Sophie Cash ’19 reflected, “[I’ve] always been interested in the environment. My dad worked in environmental policy, so the saving-the-earth narrative was always big for me.” True to her word Cash wasted no time getting involved with the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, or VC Divest, as it’s commonly referred to on campus. She’s been a highly active member of the campaign, quickly becoming one of its de facto leaders. Cash became convinced of the power of activism during her gap year after high school. She remembers, “I went to the big climate rally in New York two years ago, and then I visited a friend at her university in Edinburgh where she was also helping lead their divestment movement. I was there during a week of really climactic protests, and then victory. So that gave me a really heady taste of successful activism, which was really exciting and made me feel like this is something I really want in my life. So I came to Vassar knowing that I wanted to do divestment here.”
During her time at Vassar, Cash has learned about the complexity and intersectionality of climate change, and how it harms those whose identities are marginalized. “I didn’t really know about the intersections of climate justice and social justice until I came to Vassar, and I think a lot of people don’t… Rather than just, ‘Save the earth, save the polar bears! Biodiversity loss! Pollution!’ These are, of course, extremely important parts of the story. But when I got to Vassar, I realized that the most compelling elements [of the movement] are climate justice and how that ties with social justice.”
According to Cash, the first pillar of good activism is educating oneself about the complexity of the problem. She cites Professor of Sociology Pinar Batur’s class “Coal” as having given her valuable insight into the intersectional nature of climate change. “I focused on why the coal industry is a social justice issue as well as a climate change issue, so I ended up doing a lot of research on why climate justice is social justice. [I was] looking into things like environmental racism, the reasons why climate change affects women disproportionately to men, how climate and the coal industry and other types of fossil fuel industries disproportionately affect the global south, indigenous people, developing countries and other already marginalized identities. [Instead of] people and groups who have caused climate change and who tend to have more power.”
Cash has also learned to be wary of the ethical pitfall that is climate supremacy. It’s easy for environmental activists to lose sight of the human aspects of climate change, to think “that all of our efforts should be directed toward mitigating climate change. [But] it’s extremely important to remember that that is a privileged way of thinking, and that a lot of people can’t think that way because they have other, more pressing forms of oppression going on. It’s more helpful to look at climate change and climate injustice as part of a set of larger interlocking problems.”
The divestment campaign is using this transition year, while Vassar is between presidents, to lay important groundwork to increase the potency of future actions. “[My education has] been helpful in terms of sources, studies and research to back up the information we give to the authorities we are trying to convince. [For instance,] I just set up a little packet of that kind of stuff to send to John Chenette which is going to be part of a greater body of research that we’re working on solidifying for the new president next year … Sources and compilations of counterarguments for any argument they might think of, to say, ‘This is all of the research. This is why. This is scholarly. This is not just students being activists, this is what economists and politicians say. And with that would come, ideally, faculty, student and alumni support.” These efforts are time-consuming, but extremely important. So far this year, Cash says VC Divest is not only channeling its energy into gathering evidence, but also into garnering support from faculty and alumni and creating coalitions among student groups.
If this year’s theme is preparation, last year’s was action. VC Divest organized a student referendum to inform the Board of Trustees of the overwhelming student support for fossil fuel divestment. 45 percent of students voted and 91 percent of those who voted supported fossil fuel divestment. The campaign also staged actions during two trustee meetings, for which Cash acted as a kind of scout, “I biked out to the alumni house to see if they were there, to see where they were, and then came back and messaged everybody to say, ‘We need to do it now! They’re having lunch! Let’s go!’”
In May, VC Divest organized a week-long sit-in in Main. It was the biggest climate action ever on Vassar’s campus and Cash was integral to its success. When asked about that week, she recalls it with enthusiasm and pride. “We tried to get people psyched about the cause by making it fun. It was really just a loving, enthusiastic environment. We all slept overnight! It was like our home base for the week, we had over 500 students pass through at one point. We got a bunch of professors to do their classes here, to show their own support, but also so that our students didn’t have to leave. My environmental studies class came here and showed one of the documentaries we were supposed to be watching in class. We all sat on the couches and had breakfast, somebody had donated a bunch of bagels that morning. There was a lot of camaraderie and people feeling like, ‘We’re doing something good. This is powerful and fun.’ That, to me, is what activism should feel like.” Cash was also careful to acknowledge, “Obviously, it isn’t always fun, There’s a ton of work that goes into it beforehand, which is something that I wasn’t really prepared for, all the work. It’s a lot of organizational stuff, a lot of logistics, a lot of planning, reaching out to people, social media campaigns.”
Last year’s success glows warmly in Cash’s memory, which, she says has made this year’s more tedious agenda difficult for her. However, she also claims that Trump’s election last week has given her a renewed sense of urgency. “It’s just an incredibly important time and also a kind of exciting time to care about the world. Even though it’s super scary, and a Trump presidency is terrifying, and the way that the world is reacting to it is also very scary and indicative of the problems in our country. So, now it’s up to us, since we can’t trust the federal government to solve our problems. It’s up to us. The groundwork, businesses, state level governments, to solve environmental and social justice problems. That sort of opens up some imperatives for us.” Cash is also excited about Vassar students’ considerable support for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and plans to get involved herself. She believes the issue has garnered such support because it is inherently intersectional and gives activists a chance to protest against multiple issues at once. “I think there’s a lot of energy on campus that is ready to rally around this issue, which is really exciting…and I think that we can do good work, since we have a lot of people power behind this. I’m personally going to donate, which is one of the first actions we can do, a fundraiser over the next two weeks.”
Cash, like the rest of us, will be sleeping with one eye open in the coming months. No one knows what the future holds. Although she doesn’t think a Trump presidency is going to change the way she does activism, she’s aware that this is a time that calls for solidarity. “We, as people who have progressive ideals have to support and be enthusiastic about each other even though we might feel inclined to divide each other over the little things. We have to stay united against one monolithic racist, xenophobic and homophobic entity. No one person’s struggle is more important or more devastating than another’s. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ll just have to be flexible and be ready to change tactics.