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Divest UMass proves student activism is alive and well

Jessica Picard/Collegian

Many current upperclassmen at the University of Massachusetts are likely to remember the headline-grabbing process that was Divest UMass, the student-led campaign that ultimately pushed the University to commit to divesting its endowment from holdings in fossil fuels.

Since the University announced in May 2016 that it would, in fact, end its investments in fossil fuel companies, Divest has remained on campus as a notable success story in the world of student activism.

While national attention may have waned since the announcement, the work of the student activists who were closely involved in the campaign is far from finished.

The continued involvement of several of the group’s members is spurred on by the fact that no evidence has been provided to demonstrate that UMass has, in fact, even begun divesting.

“UMass boastfully declared itself the first major public university to divest from direct holdings in fossil fuels,” junior economics major Benji Bonnet said, “But without follow-through, it’s really just cheap self-aggrandizement.”

While impressions of insincerity on the part of the University appear to have had a strong effect on some of those associated with the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign, the overall climate within the group remains far from discouraged.

“We do recognize that divestment can’t happen overnight, but so far we haven’t received any sort of specific plans they’ve put in place to actually enact [fossil fuel divestment],” Bonnet said.

Mica Reel, a junior anthropology and BDIC narrative justice double major, said that Divest still has general body meetings every other week, primarily focused on looking ahead.

Reel and others are looking to the future to decide where they believe the University should consider reinvesting its endowment in once the divestment process is finished.

“Once you take the money out of the ‘bad,’ what are we doing if we’re not also putting it back into the ‘good?’” Reel asked.

That “good,” according to Reel, involves investing in people and communities. She cited solidarity networks in Boston and Springfield as examples of worthwhile investments for UMass to remain involved in statewide initiatives for sustainability and social justice.

Reel, however, demonstrated similar concerns when it came to the uncertainty surrounding the University’s divestment timeline.

“It’s really difficult to think about what it would look like to reinvest when we don’t even know if that money is still invested in the fossil fuel industry or not,” Reel said.

Divest, like many student activism campaigns, was not an overnight project on the part of its members. Sarah Jacqz, a senior BDIC critical geography major, shared that as of now, “the campaign has been going on for over four years.”

Jacqz continued, “It wasn’t one moment that put us on the University’s radar. It was definitely the result of being really persistent.”

For much of these past four years, core members such as Jacqz, Bonnett and Reel have had to be just that: “really persistent.” Countless hours contributed to the Divest cause have resulted in substantial attention from both UMass Board of Trustees meetings and events like the sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building in April 2016.

“You have to be prepared to put in the time and attention that’s necessary to retain [students] once their interest has been peaked,” Bonnett said of building student coalitions. “People are drawn to the visceral, like rallies and walk-outs.”

Though several of its core members view their work as unfinished, Divest UMass has proven itself to be a clear representative of the types of change that can be brought about through student activism.

“The community is the reason why I have stayed so involved,” Reel said as to why she has devoted much of her time to activist causes throughout her college career. “But there’s definitely a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Will Soltero can be reached at wsoltero@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @WillSoltero.

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