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?


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