In the spring of 2017, DivestKenyon (Divest) staged a demonstration on the seal in the entrance to Peirce Dining Hall, handed out flyers and organized an overnight protest, during which students slept in tents on Ransom Lawn. Divest is a student organization that encourages the College to divest from the fossil fuel industry and pledge against future investment in private prison industries.
This fall, the Divest movement at Kenyon has been quieter.
But a clash between Divest and the Board of Trustees occurred in late October, when the Board came to campus between Oct. 26 and 27 for their annual fall meeting.
Carley Townsend ’20, a member of Divest, spoke with Board member Samie Kim Falvey and two other members of Divest met with member Wendy Webster P’18 to ask the Board to officially pledge that the College would not invest in private prisons. According to Townsend, those two other Divest members who met with Webster were told that the trustees would not sign the pledge.
On Oct. 24, faculty and students were invited to a Divest Teach-In discussion in the Horn Gallery to talk about the “political, economical, environmental and philosophical implications of the divest movement,” according to a student-info email. The Teach-In contributed to an ongoing discussion about the national Divest movement and its role at Kenyon.
Townsend said the goal of the organization is to encourage Kenyon to “divest from the fossil fuel industry and pledge not to invest in the private prison industry because both are inherent problems of systemic racism.” Private prisons are incarceration centers that are owned by third-party companies and contracted by the government.
Divest also opposes environmental racism, the idea that large corporations choose to develop in low socioeconomic and marginalized areas where individuals may lack the resources and platform to voice their opposition.
Townsend pointed to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as an example of environmental racism. DAPL now runs from North Dakota, across the Midwest and into Illinois, cutting through a location near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota and threatening their access to water.
Professor of Sociology George McCarthy, who attended the Teach-In, was surprised by the number of students who showed up to the event. “I was really impressed by how much they thought about this issue, how articulate they were,” he said. “There were differences of opinions and approaches.”
Inspired by the conversation at the Teach-In, Noelle O’Neal ’21 started a study group with Professor of Philosophy Yang Xiao to research and discuss innovative practices that are alternatives to the Divest movement. O’Neal views the study group as a “personal understanding of how to research the possible benefits and disadvantages of a movement.”
O’Neal is in favor of the College pledging to remain divested from the private prison industry, but she believes the issue of divestment from fossil fuels is more nuanced from an ecological and economic standpoint. She believes it is more productive to highlight Divest’s effective aspects, rather than defending the movement’s problematic elements.
“That’s not damning the movement,” O’Neal said. “In fact, it’s the opposite for me.” Although the study group is not an official club, O’Neal is looking into formalizing it over the next two months.