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Q&A: Fossil Free Stanford on increasing campus awareness of divestment

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The Daily sat down with Keagan Cross ’23, Zoe Brownwood ’22 and Justin Wilck ’20 to discuss Fossil Free Stanford, a student group advocating for Stanford to divest from fossil fuel companies. Fossil Free was founded in 2012, achieved coal divestment in 2014, and has recently reinvigorated its divestment campaign in the wake of Stanford’s release of its new Ethical Investment Framework in the spring. Previously, an Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility, which has since been dissolved, had recommended against total fossil fuel divestment.

Starting last week, Fossil Free has held weekly sit-ins at White Plaza on Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. to increase campus awareness of the issue. The organization is part of a broader network of Fossil Free movements internationally that have resulted in colleges like the Universities of California divesting. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves? What drew you all to Fossil Free Stanford initially?

Keagan Cross (KC): I’m Keagan Cross, I’m a freshman, and I’m going to be studying comparative studies in race and ethnicity with a concentration in environmental justice. I came to Fossil Free because I was discouraged that I came here to learn how to be a better environmentalist, yet every day, I go to classes at an institution that continues to perpetuate the fossil fuel industry and climate injustice.

Zoe Brownwood (ZB): My name is Zoe, I use she/them pronouns, I’m a sophomore, and I’m undeclared. I was drawn to Fossil Free because of its positionality as a student-led movement with a lot of power. Stanford is situated as this elite academic institution with global and international economies, and divestment would signal that Stanford is taking an ethical stance in the face of the climate crisis.

Justin Wilck (JW): I’m Justin, I’m a senior, he/him pronouns, and I’m an English major. What drew me to Fossil Free relative to other environmental groups was its emphasis on using our position as students. I do firmly believe in locally situated politics, and I think that as students at a university, we have a responsibility to help drive the change.

TSD: What is Fossil Free Stanford?

JW: Fossil Free was founded in 2012. It’s primarily a student group, although we consider ourselves to be broadly connected with alumni, faculty and community members. We’re trying to hold Stanford to a higher level of climate accountability and action through a divestment framework. 

In 2014, the University divested from coal, and we’ve been pushing them to also divest from tar sands, oil and natural gas. Divestment exists toward a broader aim of making institutions accountable for their actions with notions of environmental justice. When we divested from coal in 2014, the [University of California system] then divested and cited Stanford’s divestment as one of the reasons they viewed this as a feasible measure. There’s a broader ripple effect.

TSD: Which companies is Fossil Free Stanford targeting when you’re asking Stanford to divest?

JW: We have a list of the top 100 fossil fuel companies by holdings and market valuation that’s updated every quarter. It’s a general list that isn’t specific to the companies Stanford is invested in right now because divestment is not just the removal of investment from a company, but also a pledge not to invest in the future.

ZB: That’s how our tar sands ask works. The University says they don’t currently invest in tar sands, but if it ever were to become profitable in a way that the University would want to invest, there would be a pledge that they would not.

TSD:  Fossil Free is a group that’s been around for several years now; how are you guys operating differently this year in particular?

JW: In prior years, a lot of our work was on the administrative side, since our grievance was that Stanford’s investment framework was impracticable. We had to do a lot of interfacing with the university administration to make a divestment proposal possible. Where we’re at now is trying to bring people in to create visible action.

ZB: Our framework is also shifting. Our main target is still divestment, but divestment isn’t necessarily enough. We need to find out where the endowment is going so that it supports a transition toward renewable energy. Yes, we want to divest, but we also want to go beyond that. 

KC: It especially makes sense for Stanford to reinvest [in clean technology] since it prides itself on technology.

TSD: And you guys are also taking a new approach this year: sit-ins. Could you talk more about those?

KC: Our sit-ins are every Friday from noon to 3 p.m. in White Plaza. They will continue happening until the University divests. We make space for people to come, have their questions answered and share why divestment is important for them. We’re trying to occupy the space with a big message. 

JW: Climate change is this massively disempowering idea where people feel there is no future they can imagine or create when we have institutional inaction and our society is hurtling toward massive ecological destruction. Sit-ins are not going to single-handedly change that, but there’s something personal and powerful when you create a progressive space to talk about the issue and take action.

JW: I do think the plug that we’re student-run is not just a marketing slogan. We’ve had many people join in the past two weeks who have played a significant role. There’s a lot of organizing power within our group to have your ideas realized, especially if you feel disempowered by the climate crisis. 

ZB: The sit-in was actually an idea from a new member. None of us had thought about it before, and a new member came in with the idea, and we did it. And we need artists! We’re so entrenched in academic that we start to lose the importance of art in movements like our own.

TSD: What have been Fossil Free’s biggest obstacles to achieving its goals?

ZB: One issue is transparency on the part of the Board [of Trustees] and the Committee on Investment Responsibility. For instance, last week there was a board meeting and a task force forum to review fossil fuel investment, and we weren’t informed of that beforehand.

JW: Our University and board … might not view what they’re doing as disempowering, but we have to put in so much work to even get to the table, and we’re not even there yet. 

TSD: How would you respond to the criticism that Stanford’s endowment is not a tool for social activism?

ZB: When you say the endowment is not for taking a political stance, you’re automatically taking the side of and giving power to the status quo. And the status quo in this case is the fossil fuel industry. The endowment is going to be inherently political whether the University wants it to be or not, so it’s very important to use this political stance in favor of justice and climate action.

JW: The status quo is not neutral, and it’s not surprising that systems of exploitation are extremely profitable, but that doesn’t justify your benefiting from them.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu.