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 

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