As a junior in college, I helped to organize a conference at my alma mater, Swarthmore. A number of us had traveled to Appalachia two years prior on a school-funded trip to visit with communities resisting mountaintop removal coal mining there. Upon returning, we decided to start what would become the country’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Sitting around a friend’s living room one muggy September night before classes started for the semester, our group — Swarthmore Mountain Justice — was vaguely aware that divestment was catching on: with the help of partner organizations like the Responsible Endowments Coalition and the Energy Action Coalition, roughly a dozen campaigns had taken off in the last year. Around 10 p.m., we settled on hosting a gathering for students from seven or eight campuses, ordering some food and talking through how we could support each other in this work that was starting to form the rough outlines of a movement.
Then it became one. In November of 2012, 350.org launched the Do the Math Tour, and virtually overnight fossil fuel divestment exploded onto 100 campuses nationwide. By February, our little summit became a convergence of over 200 students, staff supporters and frontline organizers from across the country. For the first time, student divestment organizers got to see each other in the flesh, learning organizing skills and from the generations-strong fight again extraction on its frontlines.
I got to see that happen all over again a few days ago.
Last weekend, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition hosted the first-ever Fossil Free Canada Convergence. Held at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal, the convergence brought together 80 youth organizers from around the country. Divestment has been up and running on campuses across Canada for well over a year; campaigns at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, have already passed successful referenda for divestment through their student governments.
Kristen Perry — a fourth year student at McGill, who helped to organize the convening with Divest McGill — remarked on what it was like to have the country’s divestment activists together for the first time: “A lot of the time we get wrapped up into our individual campaigns and we need to remember that this is a bigger movement, within divestment and also within the climate movement.”
Like Quebec itself, the conference was bilingual in French and English. English programming focused generally on fossil fuel divestment, while French workshops and speakers dealt with the province’s growing anti-extraction movement against tar sands oil and pipelines, like the Energy East pipeline slated to stretch from Alberta and through Winnipeg and Montreal before its endpoint in Saint John, New Brunswick.
The convergence started Friday night, with keynotes from veteran organizers Alyssa Symons-Bélanger, Heather Milton-Lightening and Denise Jourdain, an elder of the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-utenam working for indigenous sovereignty and to oppose the Canadian government’s controversial Plan Nord. Another speaker, Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, has been a leading voice in the fight against tar sands development on First Nations land in Alberta with the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Sierra Club. She connected fossil fuel divestment with her own work fighting tar sands, noting that “Universities are beginning to understand that we have inherent treaty rights.” Lameman also gave a keynote address at last year’s Power Up! Convergence in Swarthmore.
Saturday kicked off with a panel called “Divestment as a solidarity tactic,” featuring Lameman, Milton-Lightening and Clayton Thomas-Muller, who’s been active in the fight against tar sands with the Indigenous Environmental Network, Idle No More and now 350.org. Panelists pointed to the role of fossil fuel divestment in the broader climate justice movement, with Thomas-Muller commenting that “We want to invest in what creates abundance and nourishes us, not what creates scarcity and destruction.”
The rest of the day orbited largely around three themes: “digging in” (to political analysis and organizing skills), “linking up” (with other campaigns and community fights) and “taking action.” Workshops led by other students, along with supporters from 350.org and the Divestment Student Network in the United States, aimed to help organizers develop skills to take back to their campus campaigns, featuring sessions on team-building, nonviolent direct action and media and communication. Jade Wong, a University of Toronto student who got involved with divestment after attending the People’s Climate March in September, commented that “There’s a network of people willing to help, some further in on the campaign than others. There’s a lot more communication, hopefully, to be had.”
After hearing an update on the state of the divestment movement in the United States, participants on Sunday divided out into break-out sessions to discuss next steps for building out fossil fuel divestment campaigns across Canada. Groups discussed a Global Divestment Day of Action, frontline solidarity, storytelling and escalation strategies. Another break-out was formed after lunch to discuss connections between anti-austerity organizing and the climate justice movement in Quebec.
Hearing the words “global movement” and seeing it face-to-face are two wildly different experiences. As Conor Curtis, a student at Grenfell Campus of Memorial University in Newfoundland, put it, “When you’re trying to connect with people online, it can be very abstract. But it’s harder to tell where people are with their campaigns — how big is this movement? Now that I see it on a national level, meeting with people face to face, I realize it’s incredibly strong.” Given that there are some 500 divestment campaigns worldwide, the question for the movement now is more about depth than breadth. Campaigns in Canada have the benefit of knowing there’s a thriving international movement behind them, and a national infrastructure far more sophisticated than that pieced together in the early days of the Divestment Student Network after Power Up!
Thinking back to Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s late-night strategy session years ago, all I can remember is how surprised we were at how rapidly the movement swelled just months later. If the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, mid-term elections and a wave of divestment rejections from university administrations are any indication, winning will mean a lot more organizing, some truly strategic escalation, and — hopefully — a few more pleasant surprises.