Eleven students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) are holding a sit-in today in college President John Maeda’s office. The activists are demanding that President Maeda and Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter endorse divestment from the coal, gas, and oil industries and commit to presenting the case for divestment to the Board of Trustees at the board’s May 17 meeting.

This sit-in is the first of its kind in the nationwide divestment movement, through which students at more than 300 colleges and universities are demanding that their schools stand against climate change and divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies.

“I want to have kids. I want to show them this planet,” said Phoebe Wahl, a RISD senior. “As artists and designers, we are innovators with the ability to shape our own future. The way that our generation deals with this issue will define the future of civilization.”

The students kicked off their campaign in January, when they began conversations with members of RISD’s board and administration and circulated a petition in support of divestment which was quickly signed by more than a quarter of the undergraduate student body. Despite initially positive conversations, the students met with resistance. In response, RISD students are engaging in peaceful direct action to demonstrate the necessity of fossil fuel divestment and push RISD to become a leader in sustainability. “Our demands could not be more reasonable or more feasible. We want the college immediately to stop making new investments in fossil fuel companies, and then to sell off their holdings over five years,” said Emma Beede, a RISD senior.

“We need to shift our perspective and act. This is the largest human rights issue of our generation,” said John Jennings, a RISD freshman involved in the sit-in. “We believe that the RISD community can be leaders in fighting climate change and building positive solutions. Divestment is a necessary place to start if anything is going to be done about global warming.”

“To own stock in a company whose business model is to destroy the planet is a bad decision, both morally and financially,” said Erica Pernice, a RISD junior. “We may be art students, but we can do the math.”

The Go Fossil Free campaign was invigorated by 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s July 2012 article in Rolling Stone. The article highlighted world leaders’ consensus that two degrees Celsius is the safe upper limit of global warming and noted that the reserves of multinational fossil fuel companies contain more than five times the carbon needed to reach this limit.

“Bill McKibben is getting an honorary degree from RISD this year, but the college does not plan to invite him to speak and continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry that he is devoting his life to fighting against,” said Noelle Antignano, a RISD sophomore. “As members of the RISD community and as human beings on this planet, we refuse to be silenced.”

In true RISD fashion, the students are using their time in the President’s office to create sustainability themed artwork. They also hung banners and orange flags across campus this morning to raise awareness about climate change and the divestment campaign. A rally held at RISD Beach drew a crowd for music, art making and speeches in solidarity with the sit-in.

Stay tuned.

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