On April 15, 2015, 17 University of Mary Washington students and I exited the administrative building that we had been occupying for 21 days. We joined hundreds of our peers who gathered behind a wall of VA state troopers. Chants started as two students and a community member were pulled into the back of a paddy wagon with shackles around their ankles. The UMW administration, along with the board, had ordered us to end our sit-in an hour before in a drastic statement of defiance to the campus community’s continued demands for fossil fuel divestment.
On April 15, 2016, this same board voted 11-1 in favor of divestment. In exactly one year, those who stood on the side of repression—who decided they would rather arrest their own students than respond to those students concerns— chose to step onto the right side of history, making UMW the first public university in the south to cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry.
This complete shift in the position of UMWs decision-makers is a testimony to the the power of organized students who stand firmly behind their demands. DivestUMWs campaign serves as another example of the strides possible when students act in their power and are willing to step into the risk that accompanies it.
DivestUMW’s initial escalation of action came after years of administrative stalling. After the established bureaucratic channels had been exhausted, it became clear that the these processes provided by the administration weren't meant to generate change for students and the rest of the UMW community, and instead effectively protect the interest of board. . Our campaign grew tired of the inability of this method to truly challenge the entrenched hypocrisy that UMWs investments in this destructive industry indicated. As a former student organizer with DivestUMW, we decided that if things were going to change on our campus, we would have to force that change. The issue was not the silencing of student voices— it was that students walked onto campus without any recognition of a voice to begin with. Our campaign had to ensure we would be heard despite this reality, so we took to direct action.
DivestUMWs escalation planned to break the wall of passivity that our administration and board used to hide . We knew that the institution’s investments in fossil fuels indicated a stance of complicity with the destruction and violence that this industry generated--from famine and flooding induced by climate change to the the forced displacement of indigenous populations to make way for extraction. But UMW’s administration and board defended the “neutrality” of the endowment. They insisted investments didn’t indicate any political stance. Therefore, Divest UMW repeatedly pushed administrators and other decision makers to see that their investments were a political choice, and we prohibited them from using “neutrality” as an excuse not to divest from fossil fuels.
The series of injustices surfacing at UWM resulted in our extended sit-in on March 19, 2015 where nearly 200 students, faculty, and community members from eight universities across the state joined us in occupying the main administrative building on campus. DivestUMW continued aggressive actions on administrators by disrupting a board meeting in February where students took control of the conversation demanding that divestment come to an official vote by the end of the year.
On April 15, 2016, that vote was finally made in favor of the demands of the campus community. What began as a seemingly neverending series of rejections and dead-ends, concluded in the historic decision at UMW and for the entire divestment movement. This decision was made amidst a coordinated national escalation of divestment campaigns. In just two weeks, we’ve seen sit-ins at University of Massachusetts, Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University, Vassar College, and the University of Montana. Just as we saw at UMW, administrators have responded by repressing student voices through threatening to suspend, expel, or arrest students instead of siding with justice.
As an UMW alum, this victory is significant to me, and I know we can do more with the collective power of alums across institutions. It is only a matter of time until our university boards across the U.S. realize that divestment is not a choice, but a requisite to have mission-aligned campuses. Our movement is growing, and with the help of student organizers, alums, and supportive campus staff, we will keep winning campus by campus until we achieve endowment justice.