In the Fall of 2013, a group of students from the University of Mary Washington caught buzz of the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement, a movement comprised of hundreds of students who are taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our institutions. To investigate our university’s ties to the fossil fuel industry, we began to meet with administrators to ask questions. After being thrown around from one administrator to another with months of waiting time between meetings, students took the process into our own hands.
Campaign momentum became apparent on campus in Spring 2015 with one out of every four students now petitioning for divestment. But when DivestUMW asked for an opportunity to present in front of our board, the board dismissed our concerns and rejected our request. After learning this, outraged students took to social media to raise our collective voice. Feeling the pressure, the Board agreed to give DivestUMW a twenty-minute slot at their next meeting. With this win in our pockets, the campaign moved forward with great confidence in our strides. At the end of our presentation, we would propose that the Board create a subcommittee in order to investigate the possibility of divestment.
In anticipation of this report, students across the state convened on the campus of Mary Washington in order to show their desire for divestment in Virginia. A week before the presentation, 200 students marched on our campus with a clear message in order to ask the question: Whose side would they choose, that of the students, or the interest of the destructive and exploitative fossil fuel industry?
This question was answered when Holly Cuellar, the rector of our Board, decided to withhold any vote on divestment despite the presentation and mobilization. Instead of accepting this second dismissal, students mobilized in less than one week and began what would become a 21 day sit-in. With our channels exhausted, DivestUMW had no choice but to engage in this act nonviolent civil disobedience. We put ourselves on the administration’s doorstep in order to demand acknowledgement and have our voices recognized.
After weeks of sitting in, the movement spread through the campus as hundreds joined in our efforts, joining us in our civil disobedience or donating food to sustain our efforts. While DivestUMW maintained our values and mission in nonviolence, we were confronted with state violence as the University’s administration had over twenty state troopers confront us with zip ties and paddy wagons. Two students and one community member were promptly arrested, one of those arrests being unlawful and against a student’s will. Two hundred students gathered outside in outrage to witness our own university incriminate their students for challenging the University to take a stand for climate justice. With the community’s efforts to organize and highlight the injustices of the Board, they caved to our demands and created a subcommittee with the purpose of looking into fossil fuel divestment.
Now, in the following year, we are seeing this process through. Despite having the creation of the subcommittee, the Board has still yet to secure a vote on divestment and fully recognize the community’s demands and hard work.
Why is our Board protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry over their own students? Over the lives of coastal Virginia communities? Over the 150 million climate refugees predicted to be in migration by 2050? What ties hold our governing body so closely to these destructive and inhumane companies?
Join us in our efforts to see this process through and take a firm stand for climate justice by calling for a vote on divestment. We will hold the Board accountable to the students, NOT the fossil fuel industry.