Brunswick, ME — Early Wednesday morning, 28 Bowdoin students entered President Barry Mill’s office for a “Sit-In for Climate Justice,” refusing to leave until the College committed to collaborating with them on fossil fuel divestment.
“We proposed divestment to the trustees back in October and were ignored. They haven’t taken the calls of our community seriously,” said Bowdoin senior Matthew Miles Goodrich. “Because the Board has refused to work with us, we’re taking action for climate justice.”
The sit-in is the culmination of three years of campus organizing. Last April, Bowdoin Climate Action presented 1000 student signatures–representing the majority of campus–for divestment to President Mills. With 70 faculty members expressing support, the group formally proposed divestment to the Board of Trustees last October, but student presenters were cut off when inquiring about next steps.
“We’re sitting in because we have to ask our trustees whose side they are on,” said first-year Shinhee Kang. “Do they side with their students, which the endowment is invested for, or an industry whose practices are antithetical to our values and the common good?”
In addition, Bowdoin Climate Action published a letter endorsing the sit-in, signed by 38 alums, including Director of Spiritual Life Bob Ives ‘69, and 16 parents including Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes and former chairs of the Bowdoin parents donation fund Stuart Shapiro and Janice Lee. “We commend these students for continuing to push despite the College’s refusal to productively engage with this issue,” it reads. “These students, as part of a growing worldwide movement, have demonstrated to our community that fossil fuel divestment is necessary, both morally and financially.”
“Just yesterday, Syracuse University, where President Mills received his PhD, announced the divestment of its billion dollar endowment from fossil fuels after students sat in,” said junior Allyson Gross. “Momentum is growing, and Bowdoin, as the college of the Common Good, needs to be a leader.”
This marks the third campus sit-in for fossil fuel divestment in three weeks, following occupations at Swarthmore College and the University of Mary Washington.
Read the demand of Bowdoin Climate Action’s Sit-In for Climate Justice
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.
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.
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.
Growing up just outside of Houston, in a suburb containing the sixth-largest refinery in the United States, the fossil fuel industry was omnipresent in my childhood.
From confusing the refineries’ smoke stacks for “cloud makers,” to knowing far too many family members—beside myself—who developed asthma, I was always peripherally aware of the fossil fuel industry, without considering what it meant to be raised in the center of an extractive economy. Fish, as they say, do not know they are in water, and growing up less than a mile from seven different major oil refineries, I was too close to really think critically of their effects.
As a first year I became sick and found it hard to breathe every time I returned to Houston. I realized that I was safer away from home than in it.
In the process, I learned how my hometown of Deer Park, Texas, is in the first percentile of worst air toxicity in America. The Shell refinery that employs so many of my family friends had recently settled a lawsuit with the Environmental Protection Agency for years of Clean Air Act violations to the tune of over $117 million.
Living within two miles of the refineries down my own street increased my chances of developing leukemia by 56 percent.
What had for so long been merely background scenery for me—cloud makers and perpetual copper skies—now sharpened viscerally into a menacing industrial reality. While I’ve enjoyed the comforts of my new life in Maine, I felt guilty and helpless that my family remained exposed, and my community remained unaware.
Overnight, my ideological support for the Bowdoin Climate Action’s (BCA) fossil fuel divestment campaign transformed into active participation. The dangerous realities of the fossil fuel industry lived too close to home—literally.
To remain silent was no longer an option. That the College to which I had chosen to dedicate four years of my life continues to invest in and profit from the industry that is polluting my home is more than antithetical to my own personal values—it is antithetical to Bowdoin’s own. An extractive economy does not aid the common good.
By investing in the fossil fuel industry, Bowdoin is consenting to the practices of the fossil fuel industry and tacitly approving of communities like mine remaining financially dependent upon an industry that is polluting our air and poisoning our health. That my Bowdoin tuition is indirectly funding the industry that is destroying my home is about more than carbon budgets, two degrees Celsius or investment portfolios—it’s about my family.
Divestment is the tactic, and climate justice is the goal. Fossil fuel pollution disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The disastrous impacts of climate change will only exacerbate already existing inequalities. This is a justice issue harming real people in America in 2015.
Climate justice isn’t just about climate change, however. It’s about what we value—life, land, resources and people. The same systems that perpetuate other social injustices fuel the climate crisis. In believing we can somehow recycle ourselves out of a climate catastrophe, Bowdoin is turning a blind eye to larger systems of oppression.
Lessening the influence of the fossil fuel industry and seeking justice for those harmed by its violent business model are at the very heart of the movement for fossil fuel divestment.
It’s for all of these reasons and many more that I joined BCA’s divestment campaign this time last year. While the College has had the opportunity to lead, it is quickly falling behind our peer institutions and ignoring the calls of student and faculty voices to disentangle ourselves from our ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Since the movement’s inception, 25 colleges and hundreds of institutions, whose endowments total over $50 billion, have divested worldwide. From Stanford, which divested from coal companies last May, to the New School and the University of Maine system last week, divestment is winning and reaching far beyond the Bowdoin bubble.
After two years of building support on campus, myself and three other members of BCA met with the Board of Trustees last October to formally propose divestment at the College.
Since our meeting, there have been 112 days of silence from the Board of Trustees. We have proceeded through the proper channels of engagement and have been repeatedly ignored. We petitioned. We rallied. We presented our case.
As the Trustees meet this weekend, I want them to keep in mind what the fossil fuel industry is doing to my hometown. Academic institutions are endowed for the common good, and the Trustees have a choice to make. Do they stand with me and my hometown, or the fossil fuel industry? Bowdoin, whose side are you on?
Allyson Gross is a member of the Class of 2016.
This Saturday evening, Bowdoin Climate Action hosted a panel discussion about divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Speakers included President Mulkey of Unity College, Read Bruegger of 350 ME, Glen Brand of Sierra Club ME; and Skyping in, Dan Apfel of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, and special guest Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. A mix of students, faculty, and area residents attended, and I found it personally heartwarming to hear older folks calling for intergenerational equity in dealing with issues that will affect future generations so profoundly.
The panelists brought up various reasons that colleges, as well as other institutions, municipalities, and even pension funds, should divest. I was especially interesting hearing that the divestment campaign started in Maine in part because the government has stalled on the debate over whether fossil fuel companies should receive enormous subsidies (read: no), and so widespread divestment emerged as a way to remove those companies’ social standing. Of course, we also discussed the moral argument that Bowdoin Climate Action has stood by – that colleges strive to do good by educating us, and they care about the environment, but that should be held to a certain consistency and refrain from doing harm to that environment in the process of doing other good things. Which could be phrased, alternatively, that colleges should not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
The audience also challenged the panelists to address the hard financial side of the decision, and they responded by saying that of course there is an opportunity cost, but there is in opportunity cost to everything we do. There is no one answer to what Bowdoin can do to protect itself financially, options include investing in clean energy, green revolving funds, and working with investment managers to have more direct control over what companies our endowment is exposed to. But the question of what options will work really remains a mystery without more comprehensive study. And why not study this question further? Bowdoin’s administration may be opposed to the idea of divestment right now, but what do we have to lose by really investigating? We have all been taught to be open in our thinking and thorough in our research.
Saturday’s panel reinforced my own opinion that climate change is the most urgent issue that we as humans and we as a planet face today, and that we need to try everything within our power to solve the crisis climate. We all, people and institutions alike, have other concerns on our minds, but the fact is that climate change will not wait until we are finished studying. Nobody knows when it will be too late to avert this crisis, so we need to get moving, fast. Divestment is one important strategy out of many, and we cannot afford not to take every possible strategy seriously. As Glen Brand said during the panel, “Every strategy by itself is necessary, but not sufficient.” We need to strategize furiously and act, in a big way.