While I loved every one of the thousands of faces I saw at Sunday’s massive Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., I was especially inspired by the huge number of young people who trekked in from across the nation, carrying signs and banners, chanting and cheering along with the speakers.

Amid the crowd close to 50,000, I even bumped into some students from my alma mater, the University of Tennessee, representing the student environmental group I co-founded there twenty years ago, Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville. SPEAK brought 30 students to the rally, and few of them snapped this photo with me and Quentin James, director of the Sierra Student Coalition (as well as my daughter Hazel, who was a frozen popsicle by that time and none too happy about it, as you can tell).

Mary Anne and students

These UT students are among thousands of young leaders nationwide that have done incredibly impressive clean energy organizing on their campuses in recent years, winning campaigns that call upon administration officials to move beyond coal and showcase their universities as innovators and leaders.

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Students have won campaigns to retire one-third of the remaining on-campus coal plants nationwide, through the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign. And now, on dozens of campuses from coast to coast, students have launched campaigns to divest their college endowments from coal and other fossil fuels, and re-invest in clean energy.

This weekend, over 160 of those student leaders are coming together for the first ever national student divestment convergence to strategize, build their movement and learn from one another.

One of the nation’s first divestment campaigns was launched at UNC-Chapel Hill, (UNC was also one of the first campuses to commit to retiring their coal plant) and students won a big victory just a few days ago. On February 12, some 77 percent of University of North Carolina students voted in favor of coal divestment, with more than 4,200 students voting for the endowment to dump its coal holdings.

The students at UNC are calling on their University to lead the way:

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  • “Students want UNC to divest from coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel on the planet,” said UNC sophomore Jasmine Ruddy. “We don’t want our educations to be subsidized by investing in an industry that we know is wrecking the climate for future generations.”
  • “Research shows that we can divest from the worst coal mining and coal-fired utility companies over the next few years without any real impact on investment returns,” said UNC first-year Anurag Angara. “Coal is an increasingly vulnerable industry and a financially risky investment, so UNC has no real basis for defending why it should keep coal in its portfolio.”

UNC students have been at this divestment push since the fall of 2011, and this overwhelmingly positive vote is another great way for them to call upon school administrators and trustees to divest UNC’s $2.1 billion endowment from the fossil fuel companies that are casting a dark cloud over their future, especially in the lead up to the next Board meeting where the students are pushing to get a slot to present their request. You can help by taking action here.

And that’s just one university. Thousands of students on more than 250 campuses across the U.S. are echoing those sentiments and doing the hard and important work of teaching administration officials and other students why divestment from fossil fuels must happen. And already three colleges have made commitments to divest.

The Sierra Club is highlighting this work as part of our Obama Climate and Clean Energy Legacy Campaign, which included the Washington, DC, rally and other events nationwide that make up 100 days of action from the Inauguration to Earth Day. You can learn more and get involved at www.StandWithThePlanet.com.

On the heels of the President’s Day rally, the work of these students underscores the urgent drumbeat of demand for action that continues from coast to coast, as Americans of all ages and walks of life call for clear and decisive leadership to turn the corner on climate disruption.

Young people have experienced the negative health and economic effects of coal and other fossil fuels. They know that if they want clean air, clean water, and clean energy jobs, having their colleges put their money where their future is will be an important step towards moving America forward on climate.

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