Constructive Conflict and Divestment at Swarthmore College

I have made a career (literally) out of studying strategic nonviolent action. Let’s face it. I am a fan. Increasingly, the best research we have shows that well-organized nonviolent action is one of the most effective tools for large-scale social and political change that humans have ever developed.

In the face of the looming climate crisis, we desperately need large-scale political change. We need sufficient regulation of fossil fuels that will keep carbon in the ground and mitigate the potentially devastating climate change that is upon us. Thankfully, at Swarthmore College where I teach peace and conflict studies as well as sociology, we can play a role in helping to generate cultural change and political will through the stigmatization of fossil fuels.

A student group named Swarthmore Mountain Justice has taken the lead over the past four years, both on our campus and nationally, by calling for Swarthmore and other colleges and universities to divest our endowments from fossil fuels. Nine days ago, Mountain Justice launched an extended sit-in outside the Finance and Investment Office on the second floor of Parrish Hall. They have called for a commitment to divest over five years from the highest emitting 200 coal, oil, and gas companies (the Carbon Underground 200), and they are working to induce the College’s Board of Managers to engage in further negotiations.

Sitin launch

Students have met with representatives of the Board many times over the past four years, but to date, the Board has insisted that its fiduciary responsibility bars it from using the endowment for political purposes and that divestment would be merely symbolic. With regard to the first point, a 1.9 billion dollar endowment cannot be inoculated from having political significance. Our investments do not only exist on spreadsheets that report risks and returns; they enable real activities in the real world that empower and impoverish real people. On the second point, politics has everything to do with symbols. Ask any political operative. By locating their sit-in at the Office of Finances, students are drawing our attention to the ways in which we are caught up in international economics, global politics, and powerful cultural silences about those relationships. Faculty have also endeavored to break some of the silence. Ninety-seven have signed a letter calling on the Board to make a public commitment to fossil fuel divestment. Last month, some of those faculty discussed divestment with Board members at a reception.


Faculty spoke with Board members during a reception in February and shared copies of the faculty letter calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Photo by Mindy Cheng

Notwithstanding my fascination with and respect for well-planned and thoughtful nonviolent action, one might say that I come from a long line of conflict avoiders. I do not take confrontation lightly. It does not come naturally for me by any stretch. As a peace studies scholar, who is deeply interested in conflict transformation and peacebuilding, I am committed to the work of building cooperative relationships across boundaries. However, as the terms “conflict transformation” and “constructive conflict” (the name of this blog) imply, conflict and peacebuilding are not mutually exclusive concepts. Sometimes nonviolent confrontation is necessary to “form and shape the soil” out of which more peaceful and just relationships can emerge, as the brilliant civil rights leader and nonviolent strategist, Rev. James Lawson, said a few days ago in California. To that end, I want to speak in support of the sit-in undertaken by our well-organized students.

Their proportional and legitimate action fits comfortably within the historical corpus of nonviolent civil resistance and offers an opportunity to integrate sustainability into our curriculum. Much as Professor Dorsey’s highly successful course, “Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis” produced outstanding research and an online archive about the 1969 sit-in at the College’s Admissions Office by the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS), today’s sit-in allows us to examine in real-time another nonviolent struggle in a new and different context. Students in my “Strategy and Nonviolent Struggle” course will take a field trip next week to the site of the sit-in to compare what we have been learning about strategic nonviolent action theory with the unfolding divestment campaign on campus. (I fully expect that the current campaign will someday become one more case among the more than 1,000 cases our students have documented in the Global Nonviolent Action Database.)

Thoughtful nonviolent action sometimes disrupts business as usual and forces us to think more closely about the ways in which our daily lives are structured and intertwined with larger systems of power. The occasional emergence of this kind of peace and conflict studies lab on our campus offers opportunities to perceive the disconnects that so often go unspoken and feel the social, cultural, and economic sinews that hold us together and pull us apart.

Nonviolent struggle can also invite us to imagine new futures together. These moments can call us to practice conflict in ways that are respectful and productive, and when we do them well, we build relationships and bridges that serve us as an institution and a community in the future. Finding the balance between determination and humility will challenge us, as I think it has often done throughout the divestment campaign. However, we can still strive to be as artful as possible in our actions, intellectually curious, and open to new relationships as we work to dismantle unjust systems.

I plan to use this blog as a place to share my own teachable moments during the divestment campaign. You can also find me on Twitter at @peacesociology, and I am curating public information and social media about the campaign on Storify.


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2 responses to “Constructive Conflict and Divestment at Swarthmore College

  1. George Lakey

    Really helpful contextualizing, both in terms of the scholarly field and in personal terms from one professor whose campus has come alive with the realities of struggle. Many thanks.


  2. Inspired by the courage and thanks for sharing this example of thoughtful action

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