Rising sea levels. Drought. Natural disasters. These are the consequences of fossil fuel use that have been so widely publicized by the scientific community. And yet, despite the decades of research and exhaustive public awareness campaigns, society still remains very much dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
One of the more subtle factors – among the multitude of others – that contribute to this phenomenon is the concept of social license or acts of community acceptance that allow the fossil fuel industry to continue its harmful activities. Even SFU – a school proud of its sustainable mission statement- contributes to this social occurrence. Specifically, SFU invests part of its $280 million endowment fund in coal, oil, and gas, thereby communicating that this socially injurious sector is worthy of its valuable investments.
Divestment is a movement that thus encourages businesses and institutions to remove funds from the fossil fuel sector and reinvest them in sustainable alternatives. Doing so strips social license from fossil fuel companies, making it much more difficult for them to continue operating in society.
This cause inspired the 2013 formation of the Divest SFU campaign, led by SFU350, a climate activism club. Since then, SFU350 has campaigned for the SFU Board of Governors to immediately freeze all new investment in fossil fuel companies, divest from these companies within five years, and have increased investment transparency at SFU.
In response to Divest SFU’s proposals, SFU adopted the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Investment and created the Responsible Investment Committee (RIC) in 2014, the latter of which can provide recommendations to the SFU Board of Governors about investment proposals like divestment.
In the SFU community, the campaign has raised an overwhelming amount of support. Numerous student unions have endorsed the campaign; 118 faculty members have signed an open letter about divestment to the Board of Governors; and over 1036 students have signed a petition urging SFU to divest. Yet, despite this feedback, SFU has remained reluctant to commit to divestment, a decision influenced by factors that include the scarcity of universities in North America that have committed to such a decision.
And so the campaign has continued since 2013. The club now contains a collection of members from the very start of the campaign, along with others, like me, who have only recently joined. We come from diverse academic backgrounds, from engineering to environmental science to statistics and business. The multifaceted nature of divestment – entailing a range of social, economic, and environmental considerations - is what drew me to the cause and what I think has brought together students from such varied disciplines.
Up to this point, our interactions with the RIC were primarily defined by meetings with people in suits and discussions about economic concepts like fudiciary duty and pooled funds. Distinctly lacking in these boardroom meetings was a sense of excitement and energy for the cause. We were certainly engaged in the issue, but what about the rest of the student body? Were they waiting with anticipation for every RIC decision and proposal? Did they care about SFU’s ultimate decision about divestment?
In short, divestment needed the same buzz and fanfare as SFU’s 50th anniversary celebration, and from there the idea sprung – what if we had an imagined celebration 50 years in the future, when divestment had hypothetically been realized?
The more we thought about it, the more we realized how effective the idea could be. We could provide a fun and interactive event to raise awareness about divestment to students across all disciplines (being careful to clarify that it hasn’t yet been realized at SFU). We could offer opportunities for students to get involved and hopefully build a sense of solidarity and empowerment for the cause. It could also serve as a call to action for the RIC and Board of Governors by showing an SFU community that was “engaging the world” with bold initiative for sustainability.
The need for the event was heightened by the fact that the RIC would be putting together their divestment policy this summer, one that would outline the conditions under which the committee would consider recommending divestment. And so, we also needed a way to stimulate campus discussion about this development to give the RIC feedback on the community’s conceptualization of an impactful and reasonable policy.
With these goals in mind, we set out to plan SFU’s 100th Celebration.
Our main consideration was the funding. How would we cover the costs for such an event? Luckily, there were grants available from Embark and the SFSS for such student-led causes and applying for them was our first step. We were thrilled when we received news that our applications had been accepted, because it meant that we could start event-planning in earnest.
With funding taken care of, the second consideration was the timeline. We had a little over two months to plan, design, and execute the event – which, for a grand celebration that we were imagining, was not that much time at all. The time crunch meant that it was all hands on deck. It meant longer meetings to discuss potential booth activities and layout possibilities. It meant a detailed spreadsheet of tasks, from sorting out catering, to putting together the craft and informational material, and planning an advertising campaign. It was fantastic seeing the team come together like this and what had seemed initially impossible quickly became more and more of a reality.
Initially, ideas like fog machines and time portal displays were jokingly raised and discarded. After much discussion, we distilled the plan down to booths and displays that would be most effective for our goals.
We would first have a photobooth activity where students could take a photo with a pro-divestment message; we would put the photos in a collage and send it to the Board of Governors as a visual demonstration of student support. A Divest Table would give information about the campaign and ways students could get involved. A separate table for Divestment Policy feedback was planned, where students could share comments on sticky-notes about responsible investing. As for education, a Jeopardy Table that involved sustainability-related trivia would be a fun way to stimulate discussion, and a Graduate Studies Display would share environmental research findings. Playing off the futuristic theme, we planned a poster timeline of major events during the Divest SFU campaign from past, present, and future.
By the morning of March 30, everything was ready. Invitations to the Board of Governors and RIC had been delivered. Posters had been put up a week before. A fun promotional video had been posted on social media, featuring students from 2065 time travelling to a 2015 RIC meeting.
At 9:30 am we began setting up in the North AQ Concourse. By 11:00 am the booths and activities were ready. Live guitar music created the perfect relaxed, fun atmosphere. The divestment timeline greeted students to the event. People began stopping by to grab coffee and food and chat with us about SFU350 and ask questions about divestment.
SFU 100 Timeline of Major Events in the SFU Divest Campaign
People began snapping pictures beside the colorful “Reinvest in Our Future” banner with their own personalized message about divestment as part of the photobooth activity. At the Graduate Studies Section, they learned about community-based water desalination plants in coastal Bangladesh and the formulation of the indigenous forest perspectives in government policies. More and more people began stopping by and even a member of the RIC, Jo Hinchliffe, came around noon to chat with us about her support for our initiative.
A Student Engaged in Photobooth Pledge Activity
A Graduate Studies Table
At the SFU350 Informational Table, we were asked about meeting times and future events, to the point that one of our volunteers suggested that we have another meeting specifically for these individuals. We collected petition signatures at the Divest Table and urged students to attend the next RIC meeting.
SFU350 Information Table
Many wrote on neon sticky notes to give feedback on desirable investment practices. The “What Should SFU Not Invest In” question drew answers like “LNG”, “thermal coal”, “pipelines”, and “fracking”, indicative of community support for divestment. There were also answers unrelated to fossil fuels, like “fish farms”, “tobacco”, and “weapons”, which helped spark dialogue about investments in other socially injurious industries. We were also struck by the interpretations of the “What Should SFU Invest In” question; along with “solar energy” and “renewable energy”, there were also responses like “transit”, “graduate studies”, and “science programs”, which highlighted a need for increased clarity about the exact nature of investments that Divestment focuses on.
Divestment Policy Feedback Table
The Jeopardy Table drew surprisingly long and thoughtful discussions about climate change statistics that are typically glazed over in everyday conversation. Students discussed how accurate they thought figures of land usage, pollution, and waste were and the factors at play surrounding these issues.
Climate Change Jeopardy Game Activity
Some of the students who stopped by even started helping out at the event, handing out flyers and taking a turn providing live music with the guitar and ukulele.
By 2:00 pm, when the event drew to a close, around 75 students had participated in the event, with 21 people taking photo pledges, 50 sharing thoughts about the divestment policy, 5 interacting with the graduate studies booth, and 10 participating in the jeopardy game.
Our aim for SFU 100th Celebration was to engage students in action for divestment and the number of people who expressed interest about Divest SFU, who participated in booth activities, and who spontaneously helped at the event itself demonstrated how involved students were as a result of the event.
We also hoped to attract the attention of the Board of Governors and RIC, and, indeed, not only was one committee member actively engaged but we were also able to send a collage of the photobooth pictures to these committees. Pictures and descriptions of this event also played a key part in our April RIC presentation by emphasizing the level of student interest for divestment.
In terms of publicizing the proposed RIC divestment policy, our interactions with the many participants successfully raised awareness about this key development. In a later meeting with members from the Board of Governor, we shared feedback collected about responsible investing, re-highlighting the general student agreement on the need to shift investments away from the fossil fuel industry.
The event was also an opportunity for the Divest SFU Coalition to come together as a team. 18 volunteers from SFU350 and Embark helped make the event a success and it was a chance for everyone to contribute to a unifying project from beginning to end.
Granted, even with the success of SFU 100th Celebration, events such as these certainly won’t bring about divestment on their own; rather, it’s the amassment of acts that promote student engagement and stimulate discourse with SFU administration that will ultimately drive much-needed change, as it is with any social movement.
If you’re interested to learn more about the Divest SFU campaign and how you can get involved, you can visit us at http://www.sfu350.com/about-sfu-350/
SFU 100 Team:
Raaj Chatterjee, Tessa Ramburn, Deven Azevedo, Carina Xu, Jessie Russel, Leena Hassan, Kelsey Dries, Federico Cerani, Sarah Heim, Zachary Paradis, Aaron Leung, Tessica Truong, Lucia Lin