by Katie MacDonald and Lauren Ressler

As climate activists, we know what its like to face powerful opposition.  We are fighting the most powerful industry in the world, and with that comes an understanding that we have a long road ahead of us.  Over the course of the semester, college students have been proving to themselves and this movement that they will stand firm against powerful interests on their campuses no matter what comes their way.  Their resolve has sparked a truly historic groundswell of action, dedication, and fearlessness.  As we head into a fearless summer, we thought we would share a unique story that inspires us to keep fighting.


Amherst College in Western Massachusetts is a campus with a story worth telling.  This semester, a group of students leading the Amherst Coal Divestment campaign accomplished a herculean feat by overcoming a campus culture that is resistant to activism and orchestrating one of the largest demonstrations of electoral student support in years, all with a team of new student organizers.  This is how it unfolded.

It all began last September when Deidre Nelms ‘13, returned to campus determined to launch a coal divestment campaign after a summer working with the Responsible Endowments Coalition in Brooklyn, NY . Amherst held one of the first divestment events of the year on September 7th with Bill McKibben rallying the Western Massachusetts community to align their investment practices with their values.

A small yet dedicated team of students spent the first few months of the campaign doggedly researching the college’s holdings and meeting with administrators, seeking to get a clearer picture of the companies Amherst invests in.  They were met with layers of bureaucracy and dwindling campus buy-in. “We sort of assumed that most students were on our side, but we never actually engaged with them, and so we were very vulnerable to the whims of the administration,” said Ned Kleiner ‘16.  “All they had to say was one « no, » and we would have been high and dry.  We didn’t have any student power to use as leverage.”  Frustrated and discouraged, the students grappled with a choice: cut their losses or completely change their strategy and re-brand the campaign.

The choice was made for them as a surge of interest in the campaign mid-year brought in a host of new faces who were energized and determined to put divestment back on the agenda for the May meeting of the Board of Trustees.  Rachel Om 13’ was one of the catalysts in implementing a new strategy.  With the support of local organizer, Katie MacDonald, and Hampshire student Alex Leff 16′, Rachel and the other members of the Amherst Coal Divestment team devised a Spring semester timeline that would push divestment to the center of campus life.

Their plan required the implementation of a quick succession of high-profile tactics.  First on the list was passing a student referendum.  The call for a referendum was triggered by blunt comments from student government representatives that no action would be taken unless the results of a student referendum were highly positive.

The coal divestment organizers began to pour all of their energy into turning out votes for the referendum.  “We knew we would need to hit every dorm on campus if we wanted numbers” said Om, “but what seemed like a daunting task became very feasible when we all signed up to take one or two dorms.”  After days of one-on-one conversations, class announcements, and tabling sessions they waited apprehensively for the results.

As the numbers poured in, the group was floored.  The referendum had passed with a staggering 88% approval rating, the highest majority of any student referendum for fossil fuel divestment in the country to date.  Even more surprising was the fact that more students voted for divestment than voted in the student government elections, with approximately 50% of campus participating.

After this overwhelming vote of confidence, the group’s second hurdle, a student government resolution formally endorsing divestment, became much more achievable.  The resolution was passed on April 30th, just days after the referendum.

These improbable victories have sparked a new found confidence in the student organizers and kindled an upwelling of support for student activism on campus.  “Working in the divestment movement has shown me that Amherst students are more than willing to take a stand on today’s important issues, » said Noah Lerner ‘16.  « I think our referendum will send a strong message to our administration: that Amherst Students do not support industries that endanger the lives and well-being of future generations. »

Looking ahead to the impending Board Meeting, Rachel Om is feeling good about the legacy of leadership she is leaving behind as she graduates; “I’m confident that the students who will have the opportunity to meet with the Board of Trustees are properly equipped to make a compelling case, especially because of all we have accomplished so far.”

What will happen at this May’s administrative meetings is so far unknown, but one thing is certain, the Amherst Divestment campaign is one to watch.  To support the Amherst Divestment Campaign please email or visit the Facebook Page for ways to get involved.