March 3, 2014

Building a Community of Action at University of Michigan

The following post was authored by Cassandra Van Dam, a second-year student at the University of Michigan . The first time I ever took direct action against large corporations was also the first time I organized a disruption. Once I got started, things moved quickly; in less than 3 months, students at University of Michigan disrupted 8 separate bank recruitment session in objection to financing for the coal industry. Organizing the Bank of America and Citi bank disruptions was an incredibly empowering and thrilling experience. Students at University of Michigan jumped at the opportunity to take action against these banks that are funding the coal industry and the continuation of mountaintop removal.

Many of the environmental movement’s campaigns on University of Michigan’s campus do not lend themselves to direct action. Often these campaigns take years to complete and victorious moments can be infrequent, since they are working to make large-scale structural changes within the university’s system. In this context, these bank protests provided much-needed space for environmental student activists to take direct action alongside of the other incredibly important work that is going on. We marched openly into presentations and we snuck into them as undercover business students. We handed out flyers and talked to the bank recruiters on a more personal level about the impact that Citi and Bank of America have on the environment. And (my favorite) we performed a die-in in front of 20 prospective employees.369 University of Michigan students outside Citi recruitment, fall 2013

The student body at University of Michigan is beginning to take more action: from the Black Student Union’s national trending hashtag #BBUM (Being Black at University of Michigan) that has brought widespread attention to racial inequalities on campus to Students Allied for Freedom and Equality’s mock eviction notices spread through dorms to raise awareness of the university’s investment in Israel to protest Israeli settlement. The atmosphere is ripe for change.

Although our actions were just a small part of the growing action on campus, the group that formed from it was amazing. By the end of our 8 actions, I could identify a committed group of students who all have different skill sets. Sometimes there were only 4 of us taking action, other times it was 15 and once it was only 1 person. But every time counted, every time inspired the participants to do even more. And now, there is a community on our campus who wants to take action and will seek out opportunities to make a difference.

In learning to take effective action, our small group faced a lot of complications, including last minute changes of location by the bank representatives. We had to be flexible and willing to come back multiple times a day in order to make our voices heard. And every time we were met with resistance, whether it was a snide, remark from a bank recruiter or being forcibly escorted out of a Citi presentation, it just motivated us to try even harder.

371 Students at University of Michigan are building a culture of action

Incredibly, our repeated small campus actions have already played a role in changing the behaviors of Bank of America and Citi. You see, our small actions were coordinated with other similar recruitment disruptions on dozens of campuses this last semester. Facing a huge student backlash over coal financing, Bank of America and Citi committed to a process that will ultimately result in measuring of their financed emissions (basically, the carbon footprint from the loans the banks make). Being able to tell my fellow student activists that the work we had done last semester had actually resulted in a change was incredibly rewarding.

The fight is not over. The banks have committed to measure financed emissions, but not to report these measurements or reduce them. And right now, Citi and Bank of America remain two of the largest coal funders in the world. At University of Michigan, we will continue to fight mountaintop removal and other environmental degradations. But now, we know our actions are doing something. We know from firsthand experience that, by working in solidarity with groups around the nation, we really can change the world.

Click here to add your voice to the chorus students calling on Bank of America and Citi to stop financing coal and mountaintop removal.