On November 9, 2018, I was sitting at work while across campus the Board of Trustees was meeting in Memorial Hall (the building that boasts Whitman’s iconic clocktower), deliberating over a student proposal. Just before lunch, my phone lit up with an all-caps text message: “WHITMAN DIVESTED.” A flurry of incredulous responses flooded the group chat: WHAT. WHAAAAT. What? What what what. Oh wow oh wow oh wow oh wow. It was a unanimous vote, they divested from everything. Come to Mem and celebrate.
Let’s back up for a second. The Divest Whitman campaign began in 2012 with a group of dedicated students who, frustrated with Whitman’s investments in the fossil fuel industry, wanted to make both a material and symbolic change by asking that Whitman remove its funds from fossil fuel companies. From staging a mock wedding between Whitman College and “Mr. Fossil Fuel” to a organizing a performative human oil spill to student government resolutions and campus-wide education initiatives, this campaign has run the gamut of student activist tactics.
As the specter of climate change, and its associated displacement of marginalized communities, has grown ever more dire in the past seven years, the divestment campaign has increased in urgency.
On this particular Friday in autumn, the Board was voting on a divestment proposal that our campaign had written and submitted, requesting a removal of funds from the coal industry. This was happening around the time that an IPCC report was released, predicting twelve years before global climate catastrophe, absent significant intervention in how we structure our economic and consumptive practices. As it turns out, the Board not only voted to remove its investment in coal, but all investments in the top 200 fossil fuels companies. The vote was unanimous. Our campaign had succeeded.
Make no mistake, this campaign has had its thankless days. We had periods of dejection and low morale and fear that our efforts wouldn’t be enough to make a difference. But this success was proof that collective effort from passionate students matters. We were lucky enough to form coalitions with other student clubs, and I believe this was vital to our success. Activism doesn’t happen alone, it happens with support and care and intersectional engagement with complex issues. Activism is built from the ground up, and it may be exhausting at times, but it’s good work with good people, and sometimes–if we’re lucky and determined—we succeed.