On Sept. 10 at 4 p.m. CDT, students and community members gathered on the steps of Wyatt Center for Dores Divest’s protest advocating for Vanderbilt to divest from fossil fuels. 100 students signed up to attend the event, per Miguel Moravec, graduate student leader of Dores Divest.
Speakers from Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR), VSG and Dores Divest expressed discontent regarding Vanderbilt’s investment in fossil fuels. Following the speeches, students set off orange smoke bombs and marched across Magnolia Lawn to the Commons Center, where they were led in chants by Dores Divest. Participating students were provided with a sheet with the words to chant. Examples of chants include phrases such as: “Which side are you on now?”, “No more coal, no more oil, keep our carbon in the soil,” and “We won’t rest ’til you divest.”
In an interview with The Hustler, VSG Student Body President and DivestVU Co-Founder Hannah Bruns expressed her concern for the students on campus whose loved ones were impacted immensely by the floods in Waverly, TN, Hurricane Ida, the Arizona heatwaves and other recent natural disasters.
“We’ve seen all the recent and devastating climate events that have occurred in this month alone,” Bruns said. “The climate crisis is very much here and divestment is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed now.”
Bruns also voiced the importance of solidarity in activism and in avoiding superficial advocacy. Ruth Aklilu, a sophomore involved with Dores Divest, echoed these sentiments. Aklilu spoke to The Hustler about how Dores Divest has made efforts to work with the administration with the intention to encourage a conversation regarding Vanderbilt’s investment in fossil fuels.
“We have followed all procedures and guidelines that the administration has set to organize this protest,” Aklilu said. “Hopefully, this will make the Board [of Trust] more likely to vote in our favor and divest in their next board meeting.”
At the start of the event, orange-beanie-clad students stood in front of a large white canvas. The mural was covered in drawings coinciding with statements from students about the impact of the climate emergency on their lives. Students held up signs with phrases like “It’s getting hot in here so divest fossil fuels.”
Dr. Curtis Baysinger, associate professor of anesthesiology at the Vanderbilt University Medical School (VUMS) and former director of anesthesiology, represented Citizens Climate Lobby at the event. CCL is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of chapters across the world focused on action in solidarity. Dr. Baysinger was the only faculty member who spoke at the protest, however, per Moravec, other faculty members attended the protest for the first time.
“This is our motto until we pass the national carbon tax and a dividend to every person in the United States: ‘Price carbon, pay people,’” Baysinger said in his speech.
He further explained the statistics supporting his argument for divestment.
“With the carbon tax, a price is put on the carbon content on every barrel of oil from an oil well, every ton of coal from the mine and on the carbon content of imported goods,” Baysinger said. “The money is collected and the revenue is repaid to every person in the United States with a social security number. This policy by itself will reduce carbon emissions in the United States by 40 percent over 12 years.”
In an email to The Hustler, Moravec commented about Dores Divest’s growing reach, as achieved largely via their protests.
“Today, the tide shifted on fossil fuel divestment at Vanderbilt. For the first time, faculty and Tennesseans rose up to publically join our cause,” Moravec said. “With the fall of Harvard University’s endowment just 24 hours before our protest, it has never been more clear that by maintaining fossil fuel investments, Vanderbilt is on the wrong side of history.”
Ember Tharpe, a senior and student activist in Hidden Dores, addressed the racial components of climate change in her speech. She spoke on how investment in fossil fuels mitigates the deterioration of health and safety of minority and marginalized groups.
“We already know that there is poison in the lungs of Black children and poison in the water of Black families,” Tharpe said. “The world is changing, people are changing and we are here at Vanderbilt demanding that you change too.”
Rosemary Lieske Vides, a graduate anthropology student and a member of Sunrise Vanderbilt, commented about the protest from a spectator’s perspective.
“I wish that more students cared about this issue because it really does impact everybody,” Lieske Vides said. “Overall, I think Dores Divest did really well with organizing the event and discussing diversity and representation in the climate crisis.”
Bruns and Tharpe both spoke about the U.S.’s alleged prioritization of financial gain over environmental concerns in interviews with The Hustler.
“In this country, we are continually choosing profits over the safety of individuals and of the planet,” Bruns said. “The U.S. government can’t even pass the Green New Deal.”
Senior Joshua Doh, president of SPEAR, explained the economics of divestment in his speech. In an interview with The Hustler, he also spoke about the “fossil fuel deadline,” or the short period of time left to cut back on carbon emissions before hundreds or thousands of years of irreparable damage takes hold of our planet.
“The investment outlook is bleak. The industry hasn’t done well in the past ten years; it doesn’t make sense to invest [in fossil fuels] financially,” Doh said. “We’re one day closer every day to the deadline of cutting emissions, so the urgency is only increasing.”
Doh also agreed with Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s sentiments regarding the importance of free speech and working to understand all sides of a debate. Doh commented on the necessity for the administration to engage in an active dialogue with students about divestment.
“We continue to support the right of our students, faculty and staff, to make their voices heard on issues they feel strongly about,” a university representative said in an email to The Hustler. “The university is committed to fostering an environment where scholars and students exchange ideas, challenge viewpoints and learn from one another.”
The representative also restated the university’s position from the Founder’s Walk protest regarding ways for students to make their voices heard, particularly highlighting VSG and the Graduate Student Council again. Both of these organizations passed bills in the Fall 2020 semester calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels.