One of our best teachers, historian Howard Zinn who we lost in 2010, liked to say, “if you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” History matters. Who is telling the history matters. Here is a short version Climate Justice @ Boston College’s (CJ@BC) history.
A somewhat more detailed version is available here.
Many of us had been doing environmental things for some time (eating less meat, not flying, very consumer-oriented things). We knew we needed to do more to confront the climate crisis, built on a fundamental injustice that those who caused the problem were not taking responsibility. Then, ‘lo and behold, in the Fall of 2012 organizers with 350.org rolled out a national divestment campaign (they were inspired by students with Swarthmore Mountain Justice). A handful of what would soon be called Boston College Fossil Free were at the Boston leg of the “Do the Math” Tour.
In December 2012, grad student (Bobby) linked up with alumna (Fran). As the Spring 2013 semester got underway, they joined up with undergrads and a couple more grads. We launched a petition that almost 2,000 BC community members have signed. We talked with fellow organizers and hosted organizing sessions, like one with Craig Altemose from the Better Future Project. We worked with UGBC (the undergraduate student goverment at BC) to pass legislation 17-1 endorsing divestment from fossil fuel companies. After silence from the administration on divestment, we held an oil spill action on campus, shich dramatized the injustice that occurs as BC profits off of fossil fuel companies destroying the planet and our democracy.
Over the summer, we worked to become an RSO (registered student organization). You might think it would be a simple process, but not at BC. After countless hours spent on this process, we were denied RSO status, which meant all of the daily tasks of booking rooms and campus spaces remained difficult. As the Fall 2013 semester began, we also realized an important lesson–having many seniors is dangerous because they graduate!
We didn’t let administrative challenges keep us from organizing though! We held a tug-of-war between students fighting for justice and trustees constrained by institutional pressures to maintain the status quo. In the story we told, ultimately, the students win, but not until the power concentrated at the top of BC was forced to listen. We joined a Bank of America recruitment event and asked recruiters for an explanation of the bank’s funding of mountain top removal coal mining (the name says a lot).
We were growing and gaining power. We had more students than ever involved and a group of alumni and a Jesuit faculty providing support. Trustee Jack Connors supported our efforts (he has grandchildren that face the horror staying the course results in), and we were able to secure a meeting with the president, Fr. Leahy. Unfortunately, Fr. Leahy told us that BC would not divest, and it certainly wouldn’t lead Jesuit universities on climate, though at least he recognized climate as important. (See our note detailing this meeting here). Fortunately, we know that real change rarely comes from the top. It is our job to open up space to do the right thing and build enough power to make sure that happens.
While we continued organizing on campus, we joined fellow students and other concerned citizens to oppose a new gas-fired power plant in Salem, MA. We walked out of class with students from Boston area schools to demand our universities stand up to the fossil fuel juggernaut and defend our future. In March we joined over 1,000 students to demand the Keystone XL pipeline be rejected. Nearly 400 students were arrested as we chained ourselves to the White House demanding Obama take action on climate.
We continued to work with the administration, dealing with the RSO issue. We have been told we cannot be a student group because there are other environmental groups on campus, BC can’t have political student groups, undergrads can’t be in a group that has grad students and alumni, our group is not sustainable, and other ridiculous reasons. Worse still, individuals in the group were threatened with being held personally responsible for actions the group took. Students left the group for this reason. At the same time, we continued to engage the student population and held a debate that nearly 100 students attended.
We closed out the academic year with a bang by writing to John Kerry and asking him to speak on the climate crisis with the urgency it demands. He delivered! Over the summer, intimidation continued when three alumni and an undergrad were removed from campus at a reunion weekend event (see one of them tell this story here).
Building power to win
We worked hard and started off Fall 2014 with a retreat where we developed a plan to win this academic year. We were again rejected as an RSO, and on appeal, rejected again. We didn’t let this bother us, and continued with our plan–to build student power. We visited dorms, talked in classes, held events and potlucks. We wrote to trustees and the Pope, we marched in New York City, and we spent lots of time meeting with fellow students one-on-one to really build relationships and learn where people are coming from. We ended the semester with a dramatic Rally, Rights on the Heights, where we brought together students, faculty, and alumni. The stories ranged widely, but all connected with key constituencies–especially undergrads–not having their voice hear. In December 2014, we helped launch the Divest Fund, where people can donate to BC (and other participating schools) but the institutions don’t receive the money until they do the right thing and divest from fossil fuels.
We’ve learned a lot over more than two years of organizing. The most important thing is that we need YOU. We are not superstars or heroes, just regular people who have decided that destroying our future for the profit of already wealthy elites is NOT acceptable. We demand a just and stable world, and we’re going to keep on fighting for that like our lives depend on it because they very well might.