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The Responsible Endowments Activist:
“We want to make sure the solution is robust and encapsulates a lot of alternatives.”
Lauren Ressler is a National Organizer for the Responsible Endowments Coalition, which helps students encourage their colleges and universities to invest their endowments responsibly. She’s been especially active in using endowment activism to fight climate change during the past year and a half.
Green America/Martha van Gelder: It seems like the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is taking off. Is that your impression as well?
Lauren Ressler: Definitely. By the beginning of January this last year, there were still only between ten and 20 campuses that were working on the campaign to varying degrees.
However, since the coalition of organizations that were working on divestment in conjunction with the students at Swarthmore began working with 350.org, we have gone from about 40 campuses in September to more than 234 campuses that have started petitions online and are beginning the divestment campaign on their campuses. I would definitely say that it’s taking off.
Green America/Martha: Why do you think that this is resonating so strongly with students?
Divestment is a very clear ask, and it’s really building student power on campuses. One of the things we’ve been trying to bring out in our narrative in working with students is that many of the people who are responsible for the current ecological crisis also played a role in the economic crisis through various trading schemes, and this is really resonating.
After a year of the Occupy movement, divestment is reaching a broad swath of students that we’ve never really seen before; from the radical end to the more conservative end, they want to play a role in where their money’s invested.
Green America/Martha: What has Responsible Endowment Coalition’s role been?
Ressler: The Responsible Endowment Coalition has been working on the fossil-fuel divestment campaign for about a year and a half. It's really great to have 350.org as an ally, which happened in October. They've been able to amplify and project these methods across the country in a way that our organization with four people hadn't quite been able to do.
Right now, were trying to focus on the reinvestment side of the campaign as well. Investment is a very clear ask; it's very clearly saying no to something that causes harm. But we want to make sure that the solution is robust. We want to see community investing, and reinvestment in wind and solar and the technologies that currently need a lot of financing and aren't getting it.
Green America/Martha: How are people responding to the reinvestment message?
Ressler: There's a lot of interest from the students I work with personally. The reinvestment piece is important because the schools I work with have very different endowment structures and very different asset allocations.
If you're talking about a school like Harvard with $32 billion, and inevitably a much larger portion in the fossil fuel industry, the scale of the reinvestment is going to be quite different from a community college in California that may have a very small endowment. We're trying to make sure that we have scalable options for different types of universities.
The students I work with have loved talking about these [green-economy] ideas and are looking to integrate a lot of solutions into their campaign. This helps them come across as a little more credible with their universities, since it becomes a statement of positive change, instead of a negatively framed idea.
Green America/Martha: What has the role of alumni been in this campaign?
Ressler: Alumni are taking a more and more active role. Many, many alumni, particularly at schools that had more established campaigns, have been writing letters to their college or university board. Some alumni have been withholding donations from universities until there is a fossil-free endowment for them to invest their money in.
Some students have been working really closely to try to cultivate that base and make a more unified student-and-alumni ask of the University. That strategy ties the power of the dollars that some older alumni have with the clear messaging from the students that are working on the ground.