Students keep divestment pressure on Smith College

  • Students from Divest Smith College gathered behind Sealey Hall Thursday afternoon to demand that the college divest from the fossil fuel industry. GAZETTE STAFF/BERA DUNAU

  • Students from Divest Smith College gathered behind Sealey Hall Thursday afternoon to demand that the college divest from the fossil fuel industry. GAZETTE STAFF/BERA DUNAU

@BeraDunau
Published: 10/19/2017 10:42:16 PM

Northampton — A small but vocal crowd of Smith College students gathered behind Sealey Hall to demand that the college divest from the fossil fuel industry on Thursday, some six months after a similar rally in March.

“For us it’s largely a climate justice issue,” said Abigail Bernard, 21, a senior at Smith and strategist with Divest Smith College.

The protest was organized by Divest Smith College, which has been working since 2012 to get Smith to divest. According to the group, Smith currently has more than $100 million invested fossil fuels.

The group chose to protest this week because Smith’s board of trustees is on campus, and set to be there for three days. While organizers said they didn’t know when the trustees would be meeting, they chose the protest site based on its proximity to Pierce Hall, where the board typically meets.

“We are hoping to get their attention,” Bernard said.

Divest Smith College is trying to arrange a meeting with the full board of trustees.

Emily Hitchock, a junior and strategist with Divest Smith College, said that the group has had small victories over the years, including the re-establishment of Smith’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility in 2015, which serves as a subcommittee of the trustees.

As of February 2016, Smith College had an endowment of about $1.7 billion, about 6 percent of which was invested in fossil fuels. It is not easy to pull this money out, as the endowment sits alongside those of several other colleges and universities in a commingled fund, the university has said.

In response to the rally in March, college officials said Smith has taken several steps in recent years to address the issue of climate change. In 2014, trustees created a $1 million sustainable investment fund that invests money in a sustainable global equities fund.

In March, the college released a 36-page report, “Toward a Sustainable Future,” that spells out how the college aims to combat “unpredictable, highly damaging and potentially irreversible impacts” on the climate by humans.

The report outlined 21 recommendations across five areas — academic, campus programming and operations, investments and institutional change — that will impact the campus, the community and the world.

Divestment is discussed in the report, including making targeted divestments from fossil fuel holdings; enhancing reporting and analysis on fossil fuel investments in the endowment; and increasing the college’s impact investing budget from $9.5 million to $30 million. Impact investments are investments made in companies, organizations and funds with the intention of generating measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.

The 23-minute protest included brief speeches, reading of a statement in unison and two rounds of chants.

“The time has come for Smith to decide which side of history we’re going to be on,” said Sophie Meacham, a senior at Smith and strategist with Divest Smith College.

“We cannot continue to sit on our hands while the world around us burns,” Meacham continued. “It is time for urgent climate action.”

“The people! The planet! And peace over profit!” appeared to be the most popular of the chants both times around.

“We’ve been waiting for five years, time’s up,” finished the joint statement.

Participants wore orange felt squares, which are symbols for the wider campaign of divestment.

“It’s meant to symbolize the centering of the human impact of the fossil fuel industry,” said Hitchcock. “This is not just an issue of sustainability.”

In her speech, Hitchcock  said that the group stands in solidarity with climate refugees and with hurricane relief efforts on campus.

At the rally, Investure, the company that invests Smith’s endowment, was also criticized.

“If Investure is unwilling to prioritize divestment, maybe its time that we looked to moving to a different investing company like our sisters at Barnard did,” said Meacham in her speech.

By coincidence, the rally was held both spatially and temporally near the groundbreaking for the renovation of the Neilson library, which Hitchcock noted as evidence that Smith was willing to move money around and make major changes.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com




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