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Fossil fuel divestment continues to GROW — a conversation with student organizer Kate Aronoff

(Facebook / GROW Divestment)

(Facebook / GROW Divestment)

The climate movement is ever-developing and one of its greatest developments in the past year has been the emergence of fossil fuel divestment campaigns on over 300 college campuses across the country. As Bill McKibben noted in Rolling Stone earlier this year, “The campaign to demand divestment from fossil fuel stock emerged from nowhere in late fall to suddenly become the largest student movement in decades.”

McKibben’s own 350.org helped foster some of that momentum with a speaking tour last year called Do The Math that traveled to 21 cities around the country, drumming up support for divestment. But some schools had been hard at work on the issue for at least several years — in particular, Swarthmore College, just outside of Philadelphia.

Students at Swarthmore have remained at the forefront of fossil fuel divestment, hosting a national convergence in February and — together with divestment leaders from a number of colleges — launched a series of meet-ups around the country this summer called GROW (Gather Rise Organize Win). To learn more about where divestment is heading and how it fits into the broader climate movement, I spoke to Kate Aronoff, a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice and a senior majoring in History.

Can you talk about the roots of the divestment movement and how Swarthmore College came to be at the center of it?

Fossil fuel divestment officially kicked-off at Swarthmore in the Fall of 2010, gaining traction on other campuses in the months and years after that. A number of Swarthmore students — including me — who were involved in green groups on campus, had taken trips down to visit communities and individuals resisting mountaintop removal coal mining in Southern Appalachia. We met with Coal River Mountain Watch, the late Larry Gibson, and many of the organizers who would go on to form Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival, or RAMPS. We came back feeling that we needed to do something to fight extraction from suburban Pennsylvania.

We were also frustrated with the climate organizing that was happening on campus. The failed efforts of the 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change and various projects centered around asking people to bike more and change their lightbulbs seem painfully out of touch with the level of urgency being expressed in the climate justice movement.

Drawing most of our inspiration from the movement against apartheid in South Africa, we looked to divestment as a tactic that had been used explicitly as a way to act in solidarity with struggles for social, political and economic rights. It was also a way to leverage the financial and political power of universities. We thought it might be a model that could spread to other campuses which, thankfully, it has.

How did the idea for GROW come about?

During the Power Up! Convergence at Swarthmore, a number of speakers asked us to join them in the trees and on the streets. So — at least for college students — this summer seemed like the time to do that. It also made sense from a strategic standpoint to have students working on their campus campaigns introduced to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience in a serious way. The idea was to get them comfortable with more escalated tactics and learn the importance of tactical escalation within longer-term organizing efforts. Essentially, campus fossil fuel divestment needed to put down some roots. Students like me needed to start paying attention to and supporting climate justice work happening near them. Meanwhile, campus divestment campaigns needed to figure out ways to support and collaborate with one another as they move towards escalation this fall. GROW — the combined effort of students and recent alumni, along with the Responsible Endowments Coalition and 350.org — is providing the space for those efforts and maintaining energy around divestment through the summer.

How does GROW and the divestment movement in general compliment or differ from the many other summer climate initiatives going on, like Summer Heat and Fearless Summer? Did you coordinate with those organizers?

Fossil fuel divestment has always been one small, but proud and crucial part of a much broader movement for climate justice. The GROW team has been talking to Summer Heat, Sovereignty Summer and Fearless Summer organizers in deciding which sites would be ideal for meet-ups, and many of the meet-ups that have taken place so far were in collaboration with major anti-extraction mobilizations. GROW connects students with the work of these summer initiatives, and creates spaces for students to engage with climate justice work already happening close to their homes and campuses. On a basic level, we’re letting folks in the divestment movement know about actions they wouldn’t have otherwise, and helping them get there.

How many meet-ups have taken place so far and what do you think they have accomplished?

So far, there have been nine meet-ups across the country. They’ve taken on a variety of forms depending on the site. In Maine and Michigan, for example, meet-ups were informal discussions about network-building among students who went on to take part in actions hours later. In Portland, New York and elsewhere, students and community members came together for more structured trainings on coalition building and solidarity organizing. Participants at every site are now in the process of deciding on ways to move forward by asking questions like: What kinds of resources do different groups have to offer? What are fights that on and off-campus groups can mobilize around together? How will regional work play into a national movement?

Where we’re likely to see the most exciting results of GROW are in how students run their campaigns this semester and beyond. After having taken part in this summer’s wave of actions, my sense is that the tone of fossil fuel divestment nationally will become more urgent and focused on direct action, solidarity and broader movement strategy.

What’s next for the rest of the summer, the fall and beyond?

The rest of the summer, GROW will keep having meet-ups in Massachusetts, Chicago and Saint Louis, with a few more on the East Coast continuing into the start of the fall semester. Even after this summer, students should keep learning from and supporting the people who’ve been doing this work since before most of us were born. We can learn about the legacy of struggle in communities of resistance, but also the nuts and bolts of what it means to carry out escalated direct action. The average college student probably doesn’t know how to build a lock box, but there are plenty of organizers engaged in local resistance who do.

As we move into the next semester, college boards and administrators will either start capitulating or, more likely, stall and dig in their heals. Whether it’s a coal company CEO or the president of an Ivy League university, power and privilege operate in remarkably similar ways, and we can use similar tools to confront it across contexts. GROW has given students a glimpse of these tools, so it’s hard to imagine that they won’t start using them on campuses in the very near future.

Overall, the problems we’re seeing at universities more generally — student debt, refusals to address rape culture on campus, the criminalization of undocumented students, administrations’ reluctance to divest from fossil fuels — are problems of governance and business as usual. Much like our economy, higher education is operating on an unsustainable model. Students working on all of these fronts have realized that and are organizing around it. This is an escalation that expands well beyond the fossil fuel industry.

Are you feeling optimistic about the larger climate justice movement at the moment?

I’m definitely feeling optimistic. Even since I got involved at the beginning of Swarthmore’s campaign two years ago, there’s been a shift in the way people talk about the environment. There’s been more recognition, especially by larger green organizations, of work that’s been happening for years in frontline communities. It’s also been a realization within the environmental movement that environmentalism isn’t only about land, but also people and communities. Furthermore, the environmental movement needs to be a movement for collective liberation and climate justice. Of course, there’s a ton of work to be done within the white, middle and upper-class sectors of the environmental movement — including parts of the fossil fuel divestment movement itself — to unlearn some deeply-ingrained, problematic behaviors. But the push and the potential are there. The renewed focus on disruption and organizing, as opposed to just lobbying and legislative work, seems representative of the level of urgency being felt by increasingly large numbers of people — especially more privileged folks who are seeing the realities of climate change more viscerally than ever before with megastorms like Hurricane Sandy.

A challenge to the fossil fuel divestment movement in particular will be to find ways to work with communities around reinvestment. While divesting $3-4 million from ExxonMobil is a drop in that company’s bucket, reinvesting that amount in community-based alternative energy or infrastructure projects can make all the difference in whether an initiative gets off the ground or not. Unfortunately, capital isn’t going anywhere soon, and rather than putting it back into a fossil fuel-based economy, divestment campaigns can call on universities to be funding a just, community-based transition away from fossil fuels.

If momentum continues to build in the next year, where do you see it coming from? And what might the work of activists look like next summer?

What I really hope to see in the next year is victory both on divestment and against the extractive industry. What’s exciting and terrifying about the world right now is that it’s hard to see where we’ll be next summer. The economy and the environment are both massively volatile, but at the same time popular movements are growing in ways that we haven’t seen for decades. There is all of this ambient frenetic energy around that doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon. The momentum will probably come from the people who are involved now, and even more so from people inspired by that work and angry about just how bad things are getting.

Activists’ work next summer will likely be continuing the escalation from this summer and the coming year, and disrupting the operations of more than just the fossil fuel industry. It’ll be about figuring out ways to combine our efforts, how to form organizing programs that span issue silos and start dismantling systems of oppression in concrete material ways, while proposing real alternatives. I’m excited to see groups and coalitions putting forth more platforms and proposals — like what the Dream Defenders have done this summer — for how we use institutions to our advantage and stop them from making life unlivable for so many people. That might well mean engaging in the legislative and electoral work that many on the left tend to shy away from. Of course that work is just a piece of what needs to happen, but the government is too big of a tool with too much influence over people’s lives to ignore entirely. The test will be finding ways to use that tool on our own schedule, while continuing all sorts of other resistance instead of surrendering organizing capacity over to the electoral cycle.