Student activism ignites change and ongoing action
Over the past four years, Yale students have advocated for a variety of causes, from endowment justice to police reform.
Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer
In response to national and institutional reckonings, Yale students have rallied at the steps of Sterling Memorial Library, marched on Cross Campus and the New Haven Green, stormed the Yale Bowl and filled the streets with waving banners, protest signs and screams for justice.
From fall 2018 to spring 2022, student activists across the University have mobilized to make Yale and the world a better place. Some efforts have led to policy change, such as the elimination of the student income contribution, while all have set the precedent for student action to continue, from demanding fossil fuel divestment to advocating mental health care reform on campus.
“I don’t think I would have ever considered myself an activist until I saw the change other Yalies were trying to create and realizing I could participate as well,” Matthew Miller ’24 told the News amidst national Black Lives Matter protests.
During the class of 2022’s first semester at Yale, 48 people, most of whom were student activists, were arrested at a sit-in calling on Yale to cancel its holdings in the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt. The next semester, in March 2019, 17 students were issued citations for another divestment sit-in.
Since then, the demand for Yale to ethically allocate its endowment has only intensified. At the 2019 Harvard-Yale game, student activists from both schools called on the two universities to divest from fossil fuels by storming the field. Students chanted “this is what democracy looks like,” while waving banners that read “Nobody Wins: Yale and Harvard are Complicit in Climate Injustice.” The demonstration delayed the second half of The Game.
“Students are tired of Harvard and Yale profiting off of climate destruction and neocolonial investments in Puerto Rico’s debt,” a press release from Divest Harvard emailed by the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition stated. “It’s time for more than lip service and greenwashing from academic leaders. Harvard and Yale must address the climate emergency at the scale and with the urgency it demands. This action is only the beginning.”
In October 2020, the Endowment Justice Coalition, or EJC, staged a three-day occupation of Cross Campus, carefully abiding by COVID-19 guidelines as they draped banners on the quad and encouraged students to call university officials. On the first day of the occupation, Salovey announced a committee would be formed to evaluate Yale’s investment policies. The following October, hundreds of students led by the EJC demonstrated in Beinecke Plaza, urging Yale to divest from fossil fuels and invest in the city of New Haven.
This past February, EJC student organizers took it a step further when they filed a 83-page complaint alleging that Yale’s investment in the fossil fuel industry violates state law.
“It’s obvious that fossil fuel investments are immoral, but I think that if we’re able to successfully show that they’re not just immoral, but that they’re illegal, it changes the whole game,” EJC organizer Molly Weiner ’25 told the News. “This law has been in existence for a while, but now I think students have the confidence and have been put in touch with the resources to explore this legal avenue.”
In May 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded across the nation in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Over that summer, students marched and took action at home. After the announcement that no officers would be charged for the death of Breonna Taylor, students joined New Haven residents in protest on the Green. A few weeks later, a group of first years and New Haven community members staged a rally and march in support of BLM. The protest centered New Haven and Black student voices in a message of unity and called out Yale administration and the student body for complacency in racism.
The movement against police violence struck close to home for the Yale and New Haven community, as students and residents waged a fight of their own to abolish the Yale Police Department. In April 2019, two unarmed Black people, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, were shot by a Yale and Hamden police officer. Protests began the evening of the shooting, and two days later, hundreds of students and residents shut down major thoroughfare streets around the city. In the following weeks and months, Yale and New Haven community members continued to march and demand justice for Washington and Witherspoon.
“There was going to purposely be an effort to not allow anyone at Yale to ignore what was going on,” Black Men’s Union Solidarity Chair Isaac Yearwood ’22 said in an interview. “If you are on this campus and you have the capacity to be a part of this and you choose not to, you’re complicit.”
In June 2020, amid the national BLM protests, campus groups such as the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale and the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project demanded for the University to defund and dismantle the YPD. Last semester Salovey detailed YPD reforms but reaffirmed commitment to the force, leaving these student activist struggles ongoing.
Inside Yale’s walls, students have continued to advocate for changing the University’s use of institutional resources and increasing its support for students. Most notably, Students Unite Now, or SUN, has been rallying since the class of 2022 arrived on campus to eliminate the Student Income Contribution. In December 2018, undergraduates marched from Old Campus to the Yale Alumni Association chanting “We work, we learn, we want to take home what we earn!” In April 2019, SUN members set up an encampment outside Salovey’s office. In February 2020, nearly one hundred students gathered and marched to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions demanding the end of the Student Income Contribution.
After years of such organizing efforts, the Student Income Contribution was eliminated in October 2021 in what was marked as a “clear victory” for student activists.
“I’ve taken arrest twice to demand the full elimination of the SIC,” SUN organizer Karissa McCright ’22 wrote in a press release. “I remember sitting across from administrators who said that eliminating the SIC was impossible or just not a priority, even as me and other students shared stories of hardship. If students hadn’t kept fighting, this policy change would never have been possible.”
SUN continues to take action, and during Bulldog Days this year, a group of roughly 70 students gathered to advocate for mental health and additional financial aid reform on campus. In addition, the advocacy and affinity group Disability Empowerment for Yale has organized for increased accessibility on campus and support for students with disabilities.
Over the years, students have also taken part in international activist movements. In March 2020, Yale students flooded the streets protesting Hindutva facism and the Indian government’s then-recent policies targeting minorities. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Yale Ukrainian students organized a solidarity rally, where students and other community members gathered to listen to speakers, hold signs and wave Ukrainian flags.
During one of the class of 2022’s last weeks on campus, in the immediate aftermath of the leaked Supreme Court draft majority opinion dictating the plan to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, students again massed outside the steps of Sterling library, rallying in support of the landmark abortion decision and a person’s right to choose.
While participating in larger movements or activism within Yale’s walls, in the past four years Yalies have demonstrated a commitment to advocacy and social justice. From endowment justice, to Black Lives Matter, to mental health care advocacy, these stories give a snapshot of the ongoing student activism work of the past four years. Now, the graduating class has an opportunity to carry this activism out into the world.
The class of 2022 is made up of students from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 57 countries.