Survey Says: Students Support Divestment
Issue   |   Tue, 04/23/2013 - 23:13

Last Thursday, April 18, Amherst students overwhelmingly responded “yes” to an AAS student survey on coal divestment. The survey asked students if Amherst College should “divest from the coal industry (corporations engaged in coal extraction, mountain-top removal, coal refinement),” and provided informational sources for those who wanted to learn more before voting. Receiving 88 percent approval and recording nearly as many responses as the AAS presidential elections, the survey reflected strong student body commitment to coal divestment. The survey results were an encouraging sign for the Green Amherst Project (GAP), who authored the survey as part of their coal divestment campaign.

“The referendum arose as a response to the Trustees’ lack of attention for our campaign,” Ned Kleiner ’16 said.

As part of Green Amherst Project, Kleiner, Deidre Nelms ’13 and Luke Lavin ’13, met with William Ford ’83, the head of the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees, in November of 2012. They discussed the possibility of removing investments in the coal industry from Amherst College’s endowment, and initially received tentative support for the plan. However, the Trustees soon stopped responding to GAP emails and requests for meetings, and as of this writing there has been no further dialogue between GAP and any member of the Board of Trustees.

“We needed something to gain the Trustee’s attention again,” Kleiner said. “When I met with other college divestment campaign leaders at a Swarthmore divestment conference, they asked me if we had a referendum going yet. Embarrassed, I responded that we didn’t, and when I came back to Amherst I had this idea in my head that this was the next step to take.”

Further cementing the idea in place, the then small GAP leadership, including Kleiner, Nelms, Lavin and Rachel Om ’13, met with Katie MacDonald, the New England regional organizer for, Bill McKibben’s national fossil fuel campus divestment movement. She gave them tips on how to form a strong and active group that could organize and harness the type of support that a successful campaign would require.

“After that meeting, I really focused on recruitment,” Om said. “I met with people face-to-face and convinced them to join GAP, and I was always on the look-out for new recruits.”

In the early semester, GAP was essentially inactive. Now, weekly GAP meeting attendance is nearly quadrupled.

On April 8, the group met with the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) to propose and discuss the survey on divestment.

Written with the help of Senator Risalat Khan ’13, the initial proposal was voted down because of disagreement about whether or not the survey language was biased. The dissenting Senators, led by Chris Friend ‘14, subsequently proposed an edited version of their own.

At the next AAS meeting on April 15, the AAS voted again on the survey. They voted first on the newly edited GAP version, which was passed before Friend’s version was brought to a vote. The survey was scheduled to take place on Thursday, April 18.

GAP members, confident that the survey would be approved, began tabling in Val on April 10, before the second AAS meeting when the survey was actually approved. On that first evening they racked up 250 signatures pledging to vote “Yes to Divest.”

GAP member Noah Lerner ’16 attributes a lot of the success of the survey to the aggressive and personal tactics used by GAP members to garner support.

“There was a lot of confusion and uncertainty when we first started flagging people down in Val, but for the most part, people said ‘thank you’ afterwards.”

Om agrees: “The tactics we used, like dorm storming, are kind of unconventional to Amherst, and I think that is a big reason we got such great turn-out.”

Planning for the future, GAP wants the AAS to pass a resolution supporting divestment, and met with them this last Monday, April 22, to discuss that possibility. Even with the encouraging survey results, and a possible senate resolution, GAP still has work to do to convince the Trustees to divest. This will likely be a struggle lasting through the end of this semester and continuing into the next.