By Winston Friedman
On October 21, 2014 the city council of Ashland, OR joined over 30 cities across the US and voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging for divestment of it’s money from fossil fuels. Not only were we able to get a unanimous vote in favor of divestment, but several of the councilors voiced concerns like “Divestment is not enough, we need to do more to address climate change locally in our community.” It was a lot of work to get our resolution passed, but now I believe that we possess the political capital necessary to begin work on, and hopefully pass, a progressive climate action plan for our city. I am one of the leaders who brought the issue of divestment forward in our community and I want to share how we did it, because I believe this to be one of the best ways to start taking meaningful action on climate change and our divestment campaign was very successful.
For me, it all started the same way it did for many people involved in the divestment movement, I read an article that was going viral on the internet, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. I was going into my senior year at Southern Oregon University (SOU) and decided to bring the issue to the SOU sustainability council, an advisory board to the university president, on which I held a seat. Upon raising the issue, the other members said, “We should look into it and you should chair that sub-committee.” As the chair or the sub-committee I decided to research and put together a 10-20 minute presentation on Divestment. The SOU Foundation decided not to divest its endowment after hearing my presentation, but they are currently considering creating a divested portfolio for new donors. However, the research and presentation I did there became one of the most valuable pieces of our campaign, because not only were we well informed, but we were able to communicate the issue effectively.
I guess my first piece of advice is study up, become a divestment wonk, and then practice communicating your message. The gofossilfree.org resouces page has everything you need to know. Also, if you’re interested, I have my speech and powerpoint available for download.
When I graduated from SOU I hooked up with a local group called Southern Oregon Climate Action Now (SOCAN), a very active group in the community. Having an already active climate action group to plug into was really great. I gave my presentation again, to SOCAN this time, and we formed a divestment group within SOCAN. There were about six people who regularly participated in our divestment meetings twice a month, but when it came time for the council votes we called on the rest of the group to show up. We ended up meeting for a little over one and a half years before the city council vote.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a committed team effort. Without the support of the others, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t have been able to stay the course. Having a team also allowed us to use everybody’s strengths. For example, I am a capable public speaker, so I was the main presenter, however you don’t want to look to me to take notes and keep everything organized, that was Kathy’s job.
Before we went to a city council meeting we decided to talk try and gain some allies, and went to the conservation commission meetings, an official commission of the city council. It was there that we made our first presentation and were connected with city employees who told us where the city’s money actually goes, how much it has, and how it all works. This part of the process was really confusing until we found the right person, the city recorder/treasurer. She not only helped us get clear about the city’s holdings and policies but she actually reviewed the resolution we drafted and helped us with edits. Having her help was invaluable, especially because she was willing to say that divestment would not affect our city finances. Also we were able to show the commission we were serious (about 15 people showed up to two of their meetings) and gain their support, so when we went to the council we had the full support of the conservation commission in place already.
After gaining the support of the commission, instead of charging in to the council, we set up individual meetings with every council member. We had two people from our group at each meeting, one would talk while the other would take notes. At these meetings we were able to speak at length about what is divestment, why it matters, why we care, as well as hear the councilor’s questions and concerns. If we couldn’t address what was asked at a meeting we got back them later. This dialogue with the councilors allowed us to communicate our message more fully than what would have been allowed at a council meeting, it also gave the councilors time to understand the issue better. I don’t think that we would have been able to convince the entire council to vote for divestment without those individual meetings. Also at these meetings we discovered which councilors were our champions, who would go on to vote for motions and seconds to move forward our resolution and keep us in the loop as the process moved forward.
For the short version about what worked at the actual city council meetings, one of our members Elizabeth puts it this way, “I think it was partly sheer doggedness; partly the troops that showed up for meetings (25-35 people at three meetings); partly responding competently to the questions raised by the council. When addressing council, we were organized and substantial, and kept new faces coming. And we were respectful.”
Finally I think that we were successful because we were patient and persistent, even in the face of excruciatingly slow and boring meetings and we did not take an adversarial approach or tone in our campaign. The whole reason for divestment is grounded in the scientific facts outlined by Bill McKibben inGlobal Warming’s Terrifying New Math. We stuck to the facts; The fossil fuel companies must be stopped if we want a livable planet in the future; Divesting from fossil fuel companies does not necessarily hurt returns.