In 2012, 20-year-old Chloe Maxmin helped organize the first meeting of Divest Harvard, a student group that in two years convinced 72 percent of students and over 270 Harvard faculty members to support their university’s divesting from fossil fuels. Bill McKibben called the campaign “remarkable.” In October of the next year, Maxmin published her first Nation article, outlining the student campaign “to expose the reckless business model of the fossil-fuel industry that puts our world at risk.” This was the first of 24 articles that Maxmin wrote for The Nation through 2017 charting the student-led movement combating climate change.
As the first campus in the country to hold a referendum on divestment, the Harvard movement prompted student groups around the world to follow suit. Students at Yale, Stanford, the University of California, and Oxford University, among many others, mirrored the work that Maxmin and her colleagues led the charge on—all before Maxmin herself could legally drink. The campaign wasn’t immediately successful, but in 2017, Harvard finally announced it would “pause” investment in some fossil fuels and likely would not invest in the fossil-fuel industry in the future.
And in 2018, Maxmin, at age 26, is running for state representative of her home district in Maine. In June, she won her Democratic Primary race by 80 percent; earlier this month, her campaign was one of about 300 races endorsed by President Barack Obama. According to Maxmin, the campaign rests on a simple idea: that “we can work together to build something better and stronger.”
Student Nation spoke with Maxmin and her campaign manager and former Divest Harvard co-coordinator Canyon Woodward, 25. As young organizers—and now potential young politicians—we spoke about what young people bring to the table, the importance of getting involved, and how young people are working to forge a better future. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Student Nation: So many young people leave their communities to go to college, then make new lives for themselves in their new college towns. You’re both originally from Maine. What brought you back home?
Chloe Maxmin: It’s what I’m passionate about.
Canyon Woodward: Young people are funneling into big places like New York and San Francisco. It’s really bad for our communities—for one, it abandons an aging population that doesn’t have a younger generation around for them in their old age. Those local economies, where there aren’t young people coming back, starting businesses, and creating jobs, are set back. The problem of democracy, the Democratic Party, goes so far beyond cities.
SN: Do you sense that there is a new wave of young people breaking into politics? Of course, I’m thinking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but also across the country. Do you consider yourself a part of this wave?
CW: We definitely feel a part of that wave and definitely see that. We’re a generation that came of age when Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring rose up—Chloe and I went off to college that fall of 2011, when the financial crisis was really shaking the world. Our formative college years were spent organizing campus activism, and I think that we’re a generation that has had a lot of taking to the streets. And we’re heading these movements—for the last decade, really. But there’s also been a tremendous amount of apathy throughout the Obama years from our generation, which you can see from our voting records.… I think that the Obama years bred some complacency, and apathy and that 2016 shook our generation to the core—woke up this sleeping giant—and we are stepping beyond issue organizing. We are realizing that our elected leaders aren’t responding to us or listening to us on issues like climate change, on immigration, on any number of different things…. Millennials are just now overshadowing baby boomers for largest voting bloc. I think it’s a time when we feel tremendously underrepresented and are simultaneously discovering our potential generation’s power.
CM: One of the key questions that our generation is asking is: If we don’t, then who will? We have to look decades forward. And at least for me and my friends, I’m genuinely terrified. Not just because we’re facing climate change or won’t be able to find health care or won’t find schools for our children. But we’re facing a moment where democracy doesn’t matter. I called Susan Collins, everyone I know did, and she didn’t listen to us. It’s at the federal level, but also the state level—our government does not respond to its people. If we don’t fight for a representational government, not only will we not have a say, but no one will have a say but the rich. One of the remarkable things about young people today is we are not complacent to the structures that be…because we know, deep down, that out entire lives depend on it.
SN: Yeah, the recent IPCC study is harrowing. Did that news affect you as young climate activists?
CM: I started working on the climate issue because I think it’s the greatest threat to my home—to my community, our way of life, our culture, our future. It’s so foundational, and obviously not just in Maine but all over the world. The fact that the dire urgency of the situation has been known for so long, and there’s been a solid mass movement around this issue for a decade at least—though people like Bill McKibben have been working on it for even longer.
For me, everything I’ve done has been about building communities in the places I’ve lived. We’ve built this political system, and yet our voices have nowhere to go. Even when everything we love is at stake—our political system is so stuck that nothing can happen. We need our political system to work for us. We need to do something right now. One of the reasons why I decided to run is because if we don’t have good people inside the system, then we’re screwed. Not just on climate—on everything. If we don’t have people who aren’t thinking about things not as business as usual, there’s going to be no change. This is after decades of working on this issue. No one is budging. Our last little bit of hope is I can get into office and I can do something for my community when this storm comes. Because it’s coming, it’s just a question of how bad.
SN: Why is it important for young people to get involved politically in this moment?
CW: So many reasons. I think that young people have a really unique perspective that desperately needs representation at the table, because we have so much skin in the game with things like climate change that are going to affect our futures more intensely than the older generation understands. And I think that young people also have the potential to break through this intense polarization and political environment that is so defined by anger and partisan politics. I think there’s a Pew Research study that shows millennials are the most independent generation—44 percent of millennials self-identity as independent. We’re rejecting the old partisan boxes and really standing on our values and fighting for these specific issues. I think that young people have the potential to bring a new energy to politics that can shift things forward out of this total gridlock that we’ve seen at the national level for so many years.
CM: One of the things that truly boggles me is that we’ve been facing the same crises for decades. Year after year things get worse and worse, but year after year we keep electing the same kinds of people who look the same and act the same and say the same things. So it’s not really surprising that these problems aren’t getting fixed because we’re not electing people who think about life in a different way. Being a woman, being young, gives you a different perspective from being a man and older.
Bernie inspired me and Canyon to devote our lives to him for months; we can inspire young people to do this as well. We do have the experience and the maturity to be in office.… [For] almost every young person that I’ve worked with, it’s almost like instinct to understand the line between what is black and white and what requires compromise. There are some things that are black and white, are very right and very wrong, and young people know that and stand up for that. But we also know that not everything goes our way, that you need to compromise and find solutions for everybody. That’s such a valuable balance to have when you’re young.
SN: Can you recall an example?
CM: There was one moment from our Divest Harvard days that always stuck with me. We had been building a movement on campus for years, had over 70,000 people sign on to our campaign, but the admin still wouldn’t recognize us. So we organized a sit-in at our president’s office building. We had students wake up at 5 am and sit in her hallways, and we didn’t move. Which was impressive for a lot of reasons—to get that many young folks to get up early in college, and to put their bodies on the line to stand up for a vision. But we understood that there are things worth doing that for. The climate crisis, for example, requires bold action, and that was what we could do with our bodies then.
The president came into the halls to get to her office. She always talked about how civil disobedience is so important. But then, she had a horrible angry look on her face. We knew she had never supported us, but I thought she would at least say that, though she didn’t agree, she was glad that we believed in something. Instead, she came in and said: “I’m so disappointed in you, you should be ashamed of yourself.” And that was so stunning to me, because that is an authority figure for us. But not one of the people in that room flinched.
So…there was a lot of space between what we wanted and what the administration wanted—a big space. But we eventually were able to compromise. We were forced to end the sit-in because the police locked the bathroom—they wouldn’t let us use the bathroom, which gives you an idea of how they worked. After we organized again and shut down her office for an entire week, and we trained hundreds of people in civil disobedience…. I mean, we literally built the movement, and still the administration did nothing. Canyon and I graduated that year, but the campaign fought on. There were more blockades, more student activism. Harvard has not divested. To me the point of divestment is to take a hard moral stand on climate change, but Harvard has not, and as far as I’m concerned will not, do that.
SN: Being veteran young activists who have done this, I think you could provide a lot to fellow young activists who may feel low on hope. What advice can you give young people, for example, college students, who are starting out advocating for what they believe in?
CW: I think that as a student activist, going up against the almost inevitable entrenchment of an administration, it can feel at times like a hopeless cause. And I would just say there are so many ripples from your work that you will never see. And some that you will! But I think that you have to have faith in those ripples going outwards and touching other people. I really strongly think that the student activism throughout the United States of the last decade has so much to do with what we’re seeing right now in 2018—with millennials coming out in droves and the young people running for office coast to coast. Things like the Fight for $15 campaign, climate justice, and tuition-free education—all these issues that have entered the mainstream political conversation over the last several years, I really think you have student activists who have put themselves on the line to thank for those things.
CM: The only thing I would add is that we don’t stop fighting for what we care about. Not just us, but anybody. We all have something that we’re willing to fight for. That’s really all that matters. If Divest had existed but nobody ever knew about it, that would have been okay, because we were fighting with integrity and purpose. And that is how you change the world.
SN:What are some specific things young people can bring to the table?
CM: I think one thing we touched on is moral clarity. We approach that not just in an immediate sense but in a long-term sense as well, and we know that both of those go hand in hand. We bring energy. I mean, we can canvass all day and work all night. We have a lot to give. I also think that we live in a political system that has never prioritized the future, has never prioritized young people’s voices, never really respected young people’s voices because we can’t vote for the first 18 years. Then, when we can vote, we’re too young or immature to have any real say in the process. So we know what it’s like to have a political system that does not represent us or fight for us. Youth is its own kind of expertise. And if that perspective isn’t brought into a political space, then a political space will not represent us.
CW: Millennials have come of age saddled with student debt and looking for work after the Great Recession, and it reveals that the political system, our elected politicians, have totally failed us. And how it’s a rigged system that really just works for the rich at the end of the day. And that outrages us. I think we’re really intent on changing that dynamic. Another thing that young people bring to the table is fun. A lot of us young people have experienced a really toxic culture of burnout, martyrdom, and having fun and being a healthy human and drawing people in to a really rich, positive campaign atmosphere is a huge part of what we’ve been trying to do. Having canvassing days, but also having music and celebration, kickball, capture the flag, making it fun and inclusive and exciting to be a part of.
SN:Has there been a particularly memorable moment so far you’ve experienced over the course of your campaign?
CW: One of the best moments that stands out is after putting in just a ridiculous amount of work, shoulder to shoulder with friends, to get out the vote for the primary in June, having no idea whether we would succeed or not, going up against the establishment party, the Democratic Party candidate, we found out that two of the voting locations in our district ran out of ballots and had to get more copies made, we had so many people turn out to vote. It was such a gratifying moment. If you put in the work of just going door-to-door and having one-on-one conversations with people and bringing other people into that, such amazing things can happen.
CM: So I go canvassing every day, and I usually go myself. We’re in the most rural county in the most rural state in the nation: You have to drive down long dirt roads, it’s very rural. I drove to this one house that was this trailer in the middle of the woods and went and knocked on the door, and a man answered and he invited me inside. I went inside even though no one knows where I am, I just went in and sat at his kitchen table with him and talked about his life and the issues he was facing and how his political system has abandoned him. He said, “People see my house and don’t even knock on the door, and I’m so glad you came here and talked to me today.” And of all the conversations, that one stuck with me. It’s so heartbreaking how many folks are left behind. But when we take the time to listen and not assume, it can be so heartwarming. Coming home to a fun, lively, supportive culture that we’ve created gives me a lot of hope for what politics can be.
SN: Often young people who break into these spaces are set back by their relative youth—especially in politics, veterans can be skeptical and believe there’s a certain way of doing things. Do you find you have to compensate because of age? And how do you deal with that?
CW: We have definitely experienced that dynamic. You know, especially with the Democratic Party establishment, we often get told we’re too young. And the way that we’ve dealt with that is go out and knock on the doors and organize house parties and organize the canvasses and just put in the work.
CM: Yeah. We don’t excuse youth at all—we don’t succumb to those narratives, though they’re all around us. We know we have just as much of a voice and power potential as anyone else. We just do our thing, and the rest follows.