Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Rachel Corrie’s Alma Mater Calls for College Divestment"

Click on photo to enlarge it:

Photo: The Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural in Olympia, Washington

Courtesy of the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project


"Rachel Corrie’s Alma Mater Calls for College Divestment"

Palestine Monitor
9 June 2010

The student body of the Evergreen State College—the alma mater of slain U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie—passed two resolutions supporting the international BDS campaign last week.

The first resolution “calls for The Evergreen State College Foundation to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, as part of instituting a socially responsible investment policy,” according to a TESC Divest press release. The second resolution demands that all Caterpillar, Inc. equipment be banned from campus use.

Around 80 percent and 70 percent of participating students voted in favour of the resolutions, respectively. TESC Divest organiser Nathan Schuur reported that out of Evergreen’s 4321 students, 1531 voted on the resolutions as part of the annual student government elections, a record turnout for the college.

“Rachel Corrie’s story is very important to many of us at Evergreen and in greater Olympia. Various movements to end the occupation have been active on campus at least since Rachel’s death in 2003. Palestinian solidarity runs very deep here. Evergreen encourages critical thinking and students tend to be very anti-occupation.” –Nathan Schuur, TESC Divest student organiser.

Getting Out the Vote

Voter turnout and support for the resolution result from doggish campaigning by Schuur and nine other student organisers. “It’s the end of the quarter here, so we were all very busy with school, but we all found time to organise get-out-the-vote activities almost every day,” Schuur said. “We gave presentations to classes, we dropped in on student group meetings to tell them about the resolutions, we canvassed at campus events, and we knocked on every door in campus housing.”

When civil rights activist and former political prisoner Angela Davis spoke on campus during election week, Schuur and another organiser asked her to support the resolutions and gave her a Palestinian keffiyeh prior to the event. She then mentioned the importance of voting for divestment during her talk, according to Schuur.

Anna Simonton, another TESC Divest organiser and second-year student at Evergreen, said that the organisers used three key ideas when advocating among their peers: human rights, accountability, and transparency. “We wanted to convey that there are these atrocities going on in which the U.S. is complicit, and the only thing that’s going to change it is a grassroots effort of BDS,” Simonton said. In addition to the message that “here’s a problem and here’s what you can do,” Simonton found students to be especially responsive to the point that “there’s no transparency in our college at all.”

Academic Transparency and Accountability

As a public institution, the college cannot receive direct donations. The TESC divestment campaign specifically targets money that donors give to the college through a non-profit organisation called The Evergreen State College Foundation, whose goal, according to Simonton, “is to get the biggest possible returns on that money. To this end, the foundation struck a deal with the University of Washington to pool Evergreen’s endowment, worth about $7 million, with the UW’s, worth somewhere around $2 billion.”

Since more than 60 investment firms manage the UW Consolidated Endowment Fund (CEF) the Evergreen Board of Trustees has historically claimed itself unable to maintain oversight on its funds. In actuality, the CEF already has regulations that prevent it from investing in the tobacco industry or any company doing business with the Government of Sudan, meaning that mechanisms do exist for specifying how the money is invested.

The Board has also previously discharged divestment responsibility by saying that the UW Consolidated Endowment Fund is doing Evergreen a favour. Simonton summarized this perspective from the trustees’ eyes: “We can’t ask the folks at UW for anything else because they are giving us such a great deal by allowing our measly $7 million to be pooled with their $2 billion.”

Next Moves

Simonton considers this position a challenge to the TESC Divest campaign, but suggested that “with pressure from UW students, and good communication between Evergreen and the UW, the entire CEF could divest.” The campaign’s success this spring makes such a move seem possible. Once the student vote came through, the Evergreen student government, The Geoduck Student Union, passed its own resolution supporting the measures with a unanimous vote. Also since the resolutions’ passage only a week ago, the campaign has garnered more than 1,400 petition signatures from outsider supporters. At the US Social Forum in Detroit later this month, Simonton and other Evergreen activists will participate in the BDS People’s Movement Assembly, where they will connect with BDS organisers from UC Berkeley, Hampshire, and University of Michigan Dearborn.

A lot of people have their eyes of Evergreen,” Simonton said. “We have to make the Board recognise that they have to answer.” In the case that CEF on the whole will not divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, “the Evergreen Foundation should pull the money out of the CEF and invest it responsibly,” she said.

Schuur confirmed that “We are a very organised movement with a very wide base of student support and will not back down until the Board listens to the voice of students and ends their complicity in violations of human rights in Occupied Palestine.” Representatives from the campaign will present their demands at a Board of Trustees meeting this Thursday.

International Support

In addition to the endorsement of numerous student groups, celebrities, other university divestment campaigns, national peace groups, and hundreds of individuals across the U.S., TESC received during their campaign a letter of support from students in Gaza, which can be read here:

Simonton said that she and the other organisers did not have direct contact with the students in Gaza, so the letter came as a surprise: “I was so stunned when I got this email that I started to cry. I was on autopilot—you know, passing out handbills, saying sound bytes like ‘vote for human rights, vote for human rights.’ That letter really drove it home to me that we’re doing something that affects people.”