Swarthmore students end month-long sit-in for fossil fuel divestment [photos]

    Swarthmore College students yesterday ended a campus sit-in to demand the private Quaker school divest its holdings in oil and gas companies. The month-long event brought together students, alumni and faculty, but has not yet extracted a promise from the college to sell its oil and gas stocks.

    The hallway outside the college’s finance office was cleared of sleeping bags, pillows and mattress pads. But it was still filled with students who rallied to celebrate the end of the protest. Supporters wore orange squares, the symbol of the fossil-free divestment movement.

    “It’s been a pretty historic four weeks,” said freshman Annie Zhao. “Over 200 students, faculty, alumni and community supporters have joined us for the longest sit-in in Swarthmore’s history.”

    She mentioned support from across the country, including other schools staging sit-ins and a letter of support from alumna Christiana Figueres, the U.N. climate chief.

    Organizers say their major demands were met, including discussion of divestment at the next Swarthmore Board of Managers meeting (the college’s equivalent to a board of trustees). School officials say that topic was added to their May meeting before the sit-in began.

    Meaningful engagement with the board was also something the organizing student group Swarthmore Mountain Justice wanted. Its members were invited to submit their proposal and arguments to the board for review ahead of the next meeting.

    Senior Sara Blazevic, one of the organizers, said students expect to see results at the board meeting.

    “We feel confident that the board is actually willing to engage with that proposal and that they’re going to move it forward in some way,” she said. “We expect some type of commitment to divestment.”

    She says students are prepared to take more action if board doesn’t address the divestment issue.

    Another reason students ended the sit-in was a faculty resolution signed last week. It recommends the board sell its oil and gas stocks and reinvest in sustainable energy. Blazevic says the faculty add legitimacy and authority to their request that students cannot achieve on their own.

    “As a college and as a board, we care deeply about the impact of climate change on our futures, and that of the planet. I thank the faculty for their input,” board chair Gil Kemp said in an email statement. “The board has long planned to continue our discussion about how we can further address climate change as an institution at our meeting in May.”

    More than 350 alumni signed a letter saying they would withhold donations to the school until the fossil fuel investments end.

    A recent article in the college’s alumni magazine noted Swarthmore held a sustainability forum in February where 160 ideas were submitted. One idea the board will be researching is setting up a separate investment account for people who want to contribute but don’t want to invest in fossil fuels.

    “I see that as a great step in the right direction and really positive sign they’re genuinely considering some type of divestment from the pressure they felt from student action and most significantly from the alumni community,” said Blazevic. 

    Koreti Tiumalu is the Pacific coordinator for 350.org, an international grassroots movement that focuses on climate issues. She spoke about the effects of climate change and rising tides on Pacific Islanders.

    “I work with a network of 15 Pacific Island nations. Many of which have been told they may have around a maximum of 15 years, if that,” she said. “A lot less if we continue on the path we’ve been going.”

    She says divestment is not Pacific Islanders’ fight, but they see it as part of the overall climate fight.

    “Thirty-two days you’ve been doing this. It’s inspirational,” she said.

    Swarthmore is credited with helping launch the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the 1970s and 80s.

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