Campus | April 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Can Today’s Social Movements Succeed?

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“Vote Yes on 1 for Harvard’s UC Election: Divest From Fossil Fuels!”

“Vote Yes to a Social Choice Fund, Referendum #3!”

Leading up to the November 18 Undergraduate Council election, slogans such as these were plastered over campus and the Internet, encouraging students to vote yes on two important referendums: Divest Harvard, led by the Students for a Just and Stable Future, and the social choice fund campaign, led by the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition. The divestment campaign aims to convince Harvard University to divest its endowments from the fossil fuel industry in order to combat climate change, while the social choice fund campaign aims to give donors the option of contributing to investments with a “positive social impact.” The two are intrinsically linked; both question the ethics surrounding Harvard’s investments, highlighting the discrepancy between what the university says it values and what its monetary investments indicate it values.

An Evaluation

Despite initial criticism and skepticism of the campaigns, both have certainly seen some success after gaining overwhelming support in the UC election. Seventy-two percent of students voted “yes” to the referendum on fossil fuel divestment, while 80 percent voted to support the social choice fund referendum.

The divestment campaign has transformed into a full-fledged national movement. Just this past September, a dozen college campuses had divestment campaigns. Now, 252 colleges across the nation have joined the movement, along with three colleges that have already successfully divested. Furthermore, despite its initial refusal to consider divestment, Harvard ultimately agreed to open discussions with representatives of the divestment campaign on February 1, 2013.

“This is an unprecedented movement that has spread with such speed and effectiveness and momentum,” environmental activist and undergraduate Chloe Maxmin said in a recent interview with the HPR. “You have thousands and thousands of students who say they don’t want to invest in climate change.”

In fact, the fossil fuel divestment campaign has even started gaining political attention. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) commended the divestment effort in December; Jon Huntsman expressed support in January; and Al Gore backed the campaign in early February.

Looking Forward

Neither campaign’s work is near completion, however. In order to fully accomplish their goals, the campaigns must exhibit four crucial attributes—broadminded and long-term thinking, solidarity, persistency, and realism.

Broadminded and long-term thinking

Organizers of the campaigns must adopt a broadminded, long-term perspective of the campaigns. They must realize that their efforts do not simply pertain to a campaign on a campus-scale, but instead as part of a movement on a national scale. Three components in particular are especially important to the adoption of such a perspective: the recognition that the campaigns represent a student issue, rather than simply an activist issue; alumni involvement; and long-term commitment to the campaigns, even after graduation.

It is critical that the issues the campaigns address are not only concerns of the activist community, but of the student body as a whole. Campaign organizers must recognize that the campaigns are not going to be completed quickly, but will take several years to fully achieve their aims. Student leaders must commit to contributing to the campaigns even after they graduate. By the same token, organizers should try and garner the support of alumni.

Solidarity

Solidarity is necessary for the success of the campaigns. Organizers must effectively publicize their campaigns through the use of conventional and social media in order to gain majority support of the student body. It is crucial that campaign organizers educate students regarding the issues on a deeper level if they want the student body’s support to be substantive, rather than simply nominal. For example, while many students may support divestment simply because being environmentally friendly has become the accepted social norm, they may not understand exactly how divestment will be an effective measure in combating climate change. As a result, they may not feel truly committed to the cause or desire to become involved.

Furthermore, Harvard students must realize that they, in particular, have great potential to effect change. UC President Tara Raghuveer told the HPR, “People pay attention when articles are written that 80 percent of students feel this way or over 70 percent feel that way. I think it’s an incredible opportunity for Harvard students to use that platform while we’re here to make statements on behalf of our generation of thinkers. We can begin our lives as advocates for issues that we believe in.”

Persistence

These campaigners must remain persistent in their efforts. One way to remain motivated is to look back at the success of past activist campaigns at Harvard. For example, divestment campaigns have proven successful in the past. In the 1980s, Harvard partially divested from the companies that fueled apartheid in South Africa. A few years later, Harvard divested from tobacco companies, and, in the 2000s, Harvard divested from PetroChina, which supported genocide in Darfur.

Persistence is also required of the campaigns when working with university administration. “We are excited and heartened by what we’ve heard from the CCSR but we also want to make sure that they show a commitment to the financial sustainability of the social choice fund,” RIHC Co-Coordinator and undergraduate Nicole Granath said to the HPR. “We also would like President Faust to advocate for the social choice fund.”

Realism

Advocates noticed RIHC representatives’ disappointment over the predictable and obscure answers members of the corporation gave during a town hall meeting last spring on Harvard’s investment practices. “The Harvard Corporation is a corporation, so total transparency of investments is not a realistic goal,” Raghuveer says. “From my perspective the dialogue was excellent and was a good step in the right direction, though not a solution.” By taking small, realistic steps, such as commencing the dialogue regarding divestment or a social choice fund, campaign members will be making steady progress toward achieving their ultimate goal without allowing overly idealistic expectations set them back.

Understanding the Urgency

Recognizing the urgency of these issues, security guard Aryt Alasti sums up the importance of the Harvard community’s participation in these campaigns. “There is widespread consensus about the need for institutions of higher education to use their unique potentiality in addressing the greatest crisis to face humanity in this era—global warming,” Alasti said to the HPR. “Transformative change must happen soon, and existing societal mechanisms by which change ideally might occur have once again proved themselves dysfunctional. It will be up to young adults with the understanding, the determination, and the wherewithal for the necessary time commitments, to literally save us all if indeed that is still feasible at this point.”

All Harvard students, faculty members, and administrators should care about the divestment and social choice fund campaigns, rather than absentmindedly dismissing them as the concerns of only the activist community. The critical issues that the campaigns address affect us as individuals, a community and truly, an international society; it is time we start to fully understand the urgency of the situation.

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