After reading Coral Davenport’s New York Times article about the recent climate change report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I was shocked, scared, and motivated. For several days after its release, the article seemed to be all anyone was talking about. All across campus, I heard students lamenting the state of our planet, our government, our future. The world, we remembered, is screwed. And I, like many of my peers, felt antsy, anxious to turn our shared frustration into action. I wanted things to change, and I wanted to be a part of that change.
Many who attended the WesDivest interest meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15, hope that this change will come in the form of divestment from fossil fuels. At many colleges and universities across the country, the divestment debate has dominated conversations surrounding climate change.
When Sara McCrea ’21 transferred from Brandeis University this fall, she was surprised to find that here at Wesleyan, divestment doesn’t seem to be widely discussed. At Brandeis, divestment had become a divisive and consuming issue. Divest Brandeis, one of the student groups responsible for the movement, frequently organized sit-ins, coordinated protests, and generally made sure that the campus was talking and thinking about how the institution was profiting off of fossil fuels. WesDivest hopes to bring that same conversation back to Wesleyan.
The previous iteration of WesDivest began fizzling out in 2016, but the students involved the club’s revival have emphasized the importance learning from past mistakes.
“WesDivest ultimately branched off into separate groups,” Josh Nodiff ’19 said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say the divestment coalition dissolved entirely, but rather went on a hiatus as campus priorities shifted towards supporting demands for labor justice. Whereas divestment is a long-term campaign, groups like USLAC are addressing labor issues on and off campus that require imminent and immediate action. The hiatus on divestment is now ending, and the next generation of Wesleyan students are ready to take the reigns.”
At the interest meeting, several people discussed their desire to create a broader base and to form meaningful connections with other student groups on campus. After the meeting, I spoke with some of the students who helped to put together the event as they reflected on how the lunch meeting went. Nodiff noted that there were a lot of groups represented at the meeting, including Veg Out, USLAC, SEMI, JVP, and the Climate Action Network.
“But we also had, like, two people of color and everyone else was white,” said Mika Yaakoba-Zohar ’19. “And literally this idea came from the sustainability and diversity workshop…. We’re just doing something wrong. Maybe not us as individuals are doing something wrong, but something is wrong.”
Environmental movements are often very white, and very exclusionary. Yaakoba-Zohar, who is in the Diversity and Sustainability Working Group and who helped to organize the interest meeting, believes that clarifying WesDivest’s mission statement is essential to its success.
“But I also think that that’s why it’s so important to write a mission statement first and foremost, to explicitly say [that] we acknowledge [that] environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color,” she said. “Just laying all of those things out, saying them explicitly…even if doesn’t actually change the makeup of the group, it’s just good for everyone to think about that, to make it salient in the conversation.”
Spencer Brown ’19, who was a member of the old divestment club, echoed this sentiment. He emphasized the importance of reaching out to other student groups to rally people around this cause.
“I’m kind of the mind that through organizing you can overcome class and hierarchical issues, race and gender,” he said. “[The old club] sort of had this mindset that because people are different, you couldn’t actually organize them. They kind of gave up on the idea that you can have a common cause.”
When Brown first joined WesDivest, the group quickly formed a coalition with SEMI and SJP to organize a sit-in. But the early push for action soon fizzled out.
“I didn’t really see a viable way forward,” he said. “We didn’t have a plan for how [President Michael] Roth [’78] would respond, and it felt more just kind of like we were tailing the Board of Trustees. [We were] showing up, doing those types of protests, but not doing enough to really like build the coalition of groups beyond activist circles.”
Along with a base, the group is planning to create a thoughtful strategy. They want to establish themselves as a legitimate group before jumping to direct action, which can be performative and ineffective when it isn’t grounded in an organized strategy or mission.
“That type of action should come about after a long build-up to a confrontation,” Brown said. “We are not there yet, we have to build a base.”
There are many routes by which such a club can try to make its voice heard, but since all of the previous pushes for divestment have failed, it’s hard to tell what might be effective. In 2014, the Committee for Investment Responsibility (CIR) submitted a 12-page report to the investments office which outlined how and why divestment was financially feasible. But no one on the CIR ever heard back from the office about the impact of the report.
“There’s no accountability mechanism,” Yaakoba-Zohar explained. “So the investments office takes the recommendations and they say ‘okay thank you we’ll take them into consideration,’ but they don’t have to report back [to anyone], they don’t have to do anything with it. [And] that’s what happened with this recommendation.”
The kind of institutional change that the club seeks to instigate is not easy to come by.
“I would say everything has been tried, the WSA path, the giving the report of how it’s feasible path, that’s the research path, and even the direct action path, but it’s always been within certain circles,” Brown said. “[It’s] either been people who are tied to the WSA, tied to the committee for investment responsibility, or tied to small activist groups. And there’s not been an actual organizing push to get this campus to care about it.”
At the end of the meeting, almost all of the attendees walked away with a task. From researching to reaching out, it seemed like everyone in attendance was ready to start working, ready to get the ball rolling, ready to push this campus to care.
“I think if divestment wants to be successful, it can be at the forefront of changing organizing culture [and strategy] here at Wesleyan,” Brown said.
Still, the administration holds fast in their position not to divest.
“Our current position is not to divest,” Roth wrote. “While there might be symbolic value in divesting from energy companies, that ‘high ground’ would be undercut by the simple fact that the University relies on power from these companies every day. Nor would selling shares of an energy company to another institution or individual have a meaningful impact on climate change. Changing the nation’s demand for non-renewable energy would have such an impact. Taxing carbon use and pricing oil and gas in such a way as to account for externalities would have such an impact.”
But symbolic value, some students insist, shouldn’t be underestimated. How can we claim to be an institution that strives to be sustainable if we don’t consider our investments a factor in that? Nodiff echoed that same idea.
“I find it ridiculous that Michael Roth is pledging Wesleyan to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050 when he doesn’t even consider divestment as a way of getting there,” he said. “Divestment is not a distant dream. [It] must be a part of Wesleyan’s strategy for carbon neutrality if it is truly committed to mitigating climate change. The IPCC recently announced that we only have 12 years to drastically curtail global greenhouse gas emissions. Does our university want to be complicit in our climate calamity to protect its profits, or does it want to play a significant role in sustaining our planet for future generations?”
Sasha Linden-Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.