Student Leadership for Divestment: Q&A with Billy Fish

Student Leadership for Divestment: Q&A with Billy Fish

Student Sustainability Leadership Award Winner

GPSEN:  We are proud to recognize you with GPSEN’s Sustainability Leadership Student Award this year. This honor highlights your work, as a student at Reed College, in calling for divestment from fossil fuels by Portland area educational institutions. What are some of your biggest challenges, opportunities and breakthroughs in these efforts?

BILLY:  The number one obstacle for the divestment project has been institutional memory. While students have been advocating for divestment, I had been working with some other students to plan for investment options if Reed was open to considering divestment. In the Spring semester 2019, I had been involved in a call with Ceres, a sustainable investor network, and we were making steps toward pitching Ceres to the Board of Trustees but all three of the other students who had been involved in the project have since graduated. Unfortunately because of my schedule becoming unexpectedly intense and then the Covid-19 pandemic, I will likely have to start at square one in re-connecting with Ceres this summer. Additionally, demands for divestment of different sorts seem to have been going on intermittently since the 1980’s with apartheid – but since students pass through the college every four years, it is extremely difficult to keep momentum going. There were huge movements such as Fossil Free Reed in 2014 which had already been forgotten in student memory. My efforts with the Reed College Student Body Handbook (SBHB) can hopefully build institutional memory into the future and we will absolutely be sure to document our divestment work for future generations of students.

Big breakthroughs happened this past year. My freshman year was the second year of the HUM110/Reedies Against Racism (RAR) Protests of which divestment became a part. Divestment became a part of the RAR protests and then grew in my sophomore year (18-19) because of Reed’s use of Wells Fargo – who has funded for-profit prisons and pipelines – as its operating bank. With the departure of John Kroger, student divestment activists saw opportunity because we knew a new president meant new priorities. In anticipation of the Climate Strike in September 2019, Reed students petitioned to have the school closed and we received 676 signatures of 1400 students. I helped present the signatures to the new president, Audrey Bilger, with Giselle Herzfeld, Hayden Henderson and David Snower (all of whom are amazing and really led the charge in student protests along with many others). Since Audrey and I had been acquainted through my work with the SBHB and my role on Student Body Senate, my role was to provide a familiar face – and since I was familiar with how the Reed admin worked – I saw my job as making damn sure that we got another meeting with Audrey to discuss sustainability, using momentum from our petition success. We got that meeting and then many breakthroughs. In the second meeting, we pitched our case for a full-time sustainability coordinator, divestment, and for Audrey to join the joint student-staff-faculty Sustainability Committee. Audrey joined the Sustainability Committee, has announced that Reed is looking into a full-time coordinator position, and the Board of Trustees announced that they would be discussing divestment and reconsidering their relationship with Wells Fargo in a letter to the Senate. We are so grateful for the successes we’ve had but we will continue to push!


GPSEN:  Have there been insights from this work, guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that you want to share with educational institutions and other sectors in our community?

BILLY:  Yes. The first main insight from the divestment work is that there are so many cases for divestment for a variety of different audiences. Some institutions are persuaded by arguments that divestment is a form of indirect emissions reductions. Others are persuaded on economic arguments that divestment prevents loss since fossil fuels will become stranded assets. Others still must be persuaded on moral grounds. All of these can be achieved – so it seems to me that there really are not any good arguments against divestment.  Further, the GPSEN College Network made divestment its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Youth Challenge project for 2020 based on SDGs 11.6, 11.B, 12.2, 12.7, 12.8, and 12.C. For us (the GPSEN College Network), divestment is primarily about promoting sustainable management through capital and by paying attention to the adverse effects that investment in unsustainable development has on air quality, inequality, health, etc. – realizing the deep connections between human and environmental health that are made clear in the UN SDG paradigm.

Lastly, I think it is important to realize that divestment is not unprecedented. I imagine a lot of institutions are hesitant to divest from unsustainable capital because they are worried that others may see it as a political act – and want to follow the lead of other institutions. Well, other institutions are divesting. For some this may look like purchasing offsets – not great but not the worst. For others this may be explicitly getting rid of direct holdings in fossil fuels. Regardless, other institutions have already taken action; if you are holding out to see what comparative institutions are doing, now is the time to follow their lead.


GPSEN: What is your outlook for progress toward local as well as global goals, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond?

BILLY:  I’m really not sure. I really hope that Covid-19 will be a wake-up call for climate issues. Even though I myself am very interested in public health, I did not take Covid-19 seriously until about the first week of March when it was becoming clear that Reed would be moving to online instruction for the remainder of the semester. My lack of concern I credit entirely to a lack of action from the federal government; they aren’t saying anything so it can’t be that bad, right? Similarly, I think climate change will continue to exist outside of the collective consciousness of most Americans until decisive, unprecedented action is taken by national and local organizations in addressing climate change. Climate change feels like Covid-19 did in February: warning signs are flashing everywhere but it still feels too distant to really be concerned. We cannot let climate change continue to live under the surface; we need to demand at every level that a Green New Deal/UN SDG type response – one that recognizes how interconnected the climate is to every aspect of human life – is required to ensure the prosperity of all people.

On the other hand, the sacrifices asked of people by Covid-19 are exhausting. I worry that a post Covid-19 world will need time to regain normalcy and, understandably, the last thing people will want to think about is another even more unfathomable existential threat. I also worry about Covid-19 increasing distrust of institutions and scientists.

Despite what the future holds, we need to use whatever opportunities have been given to us by Covid-19 to re-evaluate our priorities as a planet and come together to fight climate change. I am optimistic that faith in institutions and science will be restored with the development of effective therapies and a vaccine against the coronavirus. Things are really dire at the moment but I know that in every time like this there is opportunity for unity and change.


GPSEN:  In what ways do you see education as most integral to achieving sustainability? And what are the most important ways that your work aligns with GPSEN’s goals of educating for a sustainable future?

BILLY:   As someone who spends so much time focusing on institutional memory, I understand that education is critical to addressing climate issues. Without understanding the history of whatever issue you hope to address, it becomes incredibly difficult to identify what action needs to be taken. For divestment at Reed, we first needed to understand what Reed’s investment vehicles looked like. We also needed to learn the history of Reed’s Trustees’ stance on “political neutrality,” what Reed policy said about investments, etc.  We also needed to educate ourselves about what other comparative institutions had done related to divestment. We needed to educate ourselves about the issue and the institution in order to know where to apply pressure. Part of my work on divestment has been sharing with other College Network members (and other RCEs) what Reed’s successes looked like so that they too could be successful in their divestment campaigns. Much like how the activists at the UC system shared what they learned in their fight for divestment, I hope to document our successes – and even more importantly our failures – so that other institutions can know what to expect if they wish to divest.


GPSEN:  With GPSEN’s Sustainability Symposium theme of ‘A Call For Action’, as well as Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, what actions — by institutions and/or by individuals — do you think are most urgently needed during this time of crisis?  How do you envision your work making a direct difference for the future of greater Portland, as well as for the planet?

BILLY:  Times are truly crazy right now. First and foremost, I would urge people to take a moment for introspection. It is so important that people take care of themselves and their family and pay close attention to their mental and physical health. Once people have had a moment to stabilize themselves, I think we all should continue to reflect – and re-evaluate our individual and collective priorities. Covid-19 has centered the importance of basic human needs of food, water, and security. It has also re-emphasized the importance of human connection. This Earth Day, I thought a lot about Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. As Carter pointed out and Covid-19 has reminded us, “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” People in this country and across the globe will face starvation and lack access to healthcare. We should reflect and see that the only life that will bring us happiness and purpose into the future is one of modesty and maintaining strong relationships with those we care about. People who are able to do so should look around their homes and see what can be given to those in need – and they should look at their budgets and see what can be donated to organizations who need it (charities, small businesses, the USPS, etc). People who do not face hunger and have access to land should grow gardens to donate food to food security initiatives. I am forever inspired by a friend of mine who would welcome homeless people into her house because she had a spare room. For the homeless, this pandemic might be fatal; if you have the room and resources to spare, welcoming a stranger into your home could make a world of difference. These are only some ideas but everyone should evaluate what they can do to help.

Secondly, times are especially difficult in America because we are simultaneously experiencing a pandemic and a divisive national election. While I believe strongly that America must gain a sense of unity, I also believe there are certain things that must happen in this election cycle to bring about change needed to seriously address Covid-19, the resulting economic downturn, and mounting climate change concerns. First, people must make sure that the 2020 Democratic nominee supports Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Second, we must make certain that Donald Trump is not re-elected. Third, we must make sure that Democrats gain a majority in the Senate. I have many criticisms of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden but I believe Donald Trump’s Republican Party is the greatest threat to American democracy this country has faced in recent history – from erosion of trust in American institutions to a blatant disregard for the truth. Please, if you have the availability to canvass or participate in phone banks, do so; this November will be crucial for determining the future of a range of issues into the future.

Lastly, if Covid-19 has given you a moment to pause, I encourage you to think about how we can make addressing climate change a point of American national pride. Unfortunately, Carter’s speech still rings true. Americans do not have a collective sense of identity at the moment; they do not have purpose. We, as Americans, must make fighting climate change our national purpose. Climate change will affect all people of this country and we need to act like it. How we make addressing climate change a national purpose I don’t know – but right now we have a great opportunity to pause and think; let’s not let it slip away.