by Katie Orndahl, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
As student activists we all know that fighting for your cause is never easy: there will always be those who disagree, those who push back or those who are simply apathetic. We would do well to remember, however, that we are never alone, we are not the first and we will not be the last to pursue change. Activism has a long and storied history of hard fought battles, fierce opposition, and triumphant successes. Tuesday night at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the theme of perseverance rang loud and clear as four student groups, including Beyond Coal, co-sponsored a divestment teach-in to examine UNC’s history of social justice success stories.
The teach-in sought to analyze past divestment victories and bring attention to the power vested in endowments: universities can fund destructive companies and violate their institutional values, or they can make bold statements and choose to invest with social responsibility in mind.
Rudi Colloredo, UNC professor and Campus Y co-president during the 1980s South Africa divestment, started off the evening describing the long path taken to divest UNC from companies involved with apartheid in South Africa. Students fought hard for the campaign and through the process made tangible linkages between themselves and an issue across the ocean in South Africa, thus becoming more engaged global citizens. “The university is materially connected in ways we don’t even think about,” said Mr. Colloredo, and it is therefore crucial that we “connect internationally and act here.” Coal is destructive on this same national and international scope, and UNC Beyond Coal is working to connect the dots between these global consequences and our own university’s investment practices.
Ellie Kinnaird, North Carolina senator and former Mayor of Carrboro, broadened our view as she reminded us that as students like ourselves fight for change, we are never fighting alone. Ms. Kinnaird went on to describe the countless actions—from opposing Nike sweatshops to fighting Massey coal—that the state has taken to supplement student efforts. Lamenting the current state of politics, Ms. Kinnaird urged students to take their campaigning to the next level and put pressure on the state to act as a steward of environmental and social justice. When it comes down to, she said, the students are “the boots on the ground” that make change happen.
Even Mr. Robert Eubanks, head of the Board of Trustees during the South Africa divestment agreed that you “can’t ignore the students.” Mr. Eubanks is a finance expert, yet he dismissed the idea of putting returns first in favor of making student concerns his main priority. When students campaigning for South Africa divestment screamed loud enough that they could no longer be ignored, Mr. Eubanks gladly convinced his peers to divest and applauded the perseverance of the students. The dedication seen in students in the 1980s has resurfaced with UNC’s Beyond Coal campaign and Mr. Eubanks expressed his gratitude that groups like Beyond Coal are breaking the student silence that he says has allowed problems to go unchallenged for too long.
As the evening wrapped up Anastasia Schemkes, campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign, tied the endowment issue back to coal. Delivering an impassioned speech about the destruction caused by coal, she firmly rooted the Beyond Coal campaign to its rightful place on par with the severity of other human rights issues such as South Africa and Sudan.
Having prominent local leaders describe their experiences with student activism and the power of divestment was an inspiring and grounding experience for those students in attendance. The death of coal is a cause worth fighting for and divestment is a strategy worth implementing. UNC Beyond Coal wants to bring student attention to the importance of UNC’s investment practices, and our efforts are already paying off. Speaker Rudi Colloredo commented on how, during his time at UNC “if you had divestment on a flyer, you couldn’t get three people to come.” The lounge of UNC’s Campus Y was filled with significantly more than three people Tuesday night, all of them eager to kick coal and invest responsibly.