This is part two of the three year divestPSU journey, the last part coming soon.
Climate change is a human created catastrophe, and it is impacting many different communities around the world. The consensus in the scientific community is that the phenomenon is largely due to an increase of greenhouse emissions. The emissions are made up of different gases, known as the greenhouse gases, with carbon being the one most commonly studied.
Up until the industrial revolution, ecosystems around the world were able to cope with the large number of carbon emissions. Ecosystems have different mechanisms to trap carbon either as part of their systems or as part of the body of organisms, both in land and ocean. The abundance of carbon in the atmosphere has dramatically increased since the industrial revolution, the exploitation of natural resources like wood, coal, or oil has ultimately release the carbon back into the atmosphere.
The sun sends powerful sunrays, which is key to having life on earth, since they allow photosynthesis to take place. Greenhouse gases keep the sunrays (heat) from leaving our atmosphere, which is a good thing because it keeps temperatures warm for cells to function, however today there is just too many greenhouse gases. This is ultimately creating the increase of global temperatures.
As of 2016, the carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have surpassed 400 parts per million, a measure of abundance of gases in the atmosphere. Scientists believe that the carbon concentrations should be at 350 parts per million, in order for earth to keep sustaining life.
350.org is an environmental organization which seeks to bring carbon concentration back down to 350 parts per million, hence the name 350.org (350). Several international campaigns for environmental regulation of carbon emissions were launched by 350, some which focused on legislation changes at different levels of government, while other campaigns focused on getting university endowments to divest from fossil fuels.
As I had previously mentioned, my involvement with the environmental sector was mostly limited to the California Students Sustainability Coalition (CSSC), a student group that worked for a more sustainable California. After moving to Portland, OR, it was through CSSC that I came to hear about the national convening on fossil fuel divestment taking place for university students in San Francisco, CA.
Fossil Fuel Divestment National Conference
The event was a perfect opportunity for my cohort of student leaders at Portland State University (PSU), for we had voted to launch a campaign on fossil fuel divestment on our campus. The trip to San Francisco brought success, as my colleagues Cindy, Linda and I were able to establish relationships with other students that attended the national gathering on fossil fuel divestment.
At the conference, we also came to find out about another group, the Divestment Student Network (DSN). DSN is a student led national organization in the United States, they utilize grassroots strategies to pressure administration to take action on climate change by divesting from fossil fuels, they later on ended up leading regional networks as seen below.
After checking out what the rest of the students were doing around the U.S., we came to realize that this campaign may take several years. We knew students were going to graduate, so therefore we had to figure out a way to get younger students involved to accomplish our goal. We also identified the importance of sharing resources, and collaborating with campaigns near our school.
Once we were back in Portland, we conducted research on the PSU Foundation, the manager of the PSU endowment. We found out that the endowment is roughly $50 million, and that JP Morgan, a corporate fossil fuel international investor, manages the endowment.
Once we found out that JP Morgan was manager of the PSU endowment, we decided to host a kick-off event to let the campus know what is going on, and recruit new members to our coalition. During Earth Week, Danielle Forest and I officially kick-off the campaign with a presentation at the Smith Student Union. At the same time our cohort members dropped a banner on the middle of the PSU campus, it highlighted the lack of congruency PSU investments had with it’s ‘leader in sustainability’ reputation.
----I would like to acknowledge the hard work from my cohort members who allowed me to champion the divestment efforts. A big thank you to Amanda Johansonn, Katherine Knecht, Megan Dickison, Jeniffer Petrie, Larissa Butler, Will Wright, Lindsey Hartung, Fabiana Pedroso de Araujo, Linda Hoppes, Cindy Joy Staller and Emily Martin.
DSN staff I had met in San Francisco invited me to take part of a weeklong training for organizers in Chicago, IL. Their goal was to build regional networks to share resources, collaborate, and ultimately get educational endowments from fossil fuels. The weeklong training proved to be one of the most important weeks of my life, for it allowed me to gain clarity on my personal goals moving forward, which included taking action on climate change--now.
SSLC members were offered a summer internship opportunity to prepare to the next phases of the campaign. The subgroups of the team focused on research of the PSU Foundation, as well as outreach strategies for the student body, alumni, faculty, and administration. Even though I was not able to obtain the internship opportunity, I continued to spend countless hours on divestment efforts, for I knew climate action had to be taken.
During the summer of 2014 I got to learn a range of strategies, and create relationships that would prove pivotal to the development of the campaign. Summer also meant that the Association of Students at Portland State University (ASPSU) – PSU student government – had a new administration. Linda Hoppes, my SSLC cohort colleague was part of the administration leaving, and she had helped create a position within ASPSU that would focus on sustainability (Sustainability Affairs Director). Elyse Cogburn, an environmental studies senior at the time, filled the position with the new administration.
Once classes began in the fall of 2014, Elyse joined the divestment of fossil fuels coalition. We identified that there was a need to educate students of what is going on, and give them a chance to ask more questions about divestment, fossil fuels, and where we should be investing the PSU money.
In order to fill this need, we hosted an informational panel event with representatives Bryan Brumley, a certified financial planner; Dr. Randy Bluffstone, PSU professor of Economics; Dr. Linda George, PSU professor of Atmospheric Chemistry; Anthony Bencivengo, Fossil Free of Reed College organizer; Linda Hoppes; and Zach Allen, organizer for 350PDX (local branch of 350.org). The event was a success, it was clear that the divestment movement at PSU was attracting attention.
Later on the fall term, world renounced Winona Laduke visited PSU, she had led divestment of the South African Apartheid during her college years at Harvard University. In her keynote speech, Winona gave full support to the efforts to get PSU money out of fossil fuels.
Interested students quickly joined the SSLC meetings, for they saw an opportunity to fight against climate change, and make a difference as students. Due to the increased interest, Divest PSU formed, and the need to be an independent group in order continue the SSLC efforts on divestment of fossil fuels.
While the new SSLC cohort supported divestment efforts, Divest PSU started to meet independently, and started to amplify the methods of strategies to divest. The rest of 2014-15 year was filled with media campaigns, informational events, and a passed resolution in support of divestment at the student government.
SSLC collaborated with Divest PSU to host a regional conference to train student leaders in the Pacific Northwest to start their campus campaigns, part of DSN’s seven regional trainings around the U.S. Divest PSU also organized Divest Week, a weeklong series of events at PSU advocating for divestment.
Students across the U.S. were all taking initiative and escalating their campaigns, for we felt climate action must take place immediately. We strategically organized Divest Week, because it was during that week that PSU would host the annual Sustainability Celebration, an event to celebrate the work PSU does on sustainability.
Divest PSU found such celebration to be ironic, the PSU Foundation had not replied to our request to discuss the investment practices, which meant that the celebration was a perfect opportunity to shine a spotlight and be heard.
Our members stormed in after PSU President Wim Wiewel’s speech at the Sustainability Celebration, dressed in all black, staging an oil spill, 30 members demanded that PSU sold fossil fuel investments. The event was covered by newspaper Portland Tribune later that month.
I would like to give a should out to the countless other student volunteers who joined us throughout the year. I can’t recall the number of volunteers who came to help cut orange squares, make banners, or go protest at Portland City Hall to get the cities money out of fossil fuels.
Our non-violent action was a success. President Wiewel put the students in touch with the PSU Foundation staff, so we started to meet with them over the summer. After a few meetings, it became even more apparent that this process was going to take longer.
By the time spring term had ended, the PSU Foundation was considering a range of options, and decided to research alternatives to divestment. President Wiewel told the foundation that taking no action was not an option.
Summer meant that a new cabinet of student leaders was elected to represent the student body of PSU, so I saw an opportunity to take over as Sustainability Director at ASPSU, after all the new ASPSU administration had set out to continue divestment efforts (beyond fossil fuels) for the upcoming academic year. I was appointed as new ASPSU Sustainability Affairs Director, under the new administration.
The new administration wanted to move forward on goals of divestment of fossil fuels, private prisons, and companies benefiting from Israel occupation. With the change of the year, Divest PSU had different students move on, so ASPSU provided capacity, space, support, and time to keep on pushing.
This is part one of the three year divest PSU journey, look out for the second part soon.
Portland State University
The City of Portland is known internationally for its consciousness on the environment and it’s stewardship. The city is home to a number of universities, one of which works closely with the city to advance climate action goals, Portland State University (PSU).
PSU is located in downtown Portland, and is home to roughly 25,000 students, ranging from recent high school graduates to parents going for a second degree. In 2013, I started to attend PSU in hopes of finding a career in the environmental field.
Until that point, my experience with environmental field was limited to a community college environmental club, and an internship at the California Sustainability Student Coalition (CSSC). I recall this picture being taken at the CSSC conference in the UC Berkeley campus, a few months before heading north to Portland.
Upon moving to Portland, I was exposed to a range of organizations and opportunities to learn more about the environmental field. At PSU, my first weeks living on campus brought the opportunity to be part of a student group, Eco-reps. The student group makes behavioral changes to the life-styles of campus residents to promote a more sustainable, material conscious, energy efficient campus.
Student Sustainability Leadership Council
PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) – the hub for sustainability at PSU – has three main bodies, one of which was the Students Leadership Center (now Student Sustainability Center). Led by Heather Spalding, SLC was and still is home to many student led activities taking place around sustainability at PSU such as Eco-reps.
Another group that convened that was part of SLC, the Student Sustainability Leadership Council (SSLC), was made up of sustainability multidisciplinary leaders from across the PSU campus. SSLC cohorts would participate in personal development activities, as well as leading effort on an annual project. Previous SSLC cohorts created the Flea market, a quarterly event where local artist could sell their reused items.
My engagement with the Eco-reps ultimately yielded an opportunity to be part of SSLC, as they were recruiting members for the 2013-14 cohort. I knew nothing more really, I was just thrilled to be more engaged in the environmental field.
The leadership models that SSLC introduced to me through their different personal development activities, and opportunities to form collaborative models. They provided the space to really finally be heard, and I would specifically give credit to the fact that most of the leaders gathering in the space were women.
Weeks went by, and I got a chance to get to know the rest of the members. Once winter term had arrived, SSLC would be looking to pick their annual project. Ideas were being pitched for the next project, from reusable to-go box containers to engaging students in more environmental education. The idea of creating a campaign for divestment of fossil fuels was originally introduced by Linda Hoppes, and I was very happy she did, because I personally wanted to get more involved with divestment. Many students at CSSC had already started campaigns on their campuses.
Once we had casted our votes, the SSLC cohort was to start a campaign, our goal, get the PSU Foundation to divest their $55mil endowment from fossil fuels. We quickly came to realize that we had to do research, and planning, and really understand what divestment means.
Divestment is a strategy used by students in the U.S. during the South African Apartheid, they pressured their foundations to sell their investments on South African products, which ultimately created enough pressure for the regime to fall. Once the regime had collapsed, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, after which he went to visit students at UC Berkeley to give them thank you for their divestment efforts.
I personally started doing all I could to prepare, divestment gave me the power to have an impact even though I was just a student. I got word that environmental active artist Moon Hooch would be coming to do a show to PSU, so I attended their music show. After the show I approached them to snap a shot with them as a symbol of their support (below).
My previous connections at CSSC in California invited me to a national conference on fossil fuel divestment that was to take place in San Francisco. I thought that the event would be a good opportunity to have my cohort members attend, in the hopes that we could learn what other university students were doing, and learn successes as well as failures. Cindy Joy and Linda Hoppes, my SSLC cohort team-mates, joined me to attend a national student gathering.
The campaign would soon begin.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” Mark Twain.
Following the same approach as students during the South African Apartheid, the Divestment of Fossil Fuels movement has now shifted nearly 5 Trillion dollars away from the Carbon Underground 200. Having previously been involved and still currently an advocate for, the divestment of fossil fuels movement, I know that divestment is an important piece of the puzzle. Yet, a larger conversation about where we invest next, and what we do with the current infrastructure is just as important. Divestment by itself won’t be enough to get rid of climate injustice.
Injustice - which takes a form of all shapes and sizes - is where I start the conversation of private prisons for this post. The United States is the country with the highest number of incarcerated individuals. The US is home to 5% of the world population, but 25% of those incarcerated. The prison industrial complex marginalizes black, latinos, and people of color in ways that are black-and-white clear. If we are serious about addressing climate change, we need people - all people- working sustainable jobs ASAP.
When I organized the divestment of fossil fuels campaign at Portland State, I attended a conference which convened foundation staff, financial experts, and higher education administration to discuss sustainable investments. The audience had different reactions to prison divestment, they questioned if divestment is the route to address the prison profiting or rather legislation work.
Just like divestment of fossil fuels has achieved some victories, we are still emitting considerable amounts of greenhouses gasses, future wins in prison divestment will only be the beginning.
The City of Portland may become the first major city in the US to divest from private prisons. Currently, the city holds millions of stock in companies like Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, and the Bank of NY Mellon. These banks are major funders for private prison companies GEO and Corrections Corporation of America, two companies which hold a great majority of the prison centers around the U.S.
City Hall order for a committee to convene to research divestment of private prisons, having previously divested from fossil fuels. The recommendation by the committee, add the prison profiteers to the Do-Not-Buy-List, was open to public testimony on November 30th, 2016. I attended the hearing at Portland City Hall, and let the council know my full support to the recommendation.
Acknowledging that Portland is not my home town. I think that it would be in Portlands interest to be investing in its future, and given that a great portion of the Portland population is youth of color, that means divestment of private prisons. For a future that - I hope - takes place outside of bars, rather than within.
Stay tuned as City Council will vote on a decision on December 15, 2016. Update, the vote has been post-poned until new Mayor Administration takes over.