Our campaign Story
By Rachel Pontious YC '24
Prelude: The Divestment Movement and Fossil Free Yale
The divestment theory of change has been the guiding principle for countless student movements. The fossil fuel divestment movement stands on the backs of generations of student activists that fought to hold their universities to a higher moral standard. The last major movement for university divestment at Yale was the South African apartheid divestment movement. When students decided they would no longer tolerate a university that was complicit in this cruel and discriminatory system, they organized with student groups, unions, and New Haven organizations. Dining halls went on strike for four months, and students created and lived in a shantytown on Beinecke Plaza, a major center on campus, for an entire year. There was an urgent sense of crisis on campus, and students eventually achieved a partial university divestment.
Fossil Free Yale (FFY) was the predecessor to the Endowment Justice Coalition. Prior to 2018, it was a small student organization that largely tried to go through institutional channels at Yale to convince the administration that divestment from fossil fuels was the best path. In 2013 it polled the Yale student body on full fossil fuel divestment, and found that 80% of students were in support. Yet, the Yale administration rejected their proposal outright.
FFY was founded as a primarily white male club, formal and hierarchical in nature, that even used Robert’s rules of order in meetings. In 2014, however, FFY went through internal changes that were foundational to the current mode of organizing within the Endowment Justice Coalition. Tired of being talked over, the women in FFY formed a caucus and wrote up demands that advocated for FFY to become nonhierarchical, where everyone had equal input and power within the organization. It also called for rotating facilitators each meeting, a practice that the Endowment Justice Coalition still follows today.
With this radical shift in organizational structure came a radical shift in strategy. After years of trying, FFY’s members realized that it was impossible to go through Yale’s institutional channels to achieve divestment, as it was clear that they were not being listened to. They adopted a more confrontational approach, starting with a sit-in at Woodbridge Hall, the building containing the office of the president, in the spring of 2015. Seventeen people were arrested. In the spring of 2016, president Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea came to speak at Yale. Students from FFY as well as the Association of Native Americans at Yale disrupted the event, holding up banners reading “UN Supports Divestment. Universities: When will you?” At the event, Ban Ki-Moon called climate change an “intergenerational injustice” and remarked to the protestors, “I am very much grateful for your leading by example.”
Spring 2018: Beginning of the coalition, first teach-in
In 1972, Puerto Rican students founded Despierta Boricua, a group that promoted the recruitment and admission of Puerto Rican students at Yale. Two years of campaigning for a cultural center, they were granted La Casa Boricua. At that time, it was meant to be a space for advocacy and educational events related to Puerto Rican issues. Over the years this expanded to become a center for all Latin American students and is now La Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos: Latino Cultural Center at Yale.
Puerto Rican debt was another major subject of advocacy for Despierta Boricua. Puerto Rico had been accruing vast amounts of debt for years, compounded by expensive hurricane recovery efforts. Bankers and hedge fund managers had been exploiting the United States legal system to reap great profits from the debt through predatory loans. Since Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and not a state, it was unable to declare bankruptcy on the debt, whose magnitude per capita was more than 10 times that of the average US state. Thus, the United States passed the PROMESA Act, which created a Fiscal Control Board that enforced a strict timeline by which Puerto Rico was to pay back the debt. The result was a humanitarian crisis where public schools were closed in mass, and many islanders did not have access to clean water or electricity. Due to the massive debt payments, the Puerto Rican government was unable to provide basic resources to residents. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Yale was found to be holding a significant portion of the debt, thus profiting from this imperialist financial exploitation that was crushing the island. The students in Despierta Boricua wanted Yale to cancel its holdings in the Puerto Rican debt and found that their demand for endowment justice aligned well with that of FFY.
In the spring of 2018, seeing an opportunity to combine demands and broaden their organizing capabilities, FFY and Despierta Boricua became founding members of the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition (EJC). These two original demands, that Yale divest from fossil fuels and cancel its holdings in the Puerto Rican debt, are the same demands that the EJC fights for today.
To raise awareness on campus of its mission, the EJC held its first teach-in that spring: “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000.” The teach-in took place in LC 102, the biggest lecture hall in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. It had a turnout so large that every seat was taken and many attendees had to stand to watch the lecture. “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000” explored not only Yale’s investments in fossil fuels and ownership of Puerto Rican debt, but also investments in private prisons, predatory payday lending, and many more unethical investments. The massive student interest in the teach-in showed the students in the EJC that their organizing capacity on campus was much greater than they thought. Focusing on targeting the endowment, and the diverse set of issues it raised, allowed a wide swath of student groups to have a stake in the demands.
Fall 2018: Escalation, first sit-in
The following fall, the EJC focused on coalition building, welcoming many new member groups into the coalition. That semester, there was a general sentiment that they wanted to do something big, so they held a meeting in an LC seminar room with 40 representatives, all from different student groups. The students decided on staging a sit-in in the investments office. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the action and its consequences because a sit-in in the investments office had never been done before.
The participants met that morning, nervous but excited, and stormed through the doors. They tried to go up the stairs but were blocked, so they sat in the lobby. Amid chanting and singing, students read letters out loud to David Swensen, Yale's Chief Investment Officer. The entire sit-in was live-streamed and lasted 5 hours. At one point, Bill McKibben, a well-known environmentalist writer and journalist, Skyped into the action, his face projected onto the ceiling of the lobby. McKibben told the protestors that they were “in the most important place that you could be in the world at this moment.” The December 7th sit-in was the EJC’s first confrontational action as a coalition. Fifty students participated in the sit-in, and 48 were arrested. Three hundred students had gathered in support on cross campus.
Spring 2019: Two more sit-ins
That spring, the EJC held 2 more sit-ins in the investments office. Following the model of the first sit-in, they were better organized, and students even brought in art projects in support of the demands. Another memorable moment was a speech made about the effect of Yale’s investments and ownership of debt on Puerto Rico.
In addition to the sit-ins, students also disrupted a public lecture by David Swensen on personal finance. Protestors made up most of the audience, and in a symbolic moment, stood up and walked out in the middle of the lecture.
On the research side of things, students in the EJC were constantly combing through public records. They found that soon after Yale had announced a $10 million divestment from fossil fuels, they had invested $200 million in Antero, a fracking company. Yet, after the sit-ins, that number gradually disappeared. While the Yale administration gave no official explanation for this development, the timing was unmistakable.
Fall 2019: Climate Strike and The Game
In the fall of 2019, the EJC organized their biggest action yet: a massive student climate strike on September 23. At noon, students walked out of classes and 1500 of them gathered on Cross Campus. Speakers read the EJC’s demands, made speeches, and led the crowd in chant and song. As they marched with signs and banners to President Salovey’s office in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall (SSS), students chanted, “When our planet’s under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” “Hey hey! Ho ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!” “How do you spell complicity? Y-A-L-E!”
Soon after the climate strike, the EJC began planning an even bigger action. This time, the planning had to be done completely in secret, because the action was a disruption to the Harvard-Yale Football Game, Yale's biggest annual sporting event. The action was coordinated with Divest Harvard, the EJC’s Harvard counterpart. Weeks of meticulous planning went into this action; the organizers were aware the situation would be extremely volatile. Every aspect of the action needed to be nailed down. The Game would be on national television, and with thousands of fans in the stands and lots of alcohol being consumed, an act of civil disobedience was sure to incite a strong reaction.
About a hundred participants from Harvard and Yale met up that morning, nervous but excited, and walked to the Yale Bowl, arriving early. They sat, spread out in groups, throughout the stands, as close to the field as they could get. After watching the first half of the game and the halftime show in anticipation, the signal was finally given and the groups streamed onto the field, unfurling banners as they quickly walked and sat down in the center. They immediately began chanting, as it dawned on the police what was happening. The protestors’ police liaisons began speaking with the police, and the police agreed that the protestors would be arrested in pairs. Everything was going as planned.
However, after brief boos from the crowd, a remarkable and unexpected outpouring of support began. Hundreds of spectators from the stands suddenly streamed onto the field, joining the original protestors. The protestors, who had tried to plan for every possible direction the action could take, were stunned. No one had predicted that this would happen. This moment of amazing solidarity was intensely emotional, leaving many in tears, as the impassioned chants grew louder and louder.
The crowd swelled to several times its original size as more police were called in. The arrest process, which organizers in the EJC had predicted would take 5-10 minutes, became disorganized and ended up taking almost an hour. Police arrested protestors seemingly randomly, writing some up, while others were led off the field with no consequences. Thus, out of the 100 participants prepared to be arrested, only 50 actually were.
As word of the action spread across the world, it was clear that the divestment movement at Yale had reached a turning point. News media worldwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and NPR, had published stories about the sit-in. The hashtag #NobodyWins, a commentary on the Harvard-Yale rivalry in light of the climate crisis, was trending on Twitter. Many prominent progressive figureheads, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, tweeted their support to the protestors. The pressing issue of divestment, as the climate crisis worsened, was brought to the forefront of the national discourse.
The power of the Endowment Justice Coalition, and climate action groups everywhere, is bigger than the status quo. The moral question of divestment is simple: Will Yale divest from fossil fuels and cancel its holdings in Puerto Rican debt, fulfilling its mission statement to “improve the world today and for future generations”? Or will Yale continue to be stuck in the oppressive and destructive ways of the past, investing in the very industries that threaten to destroy human civilization itself?