More than 50 Bowdoin Students Pledge to Sit-In for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Brunswick, ME — After having its proposal for fossil fuel divestment ignored by the Board of Trustees last October, Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) has gathered pledges from more than 50 students to “Sit-In for Climate Justice.”

“We do not undertake this lightly, but unfortunately both the Board and the President have refused to take responsibility.  The Board has failed to communicate with us, which demonstrates it doesn’t take climate justice and the calls of our community seriously,” said said Bowdoin senior Matthew Miles Goodrich. “We exhausted our options, and so turned to the history of civil disobedience at the College for inspiration.”

When the trustees were at Bowdoin in early February, BCA hung a banner from a building to remind them that campus expected action.  The banner’s text, a quotation from the College’s first president, read, “Literary institutions are endowed for the common good.”

“To value the Common Good means to value climate justice, but right now our investments support a rogue industry rather than the College’s own students,” said first-year Shinhee Kang. “By divesting, Bowdoin can choose its students and its values over climate chaos.”

On February 13th, spurred by continued silence from the Board, BCA helped organize a meeting in the student union to call attention to injustice on campus and beyond.  At the meeting, which drew over 250 students, BCA asked for a trustee to be appointed divestment liaison by March 6th, and announced its intent to escalate if this request was not met.

The group did not hear from the Board.

“Bowdoin is falling behind.  We’ve faced more than 140 days of silence from our trustees, and in that time, the New School divested, the UMaine system divested from coal, and the UN endorsed divestment,” said junior Allyson Gross. “This is a growing global movement, and it pays to be an early leader. Since the trustees refuse to act for climate justice, we will by sitting-in.”

Bowdoin Climate Action joins other students escalating their divestment campaigns this spring, including at Swarthmore and Harvard.

Statement: If the Board of Trustees won’t act, we will

we will

Bowdoin Climate Action formally proposed aligning the College’s investments with its values to the Board of Trustees on October 17th, after presenting 1,000 student signatures for fossil fuel divestment to President Mills last April. Seventy faculty members joined us in this call for climate justice. For 140 days, between proposing divestment for the common good and our deadline for a divestment liaison, the Board remained silent.

During this period of inaction, the UMaine system, the New School, and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund have all announced various forms of divestment. This growing global movement now has the support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Momentum for divestment is growing, and as the president of the World Bank has stated, it pays to be a leader.

Yet the trustees have ignored our outreach. President Mills has shut down dialogue with the faculty. While the campus awaited action, the president and the Board of Trustees shirked responsibility. In doing so they have demonstrated a refusal to take climate justice–and the calls of our community–seriously.

In the Meeting in the Union on February 13th–a landmark gathering of more than two-hundred fifty students to address injustice on campus and beyond–we asked for a trustee to act as divestment liaison to Bowdoin Climate Action in order to continue dialogue and develop a productive relationship through the coming year. We announced our intent to escalate this spring if the administration did not meet our request.

In an act of deafness toward the students and faculty, President Mills has now appointed himself liaison. As he will leave campus in the coming months, this does not fulfill our request to engage the Board in productive discussion and continue dialogue into next semester. In consequence, we reaffirm our intent to escalate this spring. The Board has not acted for climate justice, so we will.

Addressing climate justice through systemic change

By Julia Berkman-Hill 

Growing up in New Haven, Conn., I was always reminded that we lived in a state with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. I also grew up in a family thoroughly engaged in sustainability—my dad made a compost bin for our backyard and installed storm windows to save energy.

I absorbed those values, committing myself to both social justice and mitigating climate change, but I saw them as separate issues. Caring about the environment was always sold to me as buying more efficient light bulbs, not as systemic change. It’s easy to feel that there is no way to take action beyond personal behavior, so I focused on what I could do. I recycled, turned off lights and ate less meat.

I missed the larger picture. I missed the fact that the coal plant in Bridgeport, Conn. has been ranked the fifth most environmentally unjust in the country. I left Connecticut to major in environmental studies, thinking it was about improving sustainability, but I learned the field is completely intertwined with social justice, and that systemic change is necessary.

I chose to come to Bowdoin because I believed, and continue to believe, that it is a place full of people who care very deeply about bettering society. Bowdoin’s commitment to the common good was something that resonated with me.

Two years later, I am still inspired by this College, by the conversations we are able to have, and by my peers working so hard for causes they are so passionate about. But for me, there is a difference between being proud and being complacent. I joined the divestment campaign led by Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) last year because I know Bowdoin can do better and I wanted to take concrete action.

Two weeks ago, we did. Over 200 Bowdoin students gathered in Smith Union to reflect on and listen to the experiences of their fellow students and how they relate to five themes of justice: race, gender, class, sexuality and climate. We heard one student’s story of how the fossil fuel industry is polluting her home and how it is antithetical to Bowdoin’s values to continue to profit off an industry that is perpetuating injustice.

We have a responsibility to act because the fossil fuel industry is negatively impacting our own classmates. The fight is about real people, some of whom you may know. It’s about more than carbon—it’s about a common fight against larger systems of oppression. As Claudia Villar ’15 closed the series of speeches with her story, she reminded us, “It’s impossible to choose just one issue to care about.”

I, for one, needed that reminder. Every day, a group of us meet at 4 p.m. in front of the polar bear statue outside of the David Saul Smith Union for the climate justice minute. For me, this is a time to reflect on climate justice and how it is linked to other issues I care about.

However, it is also a time to emphasize the continued silence from our administration. At the kick-off panel of Intersections: People, Planet, and Power, several professors affirmed that action for climate justice must be demanded from the grassroots.

Since BCA met with the Board of Trustees in October, there have been 131 days of silence. In that time eight schools have committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels, bringing the total to 26 worldwide. Divesting is both morally imperative and entirely possible. Bowdoin, with its dedication to the common good, is at risk of falling behind. But right now, we have the opportunity to lead and show our peer schools what climate justice and the common good look like.

Among other calls to action at the Meeting in the Union, BCA reiterated its call for divestment and asked for a Trustee to be appointed as divestment liaison to BCA by March 6. We also pledged to escalate our action this spring to show the College that if it won’t act, we will. Bowdoin must choose by March 6—it’s students fighting for climate justice or the industry hell-bent on stopping us. Whose side are you on?

Julia Berkman-Hill is a member of the Class of 2017.