Guest post by Christina Cilento. Christina is a sophomore at Northwestern University studying sustainability and management. She’s been working with DivestNU for a year and a half, where she helps coordinate events, meets with administration and recruits new members. To find out more about DivestNU, visit their website, and “like” the Divest Northwestern page on Facebook.

As a member of Northwestern University’s coal divestment movement, I can say firsthand that making progress is harder than it seems. Since DivestNU’s beginning two years ago, it’s been all about taking baby steps towards our goal. In 2012, our campaign kicked off by passing resolutions supporting coal divestment in our student government and faculty senate.

The same year, we collected about 1,500 signatures in a petition endorsing our movement and began meeting consistently with our Chief Investment Officer. Despite this strong start, we were frustrated by consistent denials of our requests to access the key stakeholders in our campaign: the Board of Trustees.

Three weeks ago, that finally changed, and we met for the first time directly with a Trustee. DivestNU had written a letter to the Investment Subcommittee of our Board explaining the history of our movement, the importance of divestment for Northwestern’s leadership, and the dangers of climate change if action isn’t taken.

A week later, six of our members, our Chief Investment Officer, and the chair of the Investment Subcommittee sat down to talk about divestment. We had a great conversation– we talked about the human rights impacts of climate change, the shifting perception of coal, the viability of other investments, and student support for divestment and sustainability.

Perhaps naively, we hoped to walk away from that meeting with an answer. What we got instead was a thank-you for our time and an invitation to continue the conversation around divestment– definitely not a “no,” but also not a “yes.” Still, we believe that meeting was a strong first step– baby step, of course.

Following that meeting, we wanted to show the Trustees that divestment is not just an important issue for us, but for all of Northwestern’s community. Luckily for us, they were meeting on campus the next afternoon. That night, we stayed up way past our bedtimes painting a banner, contacting student groups to ask if they would sign on to it, and rallying people to show up for a demonstration to support our movement. In the morning, 35 students came to march with us to the building where the Trustees would arrive, holding our banner with large green letters that shouted our message: NU Cares About Climate Change.

Students of DivestNU outside their Board meeting

Students of Divest Northwestern outside their Board meeting

While standing outside for the hour before the meeting, we passed out informational sheets to Trustees as they entered and held some productive conversations. Not everyone was interested in what we had to say, but I think seeing a group of chanting students out in the Chicago cold on a Friday spoke to students’ passion for this movement, and put divestment on Trustees’ minds.

Our march and meeting with the Trustees were two influential steps toward coal divestment. After two years of work, we may not be in the place we had envisioned, but we’re certainly getting there. Moving forward, we hope to have consistent meetings with Board members to discuss divestment face-to-face.

We plan on reaching out to the Board again to request student presence at their next Investment Subcommittee meeting in January or February. And we will continue to give Northwestern students an outlet to tell the university that it is time to take climate change seriously. Small strides? Maybe. But if there’s anything I’ve discovered, it’s that it takes a march of baby steps to end up with big results.