Divestment campaigner Charlie Montague outlines how the Fossil Free Otago Uni campaign was won.
By Charlie Montague
In June we felt like our campaign had hit a brick wall. We’d been trying to achieve divestment for three years, our energy was running low, and honestly as a group we doubted getting a divestment statement from Otago Uni was worth our energy. We decided to give it one last shot to show we appreciate the hard work of the students and staff in those three years. Niamh (our Executive Director) got in touch with me and I took part in the Fossil Free Fellowship which gave my group and me the tools we needed to see this through.
On July 24, a group of eight of us who had not all properly met sat down and decided on our goals. We drew a campaign timeline and talked about strategy and action. Anything deemed to be a ‘wild idea’ and beyond our capacity was written on a big piece of paper on the wall. The September 13 university council meeting would serve as our arbitrary ‘peak event’ date for this semester.
Our goals for this semester were building relationships with key powerholders and getting majority student support. We thought we would need to escalate in 2017 and that majority support would be helpful as it would help get our message across.
We all dived right in to the campaign. Within a week we had flooded the student art exhibition with entries about divestment, we had meetings with the student executive and president, and we had written policy and consulted with staff. We put up posters around campus with an interactive campaign question: “If you could write anything about climate change where thousands of people could see it, what would you say?” and ran fortnightly leadership trainings. On August 15 we found out we had gotten divestment on the council agenda. Divestment was suddenly in sight! We decided our approach to that would be celebrating so enthusiastically that if the council chose not to divest they would need to publicly state, “We can still invest in fossil fuels.”
Our University’s motto is, “Dare To Be Wise” and we dared them to follow that. We began writing articles and talking to hundreds of students about the climate crisis. We brought a ‘Leonardo DiCaprio’ to campus, had party picnics appreciating the sunshine and offered people an eye test to see why action is important. People wanted to get involved with our campaign and they did so in huge numbers. Yes, we got people nude in front of the clock tower but we also got people clothed and speaking to their lecture classes. The campaign became really fun!
Next thing we knew, it was the morning of September 13: D Day! We were all incredibly nervous, sweaty palmed and shaky while we introduced ourselves to reporters. We had to keep up our positive attitudes in order to do the on-campus radio interviews, the meeting and greeting, phone interviews and videography. I found out the result at twenty past five and had the honour of getting to tell everyone. As the words came out of my mouth, “We WON! They’ve changed the policy to …” I saw my friends burst into smiles, laughing and hugging each other almost crying, and I realised why divestment was important. We built community and friendships as well as leaders in action that will outlast any policy change.
The evening progressed to a hundred people celebrating together, watching individuals answers to the question of, “what would you say about climate change?” projected on geology classrooms, while high fiving each other and eating some kai.
Divestment of our university was cool, sure, but to me the ultimate win was the hundred engaged students who want to see climate justice, and the thousands of supporters and acts of kindness that helped us get there. It’s an empowering thing as a young person to win against any establishment you are taught is impenetrable; it reminds us that we do have power and that community is something that can’t be taken away from us.