Hundreds march for environmental change
Hundreds of St. Olaf students walked out of class, gathered outside Buntrock Commons and marched into Northfield on Sept. 20 to raise awareness for the growing threat of climate change. The campus-wide protest was part of a global student movement spearheaded by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. St. Olaf students marched alongside millions of other students worldwide, joining activists from London to Washington, D.C. to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Friday’s strike was organized by the Climate Justice Collective (CJC), a group dedicated to increasing campus awareness of climate issues and pushing St. Olaf to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. The strike was covered by Minnesota Public Radio and Northfield News, as well as the conservative news website The College Fix.
Similar demonstrations occurred last week in over 150 countries and on all seven continents, voicing concerns about the consequences of climate change.
Imani Mosher ’21, co-president of CJC, said the strike was inspired by the global protests happening that week, as well as the ongoing goals of CJC.
“There are students on this campus that care a lot about the environment and who are no longer going to sit quietly while we have our money invested in the fossil fuel industry,” Mosher said.
In addition to its own efforts, CJC collaborated with Northfield High School, various members of the Northfield community and Northfield Against Line 3, an organization opposing construction of the proposed Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline that would run through central and northern Minnesota and replace the existing Line 3 pipeline.
Turnout for the march was much higher than anticipated, CJC co-president Isaac Nelson ’21 said. Several faculty members and concerned Northfield residents joined St. Olaf students in the demonstration, including Associate Professor of English Rebecca Richards.
“I live in Northfield, I’m a professor of St. Olaf and I’m an inhabitant of this beautiful planet, and I’m concerned about the future for the young people,” Richards said.
Northfield resident Vicki Dilley followed the march on her bicycle and joined students at Bridge Square. Dilley worked as a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Tuvalu and said she was inspired by the students who came out to march, as well as the islanders that she worked with in the past.
“[The islanders] love their place, they love their country, but they are climate changers as well,” Dilly said. “So for me to send them photos of what happened here today, they’ll feel like they have some partnership.”
Isaiah Vijil, a Carleton student, was also present at the protest. He expressed that he was not usually the type for activism, but the importance of the issue and his Native American heritage made him want to attend the protest.
“I figured there wouldn’t be that many Native people here,” Vijil said. “There’s hardly any Native people around here, so I should come and represent my people if I have the chance to do so.”
Although Carleton students were not able to organize an event, several students from the college were present at the protests.
“I hope that all the hundreds of people that were here this afternoon can go home and tell their friends, ‘the next one of these, let’s take action’,” said Gabriel Lobet, a Carleton student.
CJC estimates that close to 400 St. Olaf students marched from the campus and over 600 activists were present at Bridge Square.
In the lead up to the strike, faculty and students discussed whether professors should cancel class in light of the protest and whether students should be held accountable for their attendance if they chose to miss a scheduled class.
CJC, in a statement intended for the St. Olaf community at large, called on all members of the community to “strike all day.”
“Be bold,” Nelson wrote in email. “Be inconvenient. Compromise is how movements die.”
Associate Professor of Religion David Booth, whose address at the St. Olaf Opening Convocation focused heavily on environmental themes, offered support for the students who participated in the protest.
“I’m thrilled that there are strikes taking place,” Booth said. “I think the whole notion of a climate strike that disrupts business as usual is a really healthy and salutary thing. I feel myself in solidarity with students who are looking to break up the normal patterns.”
Booth also offered insight on deliberations taking place among faculty and administrators with regard to cancelling classes. Many professors expressed support for the strikers and students’ decisions of conscience surrounding engaging in protests, Booth said.
“Administrative leaders said, ‘This is an important issue that people are going to have their own commitments about,’” Booth said. “So they urged faculty who were considering cancelling classes to make sure they had other arrangements in place, so that the syllabus would be intact.”
Though some classes were canceled at the discretion of individual professors, there was no campus-wide cancelation.
Administrators also drew attention to positive actions that the College currently takes with regard to the environment and sustainability, such as carbon-neutral electricity production and faculty buildings that meet high standards for sustainability, Booth said.
The leaders of CJC look to the future with high hopes following the campus climate strike.
“I think that people know what our group is a little bit more now,” co-president of CJC, Abby Becker ’21 said. “So the next time we ask people to write a letter to administration or to their representative, it might strike them that this is how they follow through with that passion they have for the environment.”
CJC is considering new strategies to push St. Olaf to divest from fossil fuel companies, Nelson said. Part of that will involve building coalitions with other groups around campus, as their fights for change are rooted in similar notions of how power works in higher education.
“There’s been a drought in political action on this campus, and we are ready to bring it back,” Mosher said. “This isn’t a reflection of the lack of issues on this campus, but rather on the lack of action. We’re ready to bring it back.”