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Prelude: The Divestment Movement
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. In the 1980s, students at Yale, along with their peers across the U.S., called for university divestment from apartheid South Africa. Students decided they would no longer tolerate a university that was complicit in this cruel and discriminatory system, and 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 partial university divestment. Other universities across the U.S. divested, either partially or completely, removing millions from South African industries and bringing apartheid to its knees.
Fossil Free Yale
Founded in 2012, Fossil Free Yale (FFY) brought divestment activism back to campus: this time to fight climate change by arguing for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The small student organization largely tried to go through institutional channels to convince the Yale administration that investment in fossil fuels was unethical, exploitative and dangerous to the future of the planet. Fossil Free Yale had strong support on campus—in 2013, the Yale College Council polled the Yale student body and found that 83% of students supported divestment from fossil fuels—but the Yale Corporation refused to listen to their demands.
FFY began as a primarily white male club, formal and hierarchical in nature, even using Robert’s rules of order in meetings. In 2014, however, FFY went through internal changes that are foundational to the current mode of organizing within the Endowment Justice Coalition. Tired of being talked over, the women in FFY formed a caucus which demanded that the FFY become nonhierarchical with everyone having equal input and power with rotating facilitators at each meeting. These practices are still followed by the Endowment Justice Coalition today.
With this radical shift in organizational structure came a radical shift in strategy. FFY’s members realized that it was impossible to go through Yale’s institutional channels to achieve divestment, as it was clear that the university had no intentions of listening. They adopted a more confrontational approach, starting with a sit-in at Woodbridge Hall in Spring 2015, where the president’s office is located. When the building closed at 5 pm and 19 protesters refused to leave, they were threatened by University Security with “temporary or permanent separation from the University.” The students were arrested, issued “infraction tickets” carrying fines of $92 and charged by the Yale College Executive Committee. Yale was the first university to arrest students protesting for divestment from fossil fuels, instead of engaging in dialogue.
In Spring 2016, South Korean President Ban Ki-Moon came to speak at Yale. Students from FFY as well as the Association of Native Americans at Yale disrupted his speech, 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.”
Despierta Boricua and the formation of the EJC
Founded in 1971, the Puerto Rican student organization Despierta Boricua has had a long and powerful legacy at Yale. After years of campaigning for a cultural center, Despierta Boricua was finally granted La Casa Boricua, which later expanded to become a center for all Latin American students and renamed La Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos: Latino Cultural Center at Yale. In 2017, Despierta Boricua began advocating for Yale to disclose and cancel its holdings in Puerto Rican debt. Puerto Rican debt was a major subject of advocacy for Despierta Boricua, a group meant to promote “the causes of the Puerto Rican people both from the island and its diaspora through education and activism.”
Compounded by expensive hurricane recovery efforts, Puerto Rico had been accruing vast amounts of debt for years. Bankers and hedge fund managers had been exploiting the United States legal system to reap huge profits from the debt through predatory loans leading Puerto Rico’s debt to be, per capita, more than 10 times that of the average US state. Compounding the situation, Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States and not a state prevented them from declaring bankruptcy on the debt. Thus, the United States passed the PROMESA Act in 2016, creating a Fiscal Control Board that enforced a strict timeline by which Puerto Rico had to pay off its debt.
The PROMESA Act threw Puerto Rico into a humanitarian crisis: public schools were forced to close en masse, and many islanders lost access to clean water or electricity. Burdened by massive debt payments, the Puerto Rican government was unable to provide basic resources to residents. Then when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, The Intercept revealed that Yale held a significant portion of Puerto Rican debt through the Baupost Group hedge fund and was actively profiting from the imperialist financial exploitation of the island.
In the Spring of 2018, FFY and Despierta Boricua saw an opportunity to combine demands and broaden their organizing capabilities. Together, they founded the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition (EJC) with two original demands: Yale must divest from fossil fuels and cancel its holdings in the Puerto Rican debt.
To raise awareness on campus, the EJC held its first teach-in that same spring: “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000.” The teach-in took place in LC 102, the biggest lecture hall in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Attendees packed the lecture hall with many having to stand. “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000” explored not only Yale’s investments in fossil fuels and ownership of Puerto Rican debt, but also its investments in private prisons, predatory payday lending, and countless other exploitative industries. The massive student interest demonstrated to EJC members that their organizing capacity was much greater than initially thought. Focusing on the endowment and the diverse set of issues it raised allowed a wide swath of student groups to have a stake in the demands.
In 2020, the Baupost Group sold off its holdings in Puerto Rican debt, which meant that Yale not only made money from the sale, but continued to ignore their complicity in imperial exploitation.
Escalation of the movement
The following fall, the EJC focused on coalition building and welcomed many new member groups into the coalition. We gathered in an LC seminar room—a total of 40 representatives from a variety of student groups—and decided to stage a sit-in in the Investments Office. This had never been done before, and the student activists were filled with uncertainty about the possible consequences.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 2018, participants stormed through the doors of the Investments Office. We tried to go up the stairs but were blocked so we sat in the lobby. Amid chanting and singing, students read letters aloud 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, video called into the action, his face projected onto the ceiling of the lobby. McKibben told the protestors that we were “in the most important place that you could be in the world at this moment.” Fifty students participated in the sit-in, and 48 were arrested. Meanwhile, 300 students gathered in support on cross campus. The December 7th Sit-In was the EJC’s first confrontational action as a coalition.
In Spring 2019, the EJC held two more sit-ins in the Investments Office, becoming better organized and even bringing art projects in support of the demands. One especially memorable moment was a speech made about the effect of Yale’s investments and ownership of debt on Puerto Rico. 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.
Besides planning actions, the EJC constantly combed through public records. We found that soon after Yale announced a $10 million divestment from fossil fuels in 2016, it invested $200 million in Antero, a fracking company. After the sit-ins, that number gradually disappeared, and while the Yale administration gave no official explanation for this development, the timing was unmistakable.
On Sept. 23rd, 2019, the EJC held a massive student climate strike—their biggest action up to that point. At noon, students walked out of class and 1500 in total gathered on Cross Campus, Yale’s central quad. Speakers read the EJC’s demands, made speeches and led the crowd in chant and song. As we marched with signs and banners to President Salovey’s office in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, we 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!”
The Harvard-Yale Game: Nobody Wins
Soon after the climate strike, the EJC began planning an even bigger action, and the scale of the action demanded complete secrecy. Student activists planned to disrupt the 2019 Harvard-Yale Football Game (the Game), Yale's largest and most famous annual sporting event. The EJC 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. Since the Game would be aired on national television with thousands of alcohol-fueled fans filling the stands, an act of civil disobedience at the Game was sure to incite a strong reaction.
About 100 participants from Harvard and Yale met up that morning and walked together to the Yale Bowl. We spread out in groups throughout the stands, as close to the field as we 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 we quickly walked and sat down in the center. It soon 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, and 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 became 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, trended 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, had been brought to the forefront of national discourse.
The EJC Occupies Cross-Campus, and Yale (Kind-of) Starts to Think About Maybe Divesting
In October 2020, the EJC organized a three-day occupation of Cross Campus, ending on International Divestment Day. Organizing in the midst of the pandemic was difficult, and the EJC feared push-back from administration for holding a social event, even though it would be held outside. The EJC made sure that all protesters would be masked and would keep their distance from each other. The morning of the protest, we arrived at cross-campus and the grass had already been painted with circles six feet apart. The students framed the circles with banners, and repurposed the benches on cross campus to hold them up. The banners read: “Schwarzman is Burning the Amazon,” “Yale Invests in Fossil Fuels,” and “Yale: Respect New Haven,” among others. For three full days, the EJC and its message was a presence on Cross Campus, complete with speeches, songs, chants, and teach-ins. The occupation attracted new members who hadn't heard of the coalition before and fostered great conversations with those who stopped by.
On the first day of the occupation, less than an hour before it was set to begin, Yale proposed a new committee, the Committee of Fossil Fuel Investment Principles (CFFIP). Jonathan Macey, who heads the ACIR, was assigned to be the head of the CFFIP as well. No mention was made of the occupation, but President Salovey stated, “climate change poses an existential threat to life on our planet, and we have a responsibility to examine whether our investment policies are appropriate or need to be modified with respect to this challenge.” At that point it was the only significant move Yale had ever made toward fossil fuel divestment.
The Committee of Fossil Fuel Investment Principles was created to provide the University with recommendations to guide their fossil fuel investments. Without announcement, the committee released a form on the Investments Office website soliciting community opinion on Yale’s investment in fossil fuels. The EJC replied by pulling together the research we had compiled over the years and writing detailed and impassioned responses to each question, the answer being always: Yale should immediately and completely divest from all fossil fuels. The EJC shared their research and responses with the broader Yale community and encouraged students, faculty and alumni to fill out the form. In the end, over 200 people filled out the form.
In April 2020, the CFFIP released their findings and recommendations. They suggested that Yale divest from the worst fossil fuel companies in the industry—using metrics defined by the companies themselves—and that Yale should publish a list of those companies so that other institutions could follow their lead. The Board of Trustees accepted the recommendations, and for the first time, the Yale administration acknowledged that climate change is a “grave social injury” as defined by the Ethical Investor, the 1976 publication that Yale uses to decide whether its investments are immoral. The EJC was thrilled by this small step toward divestment, but hesitant to call it a win. Yale made no promise to actually follow the CFFIP’s recommendations, and by divesting from “bad” fossil fuels, Yale neatly established the idea that it should remain invested in other “good” fossil fuels. Additionally, many of the worst actors in the fossil fuel industry were excluded from the list such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP (ExxonMobil and Chevron have since been added). The EJC released a statement, again calling for complete divestment. The EJC argued that the university’s continued preference for shareholder engagement in the face of the climate crisis was immoral, and that the new recommendations “[held] the door wide open for the University to continue to invest in fracked gas, furthering the myth that it is the ‘good’ fossil fuel.”
The Student Activities Fee and the November 5th rally
In late Spring of 2021, the New Haven city council, strapped for funds from the pandemic, introduced two different budgets, hoping to pressure Yale to offer the city a larger voluntary payment in lieu of property taxes. As a non-profit, Yale is under no obligation to pay property taxes to the city of New Haven, even though it is the largest property-owner in New Haven with a potential property tax of 153 million each year. Instead, Yale offers the city a “voluntary contribution” of around 12 million per year. The city council chose to pass the budget that depended on extra funds (and that wouldn’t raise taxes or close libraries), and Yale entered into talks with the city.
The EJC, composed of Yale students, alumni, faculty, and New Haven community members organizes around not only divestment, but also works to hold Yale accountable to principles of justice concerning the university’s endowment. We demand that Yale uses its exorbitant amount of wealth to support both its students and the broader New Haven community.
Seeing this potential turning point for Yale’s relationship with the city, filled with excitement at returning to campus and hoping to gain momentum for a coming semester of in-person organizing, the EJC decided to act. At the beginning of the 2021 fall semester, we launched a campaign to reject Yale’s wealth hoarding by asking students who pay the student activities fee, a $100 payment included in every student’s bill for the academic year, to opt-out and instead donate the 100 dollars to New Haven organizations. With their $42.3 billion endowment, the payment would only serve to shore up Yale’s wealth, while having the potential to make a huge impact on organizations in the New Haven community. Yale offers the option to “opt-out” of the fee on the grounds of financial hardship. Students argued that the hardship was not their own, but rather that of the city of New Haven, on which Yale imposes austerity, and everyone else harmed by Yale’s investments in climate destruction and sovereign debt.
The movement gained widespread traction across the student body and the EJC redistributed funds to groups such as New Haven Rising, the Semilla Collective, the New Haven Climate Movement and the New Haven Housing Fund. On Sept. 23, 2021, Yale approved all the requests, acknowledging both the protest of Yale’s wealth hoarding and students’ desire to support the New Haven community. However, for students on partial financial aid, Yale both canceled the fee and reduced financial aid packages by $100. Since the student activities fee is part of “Billed Expenses,” it is already factored into a student’s financial aid calculation. The EJC was extremely confused by the presence of a policy that seemed to financially benefit only those who pay full tuition, and financial aid officers, who also seemed confused, provided no clarity.
In October, 2021, public records showed that Yale’s endowment, previously $30.3 billion, had a return of 40.2% and grew to $42.3 billion over the previous fiscal year—a year in which the world and economy struggled under a global pandemic. In the wake of the news, the EJC held a rally on Nov. 5, 2021 on Beinecke Plaza, the symbolic center for divestment activism at Yale. Speakers included representatives from the New Haven Climate Movement, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, Disability Empowerment at Yale, Students Unite Now, Yale Young Democratic Socialists of America and Yalies4Palestine. Students demanded that Yale divest from exploitative industries and recognize its responsibility to its students and the city of New Haven.
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, distressed sovereign debt and the prison industrial complex, 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?