ICA members and participants protest in the middle of the UW Career Center, sitting in a large circle around the room

Student Activists Demand University of Washington Cut Connections With the Fossil Fuel Industry

by Marian Mohamed and Kenneth Tran, GZR Newsroom

(This article is jointly published between Ground Zero Radio, an initiative of the Vera Project, and the South Seattle Emerald.)

After 34 days of protest at the University of Washington Career Center, which began on Nov. 28, 2022, sit-ins organized by the Institutional Climate Action (ICA) UW have come to an end. But the members of ICA claim they don’t feel deterred from their goal. 

As part of its Demand 5, the ICA held sit-ins every weekday for seven weeks, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., to hold the UW Career Center accountable for allowing fossil fuel companies to utilize its services. Throughout the sit-ins, you’d find ICA members and participants gathered in a large circle at the UW Career Center in complete silence, due to a quiet rule applied after the career center’s executive director filed a student misconduct report for noise.

The career center allows employers to promote themselves and connect with students for recruitment, with a spot on the website Handshake (the LinkedIn equivalent for students), info sessions with students, and invitations to career fairs.

These services are one part of the ICA’s demands and overall mission to hold higher education responsible for “current and future climate-altering investments and impacts” and in response to the UW Seattle’s dependency on the fossil fuel industry.

The ICA criticizes the university’s support of fossil fuel industries in its five demands: Demand 1 asks that UW divest its own funds (currently $125 million) from investments in fossil fuel companies. Demand 2 urges the university to refuse any form of donations from the fossil fuel industry, whether that be gifts, grants, research funds, or contracts. 

Demand 3 urges UW Seattle to replace current fossil fuel infrastructure with non-fossil fuel alternatives. Demand 4 explains the necessary action needed to decarbonize the campus for total carbon neutrality by 2030. Demand 5 calls for UW services to stop promotion of the fossil fuel industry by its career center, student newspapers, departments, and student organizations.

“It’s important to note that we’re wanting to get students into the best possible jobs. This is still an irresponsible choice to be directing students towards positions in the fossil fuel industry,” said Jonathan Giesse, ICA’s email coordinator and a UW sophomore. 

Giesse estimates that these positions and companies will diminish over the next 20 years due to government sanctions on dangerous materials that help fuel the climate crisis, workplace accidents owing to the use of these substances, and the repercussions of sourcing them.  

“In general, student action matters, and I think the ICA is a really beautiful group because it’s a lot of different people from different majors and different organizations coming together to get involved and take action in their own community,” said Lauren Henrie, the lead organizer for Demand 5.

The effort behind pushing these demands doesn’t come only from students, but from UW professors as well. Dargan Frierson, an atmospheric scientist and UW associate professor, says he was drawn to the message that the ICA was pushing. He made the effort to be present at a couple of the sit-ins. 

“It’s great to hear that the students wanted the fossil fuel industry off the campus,” said Frierson. “I think it’s good for students in the long term, because that industry — the days are numbered.” 

Frierson explains that his time at the sit-ins included a teaching experience where protesters learned more about climate science. He says that learning should be reflective both in and outside of the classroom. One of his new classes this quarter includes Climate, Justice, and Energy Solutions, and teaching it has allowed Frierson to learn more about climate justice activism. 

“I had a lot to learn; [I] came into that class with really a lot of humility,” said Frierson. “And just trying to educate myself, not based on technologies, but also based on things like justice concerns of different energy sources and things like that.”  

Frierson also emphasizes the importance of listening to students. Though he understands that it is not a simple task, he believes it would provide space for student advocacy and on-campus improvements that include alternatives to gas ranges or ovens in cooking facilities and large-scale solar panels for campus buildings. 

A press release drafted by the ICA details how the UW Career Center executive director, Briana Randall, claimed there is “absolutely no way” they would implement Demand 5’s policy amendment.

Victor Balta, a spokesperson for UW Seattle, highlighted the UW’s Board of Regents’ vote to divest from coal companies in 2015, which expanded to fossil fuels last year following ICA calls for divestment and leading research by the UW College of Environment. In addition, he emphasized the career center’s role of arranging myriad career opportunities for students. 

“The center does this by connecting students with potential employers, and students can make decisions for themselves which employers may or may not be right for them,” said Balta.

Frances Yih, a junior at UW Seattle and ICA’s social media coordinator, said, “We were told [by the executive director] that the policy which we wanted to be amended was to be approved or was sort of involved with the attorney general of Washington State. We ended up finding out that our only roadblock was the career center’s executive director, who basically did not want to amend the policy.”

Emily Kang and Kenneth Tran, ICA members, go over the details for a poster used for outreach on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo: Marian Mohamed)

The ICA had its largest turnout on  Jan. 20, when 30–40 individuals showed up to the UW Career Center. Yih believes the social media and outreach plan they created around the campaign was successful in driving turnout for the sit-ins. ICA’s Instagram and TikTok accounts documented the process around the sit-ins, emphasizing members’ reasoning for being there, intermingled with humorous video skits.

“Social media was the main form of outreach and the method that had the strongest response from the student body,” said Henrie. “I’ve had students come up to me since the protest ended to tell me they saw the TikToks, and it’s been really lovely.” 

It was through social media that the ICA announced its last sit-in at the UW Career Center on Jan. 31. In the video, Henrie connects with ICA’s audience and states the reasons why it decided to stop the sit-ins. 

Giesse says that since the protests were concluded, the ICA has been focusing on persuading the university newspaper, The Daily, to adopt the Clean Creatives Pledge as part of Demand 5, which asks leading agencies to “address the ad and PR industry’s work with fossil fuels,” their reasoning being that deliberately working with fossil fuel companies threatens agencies’ brands that advocate for sustainable practices. 

The ICA accomplished Demand 1 when the UW Board of Regents agreed to begin divestments of fossil fuel funds as of Sept. 8, 2022. To achieve Demand 2, it’ll reach out to various departments, like the UW College of Environment and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, requesting an end to the tradition of receiving gifts or donations from fossil fuel companies. 

Demands 3 and 4 have a common goal of decarbonizing campus operations and buildings. By connecting with Washington State representatives and senators, the ICA is attempting to secure the funding needed to allow the UW to develop sustainable alternatives for the natural gas power plant that heats the campus.

The next steps for Demand 5 include reevaluating and verifying information for its next campaign initiatives. The ICA will continue to hold the UW Career Center, The Daily, on-campus Registered Student Organizations, school departments, and the University of Washington, in its entirety, accountable.

Marian Mohamed, a multimedia journalist and community engagement coordinator, uses her skills to aid underrepresented individuals and communities to tell their stories. She’s created stories of communities affected by COVID-19, food insecurities, gentrification, and media misrepresentation. In 2020, Marian won a Gracie Award for her feature story about the importance of political representation.

Kenneth Tran is a current student at the University of Washington studying interaction design and urban planning. Using his platform, Kenneth supports local stories with an interest in the arts, environment, and public health, and, generally, community involvement and response against collective challenges.

📸 Featured Image: ICA members and participants protest in the middle of the UW Career Center on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo: ICA UW-Chapter)

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