Divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons has long been a key issue for activists, and a crucial channel for student organizers looking to make a direct impact. Many colleges and universities formed divestment groups on campus, with varying degrees of success. Kenyon was no exception to this: Divest Kenyon had a well-documented presence in 2017, circulating petitions, protesting and meeting with administrators to make its demands clear. However, the group has gone quiet in recent years. The movement evaporated when seniors leading the charge graduated, according to Active Students Helping the Earth Survive (ASHES) co-chair Graham Ball ’21. But in a politically divided country, staring down the barrel of climate catastrophe and a disastrous system of carceral punishment, it’s time for this grassroots student movement to make a comeback at Kenyon.
Divestment doesn’t only address fossil fuels. Aside from demanding the College remove its holdings in 200 fossil fuel companies, Divest Kenyon also demanded it pledge not to invest in GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, two companies that own and manage private prisons. Resistance to the prison-industrial complex has become more mainstream in recent months, as young people were rapidly educated on radical ideas last summer. The wave of Black Lives Matter protests led to the sharing of resources on a number of relevant issues, including prison reform and abolition. A growing understanding of abolitionist theory could fuel a new Divest Kenyon, and bring more students to the table.
It’s crucial to make Divest Kenyon more resilient this time around. The simplest strategy is to actively recruit underclass students so the group doesn’t fizzle out when senior organizers graduate. Coalition building with groups like ASHES, Environmental Campus Organization and Sunrise, which bring their own membership to the effort, is equally important to creating a strong, lasting divestment movement at Kenyon. It’s also worthwhile to coordinate with similar groups at other schools. In 2019, Harvard and Yale student organizers disrupted the Harvard-Yale football game with a peaceful protest. Last year, University of California became the nation’s largest university to fully divest from fossil fuels, following a five-year push led by students on all 10 campuses. Partnering with other schools lets student organizers compare notes on strategy and coordinate actions for a greater impact.
College and university divestment is about more than being a thorn in the side of fossil fuel corporations and private prisons. These are powerful institutions, and their funding and open support matters to corporations, but no single school will avert climate breakdown or end mass incarceration by withdrawing funds or breaking ties. A divestment campaign doesn’t have to immediately or ever succeed to be meaningful. Divestment builds community and generates press. Campaigns with clear, simple demands and strong student leadership are perfect environments for new activists trying to find their footing. It creates an opportunity for students to build a presence in the broader political climate, especially when divest groups collaborate across schools. Divestment campaigns also force institutions to listen, even if they ultimately refuse to do the right thing in the end.
The College didn’t meet Divest Kenyon’s demands in 2017, and it could take years to respond to the same demands from a different group, even under public pressure to do so. In the meantime, Kenyon students have been fighting for the school to cut carbon emissions, and keeping the climate movement alive on campus. But building a coalition on campus where students can organize, make their beliefs clear and talk about their ideas surrounding the fossil fuels industry and the prison-industrial complex is an end in and of itself. It’s a community worth building.