Vanderbilt Fossil Fuel Divestment: Understanding Intersectionality in the Climate Activism Movement

Virtual ‘Students For International Divestment Day’ Considers the Importance of Environmental Justice in talks about Divestment


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Julia Tilton, Contributor

Vanderbilt students joined others from around the world on Saturday to participate in Students For International Divestment (SID) Day, a virtual climate strike that is part of a national movement pressuring universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The event, co-hosted by the Green New Deal Coalition and student organizations at Yale and Princeton, featured over a dozen speakers including the distinguished climate activist and author Bill McKibben. It was live-streamed on Youtube all day, and participants were able to engage with the speakers through the Q&A chat feature.

A prominent theme of the event was environmental justice. The speakers underscored the importance of intersectionality within climate change activism to advocate not just for the planet, but for the groups most oppressed by climate change. During his remarks, Bill McKibben talked about divestment in the context of 2020. He said this year has proven how interconnected the planet really is, describing that socially-constructed divisions among people, those of race and class especially, influence the lived experience of climate change.

“We really have to be thinking about our brothers and sisters all over the planet because the iron law of climate change is the less you did to cause it the sooner and the harder you get hit,” he said. In connecting climate activism to institutions of higher education, McKibben talked about the most recent successes of the movement in pressuring Middlebury College, Oxford College and the University of Cambridge in developing plans to fully divest from fossil fuels.

“The plural of privilege is establishment,” McKibben said. “These places that represent establishment — that represent ingrained, overgrown, barnacled, ivyed privilege — have to stand up now.”

At Vanderbilt, the movement for divestment has emerged on campus in two forms: Divest VU and Dores Divest, both of which had members participate in the event on Saturday. As with the SID event, the divestment coalitions on campus are working to shed light on environmental justice and privilege as it relates to climate change.

Divest VU, which was launched this fall, is a student-led coalition composed of mostly undergraduates who are demanding Vanderbilt immediately divest from fossil fuels. The coalition is part of a larger movement, Fossil Free SEC, that unites twelve schools in the southeastern conference in a push for divestment.

“We are trying to build a movement that encompasses everyone so that everyone feels represented,” said Emily Irigoyen, the head of Divest VU’s event-planning committee. “Especially at top universities, we know that [climate activism] tends to be primarily white, and we don’t want our movement to look like that.” In addition to working closely with Vanderbilt Student Government and the university’s network to advocate for divestment, Divest VU also works with on-campus organizations to promote intersectionality. Members of the Association of Latin American Students, the Muslim Student Association, the Indigenous Scholars Organization, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America have all worked side by side with Divest VU on their various efforts. So far this semester, Divest VU has hosted events for students to sign the petition for divestment, write letters to their representatives to support the Green New Deal, and learn from indigenous speakers about the connection between climate change and indigenous land.

About Saturday’s event, Irigoyen said, “I think the webinar gave us bite-sized solutions that we can take both as individuals and in group form to combat that idea that we are powerless in this.” She added that “a lot of people feel helpless with the climate crisis, but [Divest VU] is trying to have physical ways for people to get involved.”

The other on-campus coalition launched this year, Dores Divest, has adopted a more disruption-based strategy. So far, it has carried out several demonstrations, including hanging large signs on the pedestrian bridge and on campus statues as well as applying divest stickers to campus property.

“We want to be the loudest voice on campus as possible,” said the manager of the Dores Divest Instagram account, who asked to remain anonymous. A notable feature of the Dores Divest strategy is the coalition’s mascot, a robin in a pink hat named Handsome Ron. This bird appears on the divest stickers and many of the Instagram account’s posts. According to the account manager, Handsome Ron is a symbol of sorts, for it represents the community’s collective ability to take action for the planet.

“We can all put on the Handsome Ron hat for a day or a night,” the account manager said, adding that anyone can make a stunt to show their support for the divestment movement.

via @dores_divest_ on Instagram

“We also want to build a community of people having memorable college experiences and knowing they had a hand in making a difference on campus. We don’t want to be exclusive,” the account manager said, echoing Irigoyen’s sentiments in terms of climate activism and intersectionality.

Reacting to the SID event, the owner of the Dores Divest Instagram commented that it reinforces the notion there is a growing community of university students committed to making fossil fuel divestment a reality. Dores Divest is part of a larger online movement with schools such as Princeton University and Dickinson College all sharing content to help promote one another’s respective work.

“We do have a community of universities that is really friendly. No one cares if you use their climate meme and switch your Chancellor’s face with theirs,” said the account manager.

In looking toward the future, both members from Divest VU and Dores Divest emphasized the importance of continued student attention and mobilization to put pressure on Vanderbilt.

“I do think the next step going forward, depending on how the November Board of Trustees meeting goes, is that we are going to push the buttons a little more,” Irigoyen said of Divest VU’s strategy moving into the spring semester.

To get involved with either Divest VU or Dores Divest, students can follow the pages on Instagram and attend Divest VU events. If students have ideas for demonstrations to do on behalf of Dores Divest, they are encouraged to DM the account on Instagram.

“We want everyone to get involved, we want everyone’s creativity, and no idea is too absurd,” said the account manager.