By Emma French
“We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” This phrase is familiar to almost anyone who has ever been to a rally. It has all the characteristics of a classical chant: it rhymes, it has a nice bounce to it, and it is empowering while still general enough that it can be used for a variety of issues.
I’ve chanted this at many rallies, but at Power Up!, the first National Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence, it was different. It felt tangible, more like an affirmation of our own power than a cry for change. Standing in the crowd of 200 students who had come from all over the country, I felt unstoppable. The convergence, which was hosted by students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, united students from over 75 different colleges who are fighting to make their campuses fossil free. These students are part of the broader Fossil Free Divestment Movement, which began in full-force last fall, and has quickly gained momentum, spreading to over 250 colleges, several religious institutions, the City of Seattle and the state of Vermont, in just five months.
Lilian Molina, a mestiza environmental justice advocate and community organizer from Chicago, opened the convergence by talking about the history of environmental injustice in the United States and sharing her experiences working with latino/a frontline communities. Frontline communities are those that experience disproportionate economic, political, and environmental marginalization due to political economic structures that exploit or neglect them. In relation to fossil fuels, frontline communities include, but are not limited to: people in Appalachia who are fighting to prevent mountaintop coal removal; indigenous people in Canada who are fighting against the extraction of dirty tar sands on their land; and lower-income majority black communities in rural Georgia fighting the construction of coal fired power plants in their backyard.
In her talk Molina pushed the intersectionality of these seemingly disparate fights, emphasizing that “we don’t live single issue lives”. Environmental justice literature tells us that it is no coincidence that certain communities are being exploited by the fossil fuel industry for economic profit. In order to tackle global issues like climate change we need to address all layers and manifestations of injustice within our community and in the broader global community, paying special attention to issues of race and privilege.
The very framework outlined by the convergence planners paved the way for this broader and more inclusive discussion of justice. The convergence website reads, “We must recognize the ways different social movements intersect. Instead of seeing different issues in competition, we should look for opportunities for synergy and solidarity”. Anti-fossil fuel, anti-discrimination, anti-apartheid, anti-occupation, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization–at their roots these movements are all inextricably tangled, they are all fundamentally anti-injustice.
This theme of intersectionality was developed throughout the weekend. On Saturday morning I participated in a workshop on organizing with frontline communities, and in the afternoon I attended a talk about campaign tactics that are being used in the Immigrant Justice Movement and the Idle No More Movement, which is fighting for indigenous rights in Canada. None of the keynote speakers spoke exclusively about fossil fuel divestment, but instead shared stories about related struggles for social justice. Crystal Lameman, a Beaver Lake Cree Nation activist and campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network from Alberta, Canada, talked about the devastation that existing pipelines are causing on First Nation land in Canada. Aura Bogado, who writes about racial justice, Native rights, and immigration for The Nation, spoke about her father’s struggles as an Argentine immigrant in the United States. And Ellen Dorsey, the Executive Director the Wallace Global Fund, shared her own experiences fighting for divestment from South Africa at her college in the 80s.
At the end of the weekend a Central Coordinating Committee for the national student movement had been formed, along with numerous subcommittees that have already organized national solidarity actions so that everyone can stay updated on campaigns around the country. “Divestment is a tactic and the goal is justice” became the slogan of the weekend and plans are already in the works for summer meetings and actions, many pertaining specifically to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Since returning from Swarthmore I have been wondering why justice movements in the past have failed to make theseconnections. One reason I think past movements have not united is because we are told that political campaigns need to be focused in order to be realistic. But like Molina said, we don’t live single-issue lives. On the contrary, a paradigm shift of the necessary scale is inconceivable without acknowledging the intersectionality of discrimination, depoliticization, and climate justice; and designing our individual fights in coordination and collaboration with one another. On an individual basis I think that some people fail to make the connections because we don’t have time or because it is too overwhelming when you start to consider the immensity and strength of the system that must be changed. I know for me, as a full time student with a job, I have resigned myself to focusing on one issue at a time, because I feel like if I can’t commit myself fully to a cause that I care about, then I shouldn’t be involved at all.
This is a dangerous mindset, because often what (especially college) campaigns lack, are petition signatures and numbers at protests and other one-time events. It’s important to remember that solidarity can be shown by simply pinning an orange felt square to your jacket, or showing up to a teach-in. Without these small acts, there would be no campaigns orsocial movements.
Divestment is not only about saving the world for our grandchildren, it is about addressing the incredible social injustices that have been historically linked to the fossil fuel industry and that are now linked inextricably to climate change. Divestment is not the solution, but rather a small, and necessary act of solidarity.