The New National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network

Interview with Joe Shortsleeve

November 11, 2013

The following is a compilation piece about the newly formed National Student Divestment Network. The first half is a short interview with Joe Shortsleeve, an organizer with Columbia Fossil Fuel Divestment. The rest is an in-depth article on the Network by Joe Shortsleeve.

Editors: Hey Joe, thanks for taking the time to answer a few basic questions. To begin, can tell you tell me what happened this weekend during Power Shift 2013 for fossil fuel divestment groups?

Joe Shortsleeve: Sure. This weekend was the first in-person gathering of the National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network which was formed during a public conference call on September 17th. Power Shift had a lot going on, but I think this is actually one major, concrete, and important thing to come out of this weekend. This network is a grassroots organization based on a tactic that has radicalized 1000s of new environmental activists around the country. Some even call fossil fuel divestment its own movement. This group now makes it possible to coordinate among the hundreds of divestment groups across the country, democratically, on our own organization.

Editors: What exactly did NSDN do during this gathering?

JS: The NSDN was a part of three meetings throughout the weekend. The first meeting was the only one that was included on the Power Shift agenda. It included all the NGOS involved in divestment plus the new Network. We were equal players at the table with, REC, and As You Sow, all collaborating to put together a general meeting on fossil fuel divestment, aimed at both new and old campaigns. There were over 500 people present which means now, at the very least, over 500 people know about NSDN.

The second meeting was during lunch, immediately after the first meeting, and built by and comprised only of the new network. This is when NSDN officially launched with about 150-200 people present. The network wasn’t able to get programmed space from Power Shift organizers for our launch meeting, so we just all spilled out into an enormous hallway, making a huge circle sprawled across the room, a moment that at least for me was reminiscent of the spirit of Occupy a few years back. People at this lunch meeting in a giant hallway were clearly excited – sometimes laughing, sometimes cheering, I think in part because people felt like this was a big moment, we were forming our own national student organization for climate justice out of this tactic we’ve all jumped into – fossil fuel divestment – along with thousands of others around the country in the last year. At one point during the meeting, Zein Nakhoda, a recently graduated divestment organizer from Swarthmore Mountain Justice, kind of captured the sense of excitement in the room, he said: “The national network is at moment zero. We can take this where ever we want.” It’s totally true – maybe 50 of us have been working on this network for what feels like a long time now, since last February, but it’s a democratic organization, it belongs to the people struggling across the country for divestment.

The actual conversation was exciting too. Those of us who’ve been working on this project had a little bit of explaining to do – I think a normal question might have been ‘what do you mean a national network?’ So we gave a short history to the idea and development of the network since last February and laid out some of our hopes for the network. We asked the crowd how they felt about coordinating among the hundreds of campaigns across the country in our own democratic student run network, to build the power we need to not just win fossil fuel divestment, but to force divestment at our colleges and universities. We asked about what students imagined it would take to build a student power organization for climate justice that could work alongside other student power social justice groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and United We Dream. We presented some short-term and long-term goals about leaving the campus and moving to frontline communities already deep in the struggle for climate justice against the fossil fuel industry. We asked the room what it would take for us to collectively take on our own direct actions against fossil fuel infrastructure. Someone posed the question ‘how long could fracking last if students from every university in the country joined in the fight to block drilling operations?’ Someone else lept to the ambitious question, ‘how would it look if we were part of the end of the fossil fuel industry…’, and this should I hope give a sense of the urgency and excitement people feel behind this project, ‘and set for ourselves a deadline – end it in the next five years.’ For me, and I think maybe also for the couple hundred people in that hallway, those were some of the most electrifying 10 minutes of the whole weekend.

Cover photo of the Orange Square publication.

But the bulk of the meeting was devoted to hearing from the hundreds of new members of the national network. After briefly explaining the network’s transitional working group structure, break-out groups talked about visions and the potential for the network and brainstormed about new ideas. Students proposed dozens of regional and affinity networks that could focus power in new and creative ways within the broader national network. People took notes and put a stack of their new ideas in the middle of the room, A group of twelve of us took these ideas and workshopped them before the third and final meeting.
This last meeting meeting had about 100 people. We broke out into our working groups – the new national network publication, ‘The Orange Square’; Frontline Solidarity; Mentoring and Training; National Strategies; the People of Color Caucus; Power Up 2, the next national conference for student fossil fuel divestment campaigns and workshopped ideas. The intent was for us to have something immediate for people to work on, right away.

Editors: What are the next steps?

JS: This February will be the second national conference of these divestment group and the first for the National Student Divestment Network – last February it was at Swarthmore College, this year it’s going to be in California at a public school. Between now and then there are lots of ideas for national collaboration on building the network – publicizing and building for important moments coming up in campaigns around the country, like at Brown this week; developing the working group projects, like frontline solidarity and mentoring and leadership development; incorporating the hundreds of new members into conversations around revisiting our organizational structure, and so on. Lots of us will be working on some study-group projects also – on SNCC, SDS, and other historically inspiring or important student organizations.

Editors: How can people be involved?

JS: The single best way to be involved with this project is to be active within a local divestment campaign. Join one, start one, help win one. Not too long ago mainstream environmental organizing focused on lifestyle politics, things like recycling and conservation. In large part because this tactic of fossil fuel divestment has broken out at the pace it has, the US is now in a situation where you can be at any college in the country and participate in a kind of environmentalism that fights for justice, that is at its heart about a power struggle with the industry and layers of the ruling class that are most responsible for climate destruction, and upholding worldwide environmental racism. This tactic has the unique opportunity to contribute to a broad social movement for environmental justice.

If you’re already in a fossil fuel divestment campaign, join one of the national working groups, or submit a piece to the new publication. It’s exciting that we’re getting bigger, this weekend was extremely energizing, but the whole point of a national organization is that it’s strongest when more people are sharing and coordinating their struggles – so we want and need to hear from more people. There are thousands of us out there, on hundreds of campuses, fighting for fossil fuel divestment – and we should build together.

For contact info, people should go to

The following is an article originally intended for publication before the Power Shift conference. It was never published, so we present it here despite it being already somewhat dated.

Movement Building at Power Shift 2013

By Joe Shortsleeve

This Friday, more than 5,000 young activists and climate justice organizers are expected to arrive in Pittsburgh, Pa for the weekend to be a part of Power Shift 2013. Students and youth from all across the country, who the conference has always been directed towards, will hear from a range of speakers across the climate justice movement, picking and choosing from well over two hundred panels and trainings about next steps in the fight. The Energy Action Coalition and its numerous partners, who planned and organized Power Shift, have put together a powerful looking program with diverse speakers and topics. From the opening block of workshops Saturday morning centered on environmental justice and environmental racism to anti-oppression trainings, keynote speakers, film screenings, hip hop concerts, and the closing action on Monday, Power Shift will offer organizers and students interested in different kinds of climate justice work the chance to build across a variety of segments within the climate justice movement – and this will all happen under one roof.

Some of us – at times more, at other times less cautiously – look to the escalating level of US climate justice struggle in the last year or so with the sort of excited optimism that the energy of a national climate justice summit like Power Shift 2013 encourages. The development of hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns; increasingly large record turnouts for major climate actions like Forward on Climate last February; and likely most promising and fittingly named, the growing international Idle No More movement, are all part of what climate justice advocates are hoping is a new moment of growth in a resurgent, widespread environmental movement – the beginning of the kind of movement capable of actually shifting power away from the corporate and state targets of climate justice struggles. The kind of movement we need to win.

Hoping for a movement however, is of course not enough. Building the kinds of social movement organizations that can both advance and sustain the struggles that can, in the right conditions, provoke a social movement, is crucially important work – and work that is underway. From my own perspective as a student organizer, one particularly exciting opportunity of a gathering of thousands of young energized climate justice activists under one roof this weekend is that many of us are already right in the middle of building and developing the networks and organizations we feel we’re going to need as tools in the fight for climate justice – and we’re bringing them along with us to Pittsburgh.

Specifically, I would contend that at least two projects are worth looking at closely this weekend – both of which are emerging, explicitly anti-racist, national grassroots climate justice coalitions: The new National Student Divestment Network, which is seeking to coordinate amongst the hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the US in a bottom-up democratic organization; and System Change not Climate Change, an explicitly anti-capitalist climate justice coalition working to bring a more collaborationist left to climate activism, which is similarly an intentional bottom-up democratic organization. One hope is that this weekend, those networks and others will have a chance to develop and grow – grow bigger and also politically and analytically sharper as movement building tools.

Photo taken from the SCnCC workshop during Power Shift 2013.

‘Movement building’ however, can be difficult work. Balances between strategic struggle and political direction are hard to strike, and thousands of people fighting for climate justice do not, of course, always agree about how to do it. More and more of us are looking at the immense challenge of the climate crisis, it’s local and global effects, and then asking from as sharp as a strategic outlook as we can, ‘What is to be done?’ We are looking for specifics. Power Shift will provoke both new and seasoned climate justice organizers with questions about next steps as we keep fighting to turn the tide in the power struggles we’re all committing to, in a multiplicity of forms, across the movement. This diversity of tactics can be seen in the variety of panels and workshops, which throughout the weekend will speak to different questions. Do we fight to build a green economy? Do we zoom in on campus struggles if that’s where thousands of us are now struggling? Should we look first to the frontlines? Should we target the politically powerful? Do we collectively begin moving beyond fossil fuels as soon as possible? The short answer to all of those questions, at least evidently for the majority of Power Shift participants so far, seems to be: ‘yes.’ ‘All of them.’ One of the slogans for the weekend found throughout the EAC program materials is ‘Many fights, One movement.’

But the obvious question organizers will all be trying to find some not-so-obvious answers for at Power Shift: How? With all of these pieces coming together, how can students and youth contribute to building a real and lasting movement for climate justice fit for that daunting task? There are likely to be a series of healthy debates at Power Shift on these very questions, which will inform the direction of the movement to come.
There are already signs Power Shift 2013 represents a direction, arguably a new one, on the ‘how’ question. This will be the fourth meeting of Power Shift in the US, the last was in April of 2011, in Washington DC, as were the two that came before. For the first time, the largest climate justice summit in the US is clearly leaving behind the beltway insider politics of the nation’s capital, and it has landed in Pittsburgh – a city with a longstanding history of important movement and labor organizing. Energy Action Coalition, which organizes Power Shift points out on the conference website that,

“For the first time ever, Power Shift is being hosted outside of Washington, DC so we can focus on grassroots strategies to address the climate crisis… With Congress in gridlock, it’s time to focus making change in our own communities, and building the power to demand elected officials follow our lead. Pittsburgh is the first city in the country to enact a ban on dirty and dangerous fracking and is at the heart of building a clean energy economy.”

In other words, from the perspective of the people organizing Power Shift, how we organize a more bottom up democratic movement should center on strategies other than lobbying the two party system (currently the no-party system) in Washington, and strategies should instead be rooted in struggles that impact direct concerns of the majority of normal working people.

These are hopeful signs of a welcome direction from the perspective of a group attending Power Shift 2013 worth paying close attention to, such as System Change not Climate Change. System Change not Climate Change began as the Eco-Socialist Contingent to the Forward on Climate rally, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in DC last February along with almost 50,000 others. The group renamed itself as System Change not Climate Change in May, largely to reflect one of the most important elements of the group – a true commitment to casting off the toxic sectarianism that has all too often haunted the left in the US, and leaving room for anti-capitalists who don’t identify as socialists to make SCnCC their political home. The group has steadily grown over the course of the last year, like so many other new and creative climate justice initiatives, and is just coming off of it’s second well received national conference, hosted in LA last month.

SCnCC will likely be excitedly seeking to engage in conversations with hundreds of young climate activists at Power Shift about the underlying causes of climate change – capitalism and imperialism, they (persuasively) say – and how to identify struggles to build for which reflect this political analysis, a political analysis notably absent from most Washington based political circles. If there are important debates to watch for, SCnCC is especially worth watching – they are one of the few groups looking to collaborate at Power Shift which has also at times offered constructive criticism of major climate justice groups in the middle of our political moment, notably of and the Sierra Club, who will also be strongly represented throughout the weekend.

Author, teacher, and activist Chris Williams and a student-activist, Nurit Mablu – both members of System Change – will be speaking at Power Shift on a panel titled ‘Ecology and Imperialism – Why Climate Activists Must Oppose War Military and Racism.’ Williams and others on the left see US imperialism – notably the Obama Administration’s wars in Afghanistan, along with whole regions of the globe – as a largely missing component of the dominant discussion around climate justice. This hour long discussion, one out of literally hundreds to choose from throughout the weekend, is likely to provoke questions that are highly critical of environmentalist strategies which seek out allies in Washington. To give one example, the panel might likely ask: Given that the defense department accounts for 80% of the US government’s energy demand, and the US military as a whole itself produces staggering amounts of toxic waste and CO2 emissions – along with killing an unbelievable amount of people; why then did an important and effective climate rally like Forward on Climate, which Power Shift planners EAC, and environmental organization played important roles in building, use rhetoric and tactics that allowed room for the commander in chief of this nightmarish corner of the climate crisis to become a climate ally if he blocks the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is after all just one single pipeline? (Albeit an extremely important one single pipeline.) This is one place, happily out of many throughout the weekend, where organizers can be sure the summit will live up to its name and participants will hear concrete questions and ideas about how, why, and what power exactly should be shifted, and where it should be shifted to.

In a recent piece for Climate and Capitalism ‘Strategies and Tactics in the Environmental Movement,’ Chris Williams both spoke to and provoked a further debate within the movement on this very question of movement building, and about the efficacy of groups deemed too structured around top-down organizing. Among Williams’ respectful critiques of political structures within growing climate justice activism, (and occasional defense of existent groups such as from others on the left) he articulates one component of the debate which distinguishes the groups that have helped inspire such important upswings in struggle, and the struggles themselves.

“The question of organization and democracy is of tantamount importance as it is the base from which to decide on actions and debate political strategy… At this point, it is unclear whether a group like 350 will be able to evolve into the fighting organization that is required, or whether students will have to form their own, more grassroots organization that is financially independent, democratic and more forcefully directed…

“350 has brought together newly radicalizing students behind a leader [co-founder Bill McKibben] whose organization teams up with big funders and can’t seem to decide whether to bind arms with those to his right in positions of state power, or those to his left in the environmental justice movement. The question will be settled by the thousands of students in the 350-plus divestment movements on campuses across the country and other grassroots activists as they seek to pull many more people in and face the challenge of bringing real change to the United States.”

Notwithstanding the shift away from Washington for Power Shift organizers this year, a common question is aired: can new and important climate justice struggles, like the rally against Keystone XL and fossil fuel divestment, that have mobilized thousands of people to action lead to new grassroots organizations? To be fair Bill McKibben and repeatedly publicly declare the fossil fuel divestment movement to be “leaderless,” and likely have the exact same question about what’s next for the newly mobilized students as Williams.

The recent emergence of National Fossil Fuel Divestment network is one clear answer to just that question – and again, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes.’ It is one iteration, among many, of an important political development going into Power Shift. While as a tactic fossil fuel divestment – from the collective $400 billion in endowments around the country – has grown into hundreds of campaigns around the country, on and off campus, largely inspired by the work of groups such as, to date only a handful of institutions have divested to date. So campaigns are seeking to get better organized, to build the power required to completely strip, at a minimum, the social license of the industry most culpable for climate disaster – through the tactic of divestment. The National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network seeks to do that work of coordination to build power. The network formed in September after months of planning by students already fighting in fossil fuel divestment campaigns, such as myself. The network put out its first statement one month ago – and it included language that should be interesting for folks wondering, like Williams, ‘whether students will form their own, more grassroots’ organizations:

“A strong student divestment network can more successfully collaborate with off-campus divestment and the larger climate justice movement, and can work to strategize and coordinate collective action independent of and alongside our ally NGOs… Alumni of divestment campaigns and NGO staff organizers are welcome to join working groups as equal collaborators, but not as representatives of other organizations.”

In the network’s points of unity, scheduled to be published and circulated for the first time this weekend at Power Shift, the group speaks to it’s ‘student power’ orientation.

“We are grateful for the institutional and organizational support from NGO’s and prominent individual activists but affirm that the National Student Network is created for students by students.

We must build student power in ways that strengthen a national coalition of organizations capable of continuing struggles for social justice beyond divestment victory by developing organizational power and leadership on campuses first and foremost.”

This message should be taken at face value – absolutely not as a dig at groups which have been extremely effective at mobilizing large numbers of climate activists when that was precisely what was needed, which were absolutely essential allies in the process and even the ability for the network to form in the first place, and which will continue to play an important role in the movement until we win. Rather, this kind of statement is the important articulation of a strong student identity, at a time when we live in a country with over 1 trillion dollars of student debt. This message of student power framing is coming from the same group which self-consciously chose the symbol of the orange square – a reference, homage, and statement of solidarity to the red square symbol: of the historic and massive Quebec student strikes of 2011. The message is simply that we’re serious.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood during the Closing Plenary.

In other words, while students aren’t drawing as sharp distinctions as the explicitly anti-capitalist (and deliberately highly collaborative) wing of growing climate justice activism – students are carving out their own democratic spaces to organize. Among many exciting questions to watch for at Power Shift this weekend: what differences are possible when students democratically coordinate themselves across the hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns? What kind of grassroots fighting organization can the tactic of fossil fuel divestment produce within this climate justice movement? Those are in fact some questions the National Student Divestment Network will be asking thousands of young climate activists this weekend.

It is also the explicit and steadfast opinion of these two groups that a commitment to bottom up organizing is crucial, and has always been a crucial component to social movements historically. For example, it’s worth thinking back to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which from 1960-1967 was the dominant student organization of the black freedom movement – the last sustained, organized mass movement this country has seen. As far as credentials are concerned, SNCC was a student group that played a hugely important role in the task that at the time seemed absolutely daunting: breaking the back of the decades old system of Jim Crow racial apartheid – a task they succeeded in helping achieve through years of bold struggle in the south of the US. Moreover, SNCC stood out in their own time as more bottom up than important organizations like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As has previously been stated in pieces published by Waging Nonviolence, there is a loud and clear line of many fossil fuel divestment campaigns that students do not see themselves as the frontlines of the fight against fossil fuel extraction and the current effects of the climate crisis, but rather as one wing of the growing movement for climate justice. We know we are not SNCC. Nevertheless, many of us building within the National Student Divestment Network are certainly reading up on historic student groups like SNCC, in part due to their democratic structures and effective direct tactics. National Student Divestment Network organizers are excited about planning for a very much still forming and dynamic ‘Climate Justice Summer’ starting this May, which strives to have more than symbolic echoes of SNCC’s leadership in Freedom Summer of 1964.
Power Shift exists to be a space to bring cutting edge ideas and debates within the movement to center stage. In the past the program of Power Shift has been more focused on trainings and skill sharing. This year many useful trainings will be available to youth activists seeking them out, yet there is also a seemingly larger focus on political framing than in years past. These conversations are crucial to developing the right next steps – social movements, in order to last, require both sound politics and tangible ideas about relevant struggles, and activism. Lots of activism has begun – but what political analyses are driving this activism? This balance between activism and political analysis is at the heart of the development of democratic organizations.

There has never been a successful social movement that didn’t produce important debates. The differences between groups should certainly be aired, and Power Shift with all of its intentional building space is the perfect setting for that work. But the differences are very far from irreconcilable. There are many implicitly anti-capitalist groups within the climate justice fight, so the language of SCnCC might not strike readers as sharply as one might assume.

For example, System Change not Climate Change writes in their first point of unity:

“The current ecological crisis results from the capitalist system, which values profits for a global ruling elite over people and the planet. It must therefore be confronted through an international mass movement of working people around the world.”

Other than naming the capitalist system, the notion within the above statement – that the fundamental problem, creating climate change and blocking climate justice – lies in a global ruling elite valuing profits over people and the planet, is basically the cornerstone of the fossil fuel divestment campaign and can be found almost word for word in the literature of many other climate justice and environmentalist groups. What changes, then, when capitalism is explicitly named as the target? A target beyond ‘the fossil fuel industry,’ which is itself a new target for thousands of radicalizing environmental activists, like many Power Shift attendees?

This is, once again one of many questions that will be taken up at Power Shift. Groups that focus on a political analysis, like System Change, will be avidly talking with new activists already engaging in struggle asking those same questions. Likewise it can often be heard within activist circles, not always unfairly, that anti-capitalist groups tend to dwell on theoretical arguments, and their well-read political analysis would certainly always continue to gain from mixing up in strategic activism – which is more abundant this year than it has ever been in the fight for climate justice. In other words, Power Shift 2013 has many elements in place to meaningfully build towards strong, balanced social movement organizations in the climate justice struggle. Power Shift 2013 hopefully has the elements in place to live up to it’s name, to begin to shift and shake the powers we’re aiming at.

Of course, as more and more of us are almost never in need of reminding anymore, this careful optimism about the movement breaking out exists right along side the constant realization that the material outlook of our times is still all too grim. The expected 100 student activists such as myself headed to Philadelphia from New York City won’t be able to ignore that Power Shift 2013 falls just short of the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy – that around this time last year where we live and work, the tides literally rose, the streets went dark, and the city shut down. And like so many other places around the country and around the world already struck by climate disasters, thousands of New Yorkers, predominantly working class people of color, are one year later still fighting for a just rebuilding. Many New Yorkers have been fighting for much longer than a year – the fight for environmental justice in this city goes back decades. The careful optimism within this struggle pivots on the sober hope that this long fight for a just rebuilding is in some ways only just getting started – that we’re shifting closer to living not just in dire times, but movement times.

Joe Shortsleeve is an organizer for the National Student Divestment Network and Barnard Columbia Divest.