrival of a new president and the opportunity that brings for reaffirming the values we hold as a college and as a community dedicated to listening to one another.

Over the course of the past three days we have shown here, and it has been shown to us, that students are unwilling sit at the sidelines while the identity and actions of the college are decided for us. We have demonstrated that the offer of the college is not something to be taken lightly and that the nature of the dialogue between the students, faculty, and administration is paramount to the functionality and quality of the college. But more importantly we have shown that the status quo of this relationship is unacceptable. The students are Bowdoin, and we will continue to advocate for climate justice and the institutional change that is necessary.

Committing to the climate: taking a stand for divestment by sitting in

by Clara Belitz, Class of 2017

I am sitting in for climate justice because I want to see Bowdoin demonstrate its commitment to the common good. I have pledged to join members of Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) and more than 50 other students in this sit-in for fossil fuel divestment because I am disappointed.

Instead of progress and dialogue, the Trustees have offered a token meeting and continued silence. Bowdoin students, faculty and alumni deserve better. We deserve to have a genuine conversation about how to make climate action a reality at Bowdoin.

Bowdoin students first won the chance to propose divestment to the Board last April, when we delivered a student petition representing five class years to President Barry Mills. From April to October, six other members of BCA and I—representing three class years and a variety of on-campus activities—began to prepare a formal proposal and presentation for the meeting.

Meticulously researched, written and rewritten, our proposal was outlined in both written form and on a Prezzi, to be given to nearly half of the Board on October 17. We worked for weeks. We practiced and edited, and did dress rehearsal presentations with faculty who held a variety of opinions on divestment.

On the day of the presentation, the Trustees were greeted by close to 100 cheering students, and a letter in support of divestment signed by 70 professors. The Trustees appeared receptive, asking us genuine and engaging questions. The positive response to the presentation was promising, and forward collaborative movement seemed possible. I felt hopeful that we would be able to make meaningful progress toward divestment.

At the end of the meeting, however, we were cut off. When we asked the assembled Trustees with whom we should follow up, moderator and trustee Art Black interrupted our question with applause, and the meeting ended. Some trustees left without taking the written proposal. The cheers of the students outside were matched by the subsequent silence of the Board.

In attempting to contact the Trustees in the following months, we were continually rebuffed.Chair of the Board Deborah Jensen Barker and Mills played hot potato with responsibility for moving forward on divestment in the Orient, and when the Board remained silent on divestment at its February meeting, the College’s pretense of collaboration dissolved.

We were never given the opportunity to continue the conversation started at the presentation. We were never able to collaborate with Board members. During their spring meeting, we dropped a banner reminding the Trustees that the campus awaited action. It read, “Literary institutions are endowed for the common good,” a quotation from former Bowdoin President Joseph McKeen.

Having been ignored by the Board of Trustees, and denied the opportunity to work with the College, BCA publicly called on the College at the Meeting in the Union, a gathering of students expressing dissatisfaction with the campus climate surrounding issues of inequality and injustice, to establish a trustee liaison to communicate with the student body on divestment. President Mills—just three months away from the close of his own tenure at the College—appointed himself the liaison.

For nearly three years, we have organized, petitioned, talked, thought and rallied while the Board of Trustees has dragged its feet. Meanwhile, in the 140 days between October 17, when we proposed divestment to the Board, and March 6, the deadline for a divestment liaison, the New School, the University of Maine System, and Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund) committed to some form of divestment. They joined a growing number of organizations across the globe that have committed to divestment.

At Bowdoin, we are taught to pursue the common good, and that the first step on the path to institutional change is dialogue. Yet the College has not responded to our efforts to create a dialogue, ignoring the calls of students, faculty and alumni for fossil fuel divestment. And so the time has come to take a stronger step. This spring, more than 50 Bowdoin students have pledged to join hundreds of students across the country, from Swarthmore, Harvard, University of California-Berkeley, and elsewhere, to sit-in for climate justice.

In a 2006 interview with the Orient about Darfur divestment, Mills stated that “our efforts in community service are designed to bubble up from our students, faculty and staff—rather than being imposed by the College.” Noting a lack of vocal campus activism, Mills ended by posing a question to the Bowdoin community: “Where is that outrage?”

Well, here it is.

This was originally posted in the Bowdoin Orient on March 27, 2015