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Q. Dear Umbra,

As you know, university students across the country are petitioning their administrations to divest of fossil fuels. They are eager for support from the older generation of alums, but so far the alums have not done much. As an alum of two schools, I recently realized that one of the best ways that we can help in this effort is publicly to pledge to withhold further donations until our alma mater divests. But we need to spread this “meme” far more widely. How can we do this so that colleges and universities realize that their graduates who now have children and grandchildren are joining with the students and taking decisive, meaningful action for a future that affects us all?

Larry D.
Clinton, Wash.

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A. Dearest Larry,

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Don’t look now, but I think that meme is spreading as we speak. More on that in a moment.

How do you let colleges and universities know that you want them to stop investing in our destructive fossil-fuel companies? You tell them.

You could tell them by not donating, as you suggest. But that might or might not make much of an impact, depending on the relative sizes of your school, your donations, and their donor base. So you need to make your reason very clear. Write a letter to the fundraising office. Write a letter to the college president or trustees. Write a letter to the campus newspaper or local media.

When all that writing makes your hand cramp and your brain grow weary, get even more creative. Do you live near your alma maters? If so, perhaps you could string up a banner on the gates saying something like “Alums for Fossil Fuel Divestment” or “Old Alums Don’t Die, They Just Divest.” If that’s not a practical or desirable step, send a note to your alumni magazine that says “Larry D. is loving life in Clinton, Wash., where he’s actively involved in a national movement for alums who want their schools to divest from fossil fuels. Starting with this one.” Take a picture of your child or grandchild holding a sign that says “Guess what? I’m a legacy, but I won’t be considering your school because you invest in fossil fuels” and mail it in. Oh I’m full of good ideas.

So is Bill McKibben, whose organization has spearheaded this campus movement. (Full disclosure: He is also a Grist board member.) I asked Bill if he had advice for you, and he said this: “Anyone who has graduated from a college or university may have noticed that their alma mater retains a keen interest in them, and often sends return envelopes. Here’s the moment to put your love for your school, and your love for the planet, to joint use.”

Which rather makes it sound like he’s suggesting you mail in toads or acorns, but I’m pretty sure he’s just emphasizing your exact instinct: Your activities as a donor are very important to your school. In fact, Bill’s group offers resources for alums who want to get involved in the divest movement, including a map of active campaigns and a template of a letter you can send to the administration.

Just for fun I checked with a few other contacts who work in higher education, one of whom recommends a somewhat tougher, but possibly even more effective, route: “Arm yourself fully with facts about the schools’ fundraising and holdings and the potential impact of divestment, [then] put together a core group of influential and sensible supporters among alumni, other donors, administrators, faculty, students, trustees … and use the support, influence, and ideas to actually try to work something out through the existing mechanisms of the institutions.”

Whichever path you choose (I’m still loving my banner pun, personally), you’ll be joining a growing network of alums who are active in divestment efforts across the country, from the University of Michigan to Harvard, from Colorado College to the Claremont Consortium. They are signing petitions! They are making Facebook pages! And they are making impressive progress.

So far, the institutions that have committed to divest are small places with modest endowments: College of the Atlantic, Unity College, Sterling College, and Hampshire College. But the notion has spread to 300 campuses across the country, and even been embraced by several cities, including San Francisco and Seattle. So speak up, Larry! You could be part of an effort that’s shaping up to be one of the most important movements of the early 21st century.