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Image credit: Fossil Free, University of Queensland

Katie Braid: The campaign for a fossil free university

Katie Braid: The campaign for a fossil free university

Organising a student sit-in, and what it can achieve

Image above: Marching for a fossil-free university

Ankita Bellary talks to Katie Braid about how she and other students helped persuade their university to take the first steps towards divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

“University.” The word conjures an image of a frazzled-looking, sleep-deprived student hunched over their laptop, empty coffee cups dotted around them. Only two semesters to go, and they’ll be out of this place forever – into the “real world”, where exams and all-nighters are a thing of the past.

Most of us can’t wait to don our graduation gowns and say a cheery goodbye to our studies. But some students are committed to inciting positive change on their university campus – change that will linger long after they leave.

The University of Queensland’s (UQ’s) Fossil Free group is one example of a passionate, well informed and progressive team of environmentalists banding together to create a difference.

Earlier this year, they staged a ten-hour peaceful sit-in protest at the Vice Chancellor’s office. Their aim? To demand that the university ­– one of the biggest in the state – divest from the fossil fuel industry.

sit-in at UQ RS

Katie Braid is a member of Fossil Free UQ, majoring in Sustainability in her Business degree. But it wasn’t until her fourth year of university that she started getting involved with Fossil Free. This was, “to not only try and make an impact, but obviously build my own skills and knowledge and network.”

Her journey with the group started with watching the Aussie documentary Frackman after members of Fossil Free UQ had invited people to join their cause. Frackman is a fascinating exploration of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland, and follows the work of anti-fracking activist, Dayne Pratzky, aka Frackman.

Building the movement

“You have the ultimate goal of getting your university or your council to divest, but at the same time, you really have to be building momentum and building support,” Katie tells me.

So whilst Fossil Free UQ does spend time engaging with key decision makers at the university, they also spend a lot of time connecting with everyday people – like you and me.

“You have to figure out what makes people tick,” she says,“and appeal to that part of their mind.”

She observes that the group often finds common ground with young people, who are open minded about environmental issues, and, of course, will “bear the brunt” of climate change in the future. Lucky us!

Team morale

For Katie and the Fossil Free group, friendship within the movement is what it’s all about.

“People get involved in these kinds of things, one, to make a difference, and two, to build a network and make friends and have fun. So that’s definitely something we focus on.”

It’s these friendships that see them through the stressful, overwhelming periods of a semester, when there doesn’t always seem to be a light at the end of the long and unyielding tunnel of assessment. “We all understand each other so much, and don’t put pressure on each other, and do what we can do.”

In addition, having a team member with Asperger’s and a hearing disability emphasises to her “the importance of diversity, and having people of different perspectives and abilities is so important, especially in this movement”.

She also tells me how rewarding it is to encourage a culture within the group that celebrates every little win and success. “You really feel like you are achieving things and being appreciated as well.”

The sit-in

The group’s sit-in was in April 2016. “[It] was a nationwide action that we kind of discussed late last year with the national uni divestment team,” Katie says.

All the Australian university divestment groups had been campaigning for two or three years, without much of a response from their executives. It was time to step up the action. Organising the sit-in took about two and a half months.

The group had three requests:

  • the opportunity to present at the upcoming senate meeting
  • ongoing communication with the university executives
  • and a meeting with the vice chancellor.

The protest began in the day and lasted well into the night. “It went down pretty quickly – ten hours of intense negotiation,” Katie recalls.

RS Fossil Free UQ after 10 hrs negotiation and sit in

The latter two requests were agreed to, but the first was not. However, the Acting Chancellor did raise the issue of the university’s divestment policy at the subsequent senate meeting. Since then, it’s been a slow process but the group hopes that upcoming senate and finance committee meetings may bring some fresh, unpolluted air to the university’s policies.

The sit-in taught the group a lot about the administration of the university, and who makes what decisions. For instance, after learning that it’s the 23-member senate –not necessarily the vice chancellor – who holds the power of decision making, the group is changing their approach to campaigning for divestment.

The future

Will UQ ever be fossil free, and join the ranks of Melbourne’s La Trobe Uni, which committed to divestment in May? Katie says, “It really depends upon the opinions of the people in power.”

So, if a vice chancellor at one university is keen to divest, change may happen more quickly there than at another where the vice chancellor is more resistant.

Advice 

Katie’s advice to young people keen to form a Fossil Free group at their university is simple. “Jump into it. It’s so much fun!”

There’s an abundance of resources available for people starting out. “Just get in contact with anyone from 350.org or any fossil free campaign,” says Katie. “People are so willing to help you start out and share experiences and advice. So, just get talking to people.”

This article was written by Ankita Bellary.