Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Fossil Free AU Story: Looking Back and Pushing Forward

Almost exactly two years ago, huddled in an Anderson Dormitory, a few students created what is now one of the largest campaigns at AU.

Almost exactly two years ago, huddled in an Anderson Hall dormitory, a few students created what is now one of the largest campaigns AU has ever seen. Through time and turnover, our demand has been the same: AU Board of Trustees, divest our $550 million endowment from the rogue fossil fuel industry. Today, Fossil Free AU consists of over 30 on-campus organizations. It has won countless victories all leading to a vote on Nov. 21.

Just 50 eager students attended our very first kick-off meeting in November 2012. In a few short months, we built a campaign from scratch and navigated university channels. We gained unanimous support from the faculty senate and the Student Government Undergraduate Senate. In a school-wide student referendum, 80 percent of the voting population supported divestment, the largest student referendum margin in the divestment movement to that date. We collected hundreds of petition signatures and photographs, disseminating our theory of change throughout campus.

 

After months of engagement with our Board of Trustees and students across campus, the November 2013 Board meeting approached and Fossil Free AU members were ready to engage. Over 60 students rallied on the quad before marching to the base of Butler pavilion, where the Board was meeting in the top-floor conference room. Using fishing line and bunches of balloons, students raised signs reading “AU DIVEST” up to their ivory tower. This interrupted the meeting as Trustees came to the window to see students demanding fossil fuel divestment. Fall 2013 escalated the campaign and brought students closer to the Trustees-- both inside and outside the Board Room.

In direct response to our campaign and efforts, the Board of Trustees created the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing and tasked them with creating a recommendation on the topic of fossil fuel divestment. The Committee is still effective and is comprised of students, faculty and administrators. Students all over campus and within the campaign eagerly awaited its review of AU’s investments and the tactic of fossil fuel divestment.

As Spring 2014 came around, Fossil Free AU students focused on building an incredible community. Countless spaghetti dinners, pancakes breakfasts and social events built a huge network of students ready to throw all of their social and political capital behind an eventual vote on divestment. Friends were made, theories shared and laughter exchanged. Hundreds of full bellies planned for a better future. That March, the four Student Government presidential candidates ran on a platform containing a divestment policy, knowing it was one of the most important discussions happening on campus. As relationships were built, so too was institutional support. The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing finalized and presented a report to the Finance and Investment Committee of the Board that called for a multi-step pathway to total divestment from fossil fuel companies.

On Earth Day of 2014, the momentum of our community engagement culminated in a walkout of classes. Professors and students alike joined together on the quad to rally and march to the Open Forum held by President Neil Kerwin and Chairman Jeff Sine. Newly elected Student Government leaders and AU students from front line communities orated to an audience of over 100 people on that April afternoon. The urgency of climate chaos was palpable as we all marched into the forum holding the same bright orange signs, “Divest from fossil fuels.” The strength and dedication of the campaign was fierce as students pushed Kerwin and Sine to openly support divestment. Dialogue was heated as members of the Fossil Free AU community showed Kerwin and Sine that we were serious, that we were well educated and that we were there to stay. 

For the second year in a row, students remained after the academic year to create a presence outside the May Board meeting. The campaign escalated exponentially that May as students briefly occupied the space outside the doors of the meeting. With chants and speak-outs, we reminded the Board that the more they stalled divestment and delayed our chance to make positive change, the more we would escalate.

This September a few Fossil Free AU organizers came together like never before: veterans of the campaign and brand-new organizers brought over 200 AU students to NYC for the People’s Climate March. The weekend set a new record for Climate Movement, and it set a new record for engagement at AU. Since the People’s Climate March, our general meetings have swollen in size, as well vastly deepened in leadership. Like never before, our team is prepared for a week of action leading up to the board  meeting. We know that national media and those suffering from climate injustice are also ready for the Board Meeting. They are ready to see our theory of change turn into a tipping point for the climate movement.

On Nov. 17, the incredible amount of power this campaign has harvested will be visible for all to see and join at 1 p.m. on the quad. Hundreds of people are already confirmed for attendance. As the campaign barrels forward to Nov. 21, all eyes are on AU. We stand ready to celebrate divestment or escalate our campaign to the next level. This is our stake in the climate movement and we are ready to tip the scales.

Fossil Free AU has been featured on Democracy Now!, Reuters, In the City and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, like us on Facebook or check out our blog. Join us Nov. 17 by signing up.

Rebecca Wolf is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.


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