When we stormed the field at halftime during last year’s Yale-Harvard game, we had little way of predicting what would happen, or the extent to which the media would distort our message.
We are organizers with the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, and our platform consists of two simple parts. First, the Yale Corporation should disclose and divest from its holdings in the fossil fuel industry. Second, it should disclose all investments in Puerto Rican debt and instruct its fund managers to cancel that debt.
The values on which these demands are predicated seem fairly straightforward to us. Climate change, as Yale’s own scientists have urged America’s leaders to admit, is real. It poses an existential threat to our continued habitation of this planet. In fact, the consequences of ignoring it are already being borne by Black, Indigenous and other frontline communities, including on the island of Puerto Rico, where commonwealth status has worsened the fallout of several natural disasters. Organizer Connor Chung of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard put it succinctly: “If it’s wrong to destroy the planet, it’s wrong to bankroll that destruction. If our planet’s on fire, our most powerful institution shouldn’t be handing matches to the arsonists.”
When we occupied the Yale Bowl, we demonstrated the strength of our message with megaphones, banners and the critical mass of students who left their seats and joined us in solidarity. In the year since, a lot has changed. But the message of the protest remains more pressing than ever.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the ways in which inequities are exacerbated by paltry or denialist disaster response. It’s a particularly grim omen given the ways in which hurricanes, floods and wildfires have been and will continue to be worsened by global warming.
Second, the EJC has continued to align itself with community organizations and, in solidarity, organized against Yale’s resource hoarding. Yale’s offenses of that nature include: the failure to pay taxes to the city of New Haven; limiting COVID-19 testing infrastructure only to University affiliates; the initial reticence to allow first responders to reside in empty dorms; and their ongoing refusal to defund, disarm and eventually dismantle the YPD. But one thing has become certain: Yale’s complicity in extractive neocolonialism and the ongoing climate crisis go hand in hand.
The Yale community knows it. Since our protest last year, we’ve broken ground by getting a petition candidate for the Yale Corporation on the ballot with the signatures of thousands of alumni. Maggie Thomas ENV ’15, the climate policy advisor to Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential campaigns, will officially run for the Corporation in 2021. Thomas’ platform demands racial justice, radical transparency, investment in New Haven and divestment from fossil fuels. For the EJC, this foray into electoral politics has facilitated engagement with alumni at a groundbreaking scale.
Closer to home, our community elected one of the most progressive Yale College Council Senates in the organization’s history. On the heels of a unanimous vote last semester to become a member organization of the EJC, nearly every winning candidate’s platform emphasized the principles of endowment justice and the need to address Yale’s extractive relationship with the city of New Haven. On the YCC’s fall survey, nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Yale should immediately divest from all investments in fossil fuels.”
The survey did not ask about Puerto Rican debt because Yale’s fund manager, the Baupost Group, recently sold the $911 million it had publicly invested in distressed Puerto Rican debt. Once again, Yale has eschewed our call to action and prioritized profit over people. If Yale canceled debt instead of selling it, it could help alleviate Puerto Rico’s use of federal funds to pay off its debt, which has come at the cost of social services and the rebuilding of critical infrastructure. As of 2017, 179 public schools have had to close because of a lack of funding due to debt repayment. Yale’s failure to cancel the debt is a failure to uphold the values of racial and environmental justice.
We believe those values are intrinsically linked. But the media’s disinclination to report on the intersectionality of the EJC’s work demonstrates how they’re determined to see youth climate organizing. It also repeats the ongoing failure to reflect the lived realities of marginalized communities who are directly affected by climate imperialism yet who have contributed the least to pollution.
We want to ensure that those affected are given the most attention. That’s why the Endowment Justice Coalition and its allies seek to position ourselves not as the frontline victims of global warming, but as some of the people most empowered to act to address our own complicity in the status quo. The fossil fuel industry has manipulated the narrative: It wants people to believe that the desire for the most marginalized members of our communities to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water is somehow elitist. We believe we can leverage the privilege inherent in our status as Yale affiliates to push the university to do better.
Uneasy over escalating public pressure to stand on the right side of history, Yale has continued to obfuscate in response to our demands: Its announcement of the formation of a new Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles coincided with our most recent action, a socially distanced outdoor occupation of Cross Campus. The committee’s mandate is to “apply the University’s ethical investment policy to fossil fuel companies” — as if a university that continues to disregard social and scientific consensus on the degradation of the planet can claim to be abiding by any ethics at all.
If Yale were truly to listen, the administration would hear a unified chorus of community members in New Haven and beyond. Our capacity to continue to lift our voices, to adapt our public-facing mobilization to the circumstances of the world and to keep Yale on the defensive speaks to the longevity of this fight. Despite the losses our organization and our planet have weathered over the past year, we still find reason to be hopeful. To be angry. To keep making noise.
JORDI BERTRÁN RAMÍREZ and JOSIE STEUER INGALL are rising sophomores in Trumbull college and Timothy Dwight college, respectively. They are members of the Endowment Justice Coalition. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.