We Got NYU to Divest From Fossil Fuels — And That’s Just the Start

Lifestyle

This summer, we faced unbearable heat waves, we breathed in thick, dark wildfire smoke, and we saw homes and cars be swallowed up by mass floods. We are up against a ticking time bomb, pushing us to cut down emissions as fast as possible. From our cities and towns, to our businesses, to the high schools and universities we attend everyday — every single institution must transform to meet the scale, scope, and urgency of the climate crisis. 

Universities can be agents of change in our society: both in their role in educating the public, and through the power of their massive endowments. New York University’s endowment alone surpasses 5 billion dollars, and the five largest university endowments are worth a combined 145 billion dollars. Due to their influence, universities have a responsibility to be leaders in this crisis. By decarbonizing, funding life saving research, and dissociating from the fossil fuel industry causing the crisis, they can serve as a model for how our nation must follow.

But universities are not moving at the speed required to tackle this crisis. This past week, New York University announced it would divest from fossil fuels — but this decision took student activists more than ten years to achieve.

We are two of the student organizers with Sunrise Movement NYU, the activist group that made this happen. Since the news broke, we’ve been thinking a lot about the years of organizing that got us here. We started small: with a petition and a protest. For three years, we grew our movement from a couple of kids on a Zoom call to a broad coalition of community members demanding divestment.

At times, it felt like we weren’t making any progress. At times, we almost gave up. But our planet was still burning, and our university was still invested in the fire. We made wheatpaste, a sticky mixture of flour and water that activists have used for decades, to put up flyers denouncing the university for their investments. We passed a resolution through our student government and released an op-ed in our school newspaper. We held protests with hundreds of people chanting “Divest now!” in Washington Square Park, featuring speakers from NYU students and professors to candidates for New York State Assembly. After years of demanding change, our movement was loud enough that the university had to respond. We were offered a meeting with the NYU Board of Trustees, the body in charge of managing the endowment.

We weren’t allowed to know who would be at the meeting in advance, so we spent hours researching every Board member who could be there, finding their fossil fuel industry ties and conflicts of interest. One night, after weeks of hours-long strategy sessions, we looked at our full deck. Sammi Bringas, the lone freshman meeting with the Board, said to us, “It’s crazy to see who’s running my dream school.” We were up against Maria Bartiromo, a climate-denying Fox News anchor, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, one of the largest investors in fossil fuels, and other powerful millionaires.

Jessery Darlington*

Then, the day came. Can you imagine four college activists meeting with some of the most influential people in New York City? One of us had to buy a tie, another an entire outfit. The day before, we went to our local copy shop to make sure our handouts had the perfect spiral binding. It was years of work to get the meeting and then months to prepare. This day felt like our Super Bowl — we walked out of that meeting thinking things could change.

And a few weeks ago, we found out they did. NYU divested from fossil fuels, crediting the work of Sunrise NYU in its decision. Our school’s 5 billion dollar endowment will no longer be used to fuel the climate crisis. NYU is putting its money where its mouth is: moving towards a just, green future rather than investing in the industry destroying our planet.

The climate crisis is not somewhere in the future. It’s taking place now and affecting every aspect of our lives. In order to survive this crisis, we must come together and fight to transform the systems that got us here. 

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That means every single one of us must take action. Together, we can defeat the corrupting influence of the fossil fuel industry in every school, university, city, and town across the country until we win a Green New Deal and finally stop the climate crisis. This campaign proves that an organized and dedicated group of people, no matter how young, inexperienced, and scrappy, can overcome any challenge. 

The stakes are high, and the game is rigged, but if we get organized, we can win the livable future we all deserve.

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