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Students Rise Up to Fight Climate Change with National Divestment Network

'Divest Fossil Fuel Student Network' launches to leverage power of growing youth climate movement

Dinah DeWald

In the past year, the fossil fuel divestment movement has caught fire across the country, and its presence was felt more strongly than ever at the Power Shift youth climate conference earlier this month. On Saturday, October 19, over one hundred students at Power Shift skipped their lunch hour to meet with fellow fossil fuel divesters from around the country. A huge circle of young organizers sprawled across the room, at times laughing, cheering, and talking excitedly with one another. These students were gathered together to launch a new vision for student organizing: the Divest Fossil Fuel Student Network, a national network devoted to coordination and collaboration between student fossil fuel divestment campaigns around the country.

"A national network of communication and collaboration will make all our campaigns stronger, and a strong student divestment network can more successfully collaborate with the larger climate justice movement."

Over the past year and a half, thousands of students have started fossil fuel divestment campaigns on hundreds of campuses. These individuals, from schools across the country, comprise the fastest growing and largest student environmental movement in decades. The fossil fuel divestment movement is powerful, and marks a new phase in environmental and climate justice struggles. These campaigns are taking on the fossil fuel industry, an industry that has far too easily and for far too long destroyed communities, corroded the democratic process, and profited by diminishing the possibility for a liveable future. Together, students have decided to fight this industry in our school communities, and support the work of others fighting this industry on all fronts.

Seven months ago, Swarthmore Mountain Justice held the first national gathering of student divestment campaigns; out of the Power Up! Convergence, the idea of a national network was born. Students saw the need for a convening body that could facilitate connections and coordinated action between divestment campaigns, while remaining a space that is run for students, by students. A strong student-led divestment movement can work to strategize and coordinate action alongside the many groups working to further fossil fuel divestment in cities, states, religious institutions, and more. By developing democratic power and leadership in the hands of students, we can build enduring movements on campuses capable of continuing struggles for social justice even beyond our individual divestment victories. The Network has developed through months of discussion and outreach to students, and last weekend, in Pittsburgh, over one hundred students came together to breath life into this structure, to discuss our struggles, our vision, and our collective strategy.

Gathering three times throughout the day, students discussed the impetus behind the creation of the national network. Since divestment is a tactic that is most effective when used by many institutions in concert, the Divest Student Network is a space for student fossil fuel divestment campaigners to connect our campuses, build a common political framework, and strengthen our movement. A national network of communication and collaboration will make all our campaigns stronger, and a strong student divestment network can more successfully collaborate with the larger climate justice movement. We want to see students win divestment on their campuses, and build lasting relationships with environmental and social justice organizations in their communities.

Over the past year, the divestment movement has built incredible power nationally. It has received frequent national news coverage, grabbed the attention of policy-makers and industry executives, and built up a mass of students who are taking actions on their campuses and are ready to take action elsewhere. What can we do with this power? Students at the Network meetings expressed powerful visions of what a network could achieve. How long could administrations hold out if every student divester proponent from a region flooded each school’s campus and took action? How many community energy projects could emerge if a core of universities reinvested fossil fuel money into local community-owned energy projects? How long would fracking last if students from every university in the country joined the fight to block drilling operations?

We believe that a national student network is integral for building power on our campuses. For the last 80 years students have used colleges and universities as key locations for shifting the norms of society. We take inspiration in the movements before us, from South Africa Divestment to SNCC. We take inspiration from our fellow students struggling for justice at and through our universities, from United Students Against Sweatshops to the Student/Farmworker Alliance to United We Dream. We have seen that students have power, and that universities have power. We know we must continue to build student power to challenge the fossil fuel industry.

"For the last 80 years students have used colleges and universities as key locations for shifting the norms of society."

At Power Shift we saw how much the divestment movement has grown in such a short time. And though we are seeing a swell of “No's" from administrations, students activists are not backing down. We continue to ramp up and our numbers continue to grow. Even more, we are building relationships and thinking about how to leverage the power we are building locally and nationally to challenge the fossil fuel industry beyond our endowments.

To begin enacting these visions, the network plans to move forward on a number of projects. We’re starting a publication to share ideas and organizing strategies from students and supporters. Students proposed dozens of regional and affinity networks to focus power in new and creative ways, and we’re launching a mentorship program to support these networks and share skills. We’re excited to support campuses in building meaningful relationships with frontline communities. Another Power Up! conference will be held in late winter as another space for students to collaborate and strategize together. A people of color caucus was formed as a space for divestment organizers who identify as people of color to meet and share experiences and analysis. We have plans for the summer and coordinated action throughout the semester. All of these are elements of building an even stronger and successful fossil fuel divestment movement.

Students are welcome to join the network at any time: we are a diverse movement, and need as many voices as possible to come together for divestment to succeed as a tactic. And together, we will win, because collectively our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

For more information and to get involved, visit the new website of the Divest Fossil Fuels National Network.  


This piece was written collaboratively with contributions from Greta Neubauer, Becca Rast, Hannah Jones, and Joe Shortsleeve.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Dinah DeWald

Dinah DeWald is a climate justice activist and recent graduate from Swarthmore College. While a student, she studied environmental science and policy and was involved in Swarthmore Mountain Justice's campaign for fossil fuel divestment. She also helped found Swarthmore Frack Action, an anti-fracking student organization. This summer she provided support to a Navajo family living near Black Mesa on Diné lands, as part of a larger resistance to forced relocation of native families to clear land for coal strip-mining.

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