Student organization seeks to divest university funds from fossil fuels

Lee Elliott
Social Media Editor
lelliot2@unca.edu

James Smith, left, tables with other UNCA Divest members to promote the “Break Up With Your Bank” event.

As funding and political support continues to flow for controversial pipeline projects, like the Keystone and Dakota Access, a group of dedicated UNC Asheville students actively try to convince students and university officials to take their money away from financial institutions supporting extractive energy.

UNCA Divest, formerly Divestment Coalition, is a long-standing student group having historically advocated for the university to divest totally from fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.

“As a general premise, divestment is taking your money out of something,” said Maggie Neas, a UNCA Divest member and junior sociology student. “It serves as a reprimand to that industry or company because of their politics or policies.”

This semester, the group shifted their organizing strategy to focus on grassroots events to build support for their larger mission, according to UNCA Divest coordinator James Smith, a sophomore chemistry and environmental studies student from Durham.

Recently, the group partnered with local credit unions for a “Break Up With Your Bank” event aimed at getting students to divest their money from financial institutions with holdings in extractive industries, like coal, oil and natural gas.

“Our main goal was to inform students about some of the investments their banks are making that they might not agree with and provide them with the means to close down their accounts with big banks,” Smith said.

According to Smith, some of the bigger banks are deeply invested in companies like Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Most of the students they talked to still keep their money in large financial institutions and were floored to find out their bank of choice was invested in coal mining or the construction of multi-state natural gas and oil pipelines, according to Tyler Hill, social media and community outreach manager for UNCA Divest.

“All in, there are over 20 banks invested in DAPL,” Hill said.

This all led to the “Break Up With Your Bank” event on March 27, where UNCA Divest brought out local Self Help Credit Union to the UNCA Quad to help students divest their money from large financial institutions into community credit unions with more sustainable investment portfolios.

While Hill recognizes the difficulty of shifting money from banks to credit unions for some students, who may be bound by contracts or sharing joint accounts with their parents, the goal of the “Break Up With Your Bank” campaign was always to make those transitions as seamless as possible.

“We moved a little under $10,000 out of banks like Wells Fargo and SunTrust,” Hill said.

In addition to the event itself, Smith said the Self Help Credit Union noticed an unusually large influx of students seeking to transfer their money from larger financial institutions in recent weeks.

Moving forward, UNCA Divest is renewing their campaign to pursue total institutional divestment from the university through a sit-down meeting with the school’s board of trustees on April 28.

While UNCA Divest operated with the goal of convincing UNCA to totally divest from fossil fuels and extractive industry in the past, the trustee meeting on April 28 will be the first step in their current campaign to get a written commitment from the school’s administration.

According to Smith, a divestment commitment from UNCA would be a large step toward convincing the rest of the UNC school system to divest from fossil fuels, which in turn would result in a massive shift of resources to other more sustainable funds.

“UNC Asheville’s endowment is $41 million, but the combined UNC system endowment is over $5 billion,” Smith said.

It should be noted, however, that UNCA’s endowment is not directly managed by anyone in the school’s administration or board of trustees. Instead, it is managed by the UNC Management Company, a group which manages the endowments of every UNC system school. A systemic divestment would not be handled on a school-by-school basis and would need to be voted on by the UNC system’s board of trustees.

Not swayed by the obstacles in their way in their quest to institutional divestment, UNCA Divest’s leadership is also thinking ahead and focusing on the future.

According to Neas, one of the biggest problems for any student organization is the eventual graduation of its leadership, a pitfall UNCA Divest intends to sidestep by stepping up recruitment in the coming months.

“The idea of divestment is that we, as a people, are trying to gather against a massive power structure. So, we need as many people as possible to show up,” Neas said. “Engaging with students is the most important part.”

The group handles recruitment through social media outreach on their Facebook and Instagram accounts, but also holds regular inclusive meetings on Thursdays in Ramsey Library from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.

“We tend to follow the cycle of having an action and recruiting after, when people are still interested,” Smith said. “We are always open for new members, for sure.”

Even as membership numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, Smith said UNCA Divest has remained stalwart on keeping the school honest in terms of its sustainability mission statement.

“Our mission statement essentially says we support sustainability and the environment, but our money may still be going to companies like Energy Transfer Partners, who are building the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Smith said. “It is hypocritical.”

 

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