Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Mountain Justice delivered a petition containing over 800 student signatures supporting divestment to the Board of Managers on the morning of Saturday, December 6. Mountain Justice also collected signatures from 305 alumni and 56 current faculty. Hours after the meeting, Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp ‘72 announced that the Board committed $12 million dollars towards ensuring the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology (BEP) building will reach a higher sustainability level than any current campus building.
Saturday’s action began in Parrish Parlors with remarks from Mountain Justice members Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland ‘18 and Guido Girgenti ‘15.
Fitzgerald-Holland spoke about getting involved with MJ after participating in the People’s Climate March in September. “Although it’s only my first semester at Swarthmore,” he said, “I’ve already experienced the incredible power that divestment has built across campus.” He then referenced energy companies like NRG who have stated the growing college divestment movement’s influence on their actions.
Girgenti spoke about his experience visiting New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward in 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina. “Even three years after the storm,” he said, “only a small handful of families had been able to return, schools and grocery stores had not been rebuilt, entire blocks stood empty.” His remarks focused on low-income communities and communities of color, which he said “are the last to be evacuated and rebuilt.” Girgenti then asked for a short moment of silence in honor of those who have been affected by the climate crisis.
After Fitzgerald-Holland and Girgenti spoke, the roughly 100 students gathered posed for a photo on the front steps of Parrish. Students then walked through the rain past LPAC, around the Science Center quad, and into Kohlberg, chanting slogans like “Whose future? Our future!”. The crowd gathered outside the Scheuer room, as Mountain Justice members asked them to remain “respectfully quiet” while waiting for Board members.
After a short wait, Gil Kemp ‘72, Board Chair, and Susan B. Levine, Chair of the Board’s Social Responsibility Committee, came outside. Girgenti presented the petition to Kemp and Levine as the crowd quietly applauded. Kemp said he would take the signatures to the board, and said that the Board’s continued consideration of climate change and divestment was “without question, the result of [Mountain Justice’s] actions […] and the commitment that you have, that I think we share, on climate change as an issue.” “We may have some different tactics,” Kemp said, “but I think we have great agreement on the critical nature of climate change the need for Swarthmore to be doing more to deal with that.”
Levine addressed the crowd next, saying that the Board has “been considering ways to invest in areas that will address climate change.” Levine also referenced the upcoming Board vote on the BEP building, saying the decision was “all about investing in our future.”
After the meeting, students gathered in Kohlberg Coffee Bar. Girgenti spoke again, saying “things are looking pretty good,” which elicited cheers from the crowd. Mountain Justice then asked students to write down the reasons they support divestment on orange squares and attach them to a “DIVEST NOW” poster hanging on the window. Mountain Justice member Christopher Malafronti ‘18 shared his own reasons, and said his experience at a Mountain Justice meeting at Ride the Tide was the reason he decided to attend Swarthmore. Erika Weiskopf ’17 spoke about the need to reach for the future now: “We have a duty to do what we can with what we have,” she said.
After the crowd began writing on orange squares and eating donuts, Mountain Justice member Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17 shared that he thought the action was a success. “The amount of student turnout here emphasizes how much student support there is for fossil fuel divestment at Swarthmore,” he said, calling the petition a “clear mandate” for the Board to ask. O’Hanlon also said Mountain Justice is looking forward to meeting with the Board in the coming weeks, and collaborating with both the Board and Cambridge Associates, the firm who recently agreed to help its clients divest.
Hours after the meeting, Kemp announced that the Board committed $12 million dollars to raise the sustainability level of the BEP building from LEED Silver equivalent standard to LEED Platinum. LEED Accrediation is decided upon by the U.S. Green Building Council, and buildings earn points for sustainable design elements — from water efficiency to indoor air quality to using sustainable building materials in the construction process. The jump from silver to platinum is equivalent to a jump from 50-59 points to 80+ points.
While students are pleased with the decision, Mountain Justice members agree it is not enough. “Divestment sends a powerful political message to the country and to the world in a way that sustainable buildings cannot,” said O’Hanlon. In the email announcing the decision, Kemp also shared that the BEP building’s platinum accreditation is not the only action the Board of Managers took to address students’ concerns. He wrote that the Board is asking investment managers how they weight environmental impact against returns on investment.
While Kemp revealed that the Board is interested in better understanding how the investors consider environmental impact in investment decisions, Mountain Justice released a statement that said, “If our Investments Committee begins to evaluate these threats, this can only lead to fossil fuel divestment.”