Power Shift conference reinspires Fossil Free Macalester

On Oct. 17, 13 Macalester students walked into the Sierra Club’s offices in Minneapolis to find cubicles already crowded with other young people­—some high school students, some students like us from colleges and universities across the state, and some alumni of these institutions. We packed into the office space with suitcases, backpacks and sleeping bags. Talk and laughter filled the room; the excitement was palpable. We were headed to Power Shift, one of the largest youth summits concerning climate change. Two full buses and a van were boarded to Pittsburgh, and after one bus breakdown that lengthened our 15-hour drive to a whopping 19 hours, we arrived.
We were joined by five to six thousand other young people, converging upon downtown Pittsburgh for the fourth biennial Power Shift Conference. In fall of 2007, the Energy Action Coalition organized the first Power Shift youth climate summit, welcoming thousands to the University of Maryland campus. Young people gathered to discuss climate issues, hear from keynote speakers (including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and generate new ideas on how to move forward.

This year, as 11 of the 13 Macalester students attending were a part of of Fossil Free Macalester, we went with a common goal propelling us forward: divestment. More commonly referred to around campus as ‘Fossil Free Mac’ (FFM), the organization is composed of students campaigning for Macalester’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

FFM is a relatively recent campaign on campus. It has been active for about a year, but first drew student attention and support this past February when environmental author and activist Bill McKibben visited campus to speak on climate change, and kick off his participation in the Birkebeiner, the largest cross country ski marathon in North America, by skiing across campus.

Since this initial campaign exposure, both membership and support of FFM have grown exponentially. In fact, Macalester isn’t the only college with a fossil fuel divestment movement gaining momentum. According to a recent Oxford University study, the movement is one of the fastest growing divestment movements in history. Nationally, students are recognizing the power of fossil fuel divestment. The Oxford study itself speaks to the “far reaching” threats that the fossil fuel industry will face through divestment due to creation of a stigma against it. Divestment will not only decrease companies’ subsidies but will also incentivize changes within their business model to meet the demands of us— their consumers.

FFM believes that divestment is an important step in the movement to curb the looming effects of climate change, and that Macalester can be a leader in this movement. We are asking our school to terminate current investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years, and freeze all future investments. FFM is part of a growing divestment movement that includes not only schools, but cities, churches and other organizations; together, we know we can make our voices heard. Through divesting, we are telling fossil fuel companies that we are not on board with their actions or business practices. These practices are jeopardizing, seriously harming the health of frontline communities, wreaking havoc upon the environment and contributing to our climate disaster. They are placing profit before lives, and we must take a stand against this as global citizens.

Power Shift provided a platform to connect with others taking a stand against fossil fuel companies’ practices. Workshops specifically focused on divestment allowed us to connect with divestment campaigns from across the country. One such workshop recognized that all attendees were at different stages of their campaigns, and broke out into smaller groups—focuses varied from kick-starting a divestment campaign to garnering campus support. Some FFM members were even able to attend the national divestment movement kickoff that directly followed this workshop.

Power Shift was about networking as much as it was about listening, absorbing the stories of others and learning. This year, the conference added to its traditionally heavy focus on environmental issues, incorporating more social justices issues. Conference organizers sought to integrate the voices of those on the frontline–often minority groups and oppressed peoples being directly affected by fossil fuel extraction and climate change. Speakers such as Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network drew attention to fracking’s exacerbation of social inequity in communities on the frontline. She noted how these communities now face injury due to methane flares on a regular basis, increased violence against women and drug and alcohol abuse.

Speakers Phil Seneca, a Native American local farmer and advocate for environmental justice, and Ron Whyte, Deep Green Philly activist, presented a workshop on anti-colonialism and decolonization. They challenged their audience’s knowledge and views of both historical and current Native American oppression regarding environmental issues, referencing a protest that had just occurred the day before. As members of the Mikmaq tribe peacefully protested fracking developments on their land, they were subjected to unnecessary police brutality, a painful example of how native peoples still find their voices silenced today.

Leaving these workshops, many of us realized the necessity of simultaneously fighting for climate action and social justice, recognizing them not as separate causes, but as movements containing many complex, intertwined issues. The fight against fossil fuel companies and climate change is not just about saving our mountain tops and coral reefs. It is about saving communities and lives. It is about recognizing that our current movement is not just about the environment, but about the lives that exist within this environment. These companies and climate change pose a very real global health crisis.

In moving forward, this is something that we must recognize and emphasize. On the third and final day of Power Shift, state break out sessions allowed Power Shift attendees to group together in rooms based on state, and talk about how to move forward with such newly acquired ideas.

All were encouraged to share their current community work and organizing, create connections and strengthen involvement in each other’s work. Minnesota’s breakout session was highly productive, and left many of us wishing that breakout sessions had concluded every day of Power Shift. If these breakout sessions were discussion themed, instead of just state themed, perhaps we could have more productively drawn connections between complex environmental and social justice issues, so that we might incorporate these ideas within our own organizing and work.

Although there were some things that we would have liked to discuss further at Power Shift, Macalester students fortunately had the entirety of the bus ride back from Pittsburgh to continue these conversations. We shared our bus with students from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, UMN-Morris and Gustavus Adolphus, so we were able to engage about these issues and others.

Just this past weekend, FFM students, along with other Macalester students, enjoyed a delicious “Post-Power Shift” dinner with the friends we’d made on the bus from these various Minnesotan schools. Over homemade pizza and desserts, we were able to discuss lingering questions and issues that had arisen during the conference. We also updated each other on the progress of our various projects and campaigns. As FFM, other school’s divestment campaigns, personal projects and our discussions move forward, we hope to continue to utilize this great new Minnesotan network to create change.