By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH & HANNAH RIDDLE
College students from across Virginia made their voices heard on the University of Mary Washington campus during Virginia Power Shift, a student-led conference designed to invite dialogue about social, economic and environmental justice.
More than 350 students from 11 Virginia universities and several high schools registered for the three-day long event sponsored by the Virginia Student Power Network and the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition groups at UMW.
Many of the guests were housed on the UMW campus as they gathered to gain the administration’s attention about climate change.
Kick-off began Friday with a march that started at the Anderson Center parking lot and ended at Ball Circle. Despite frigid temperatures, students from across the Commonwealth were fired up in their scarves and hats, and were too invested in the goal of the march to care about the chill.
Senior Divest UMW co-founder Zakaria Kronemer spoke before the march, describing climate change’s prevalence, particularly in this generation’s lifetime.
“We are not being silent victims. We are standing up, and it’s working,” said Kronemer.
Kronemer spoke about the UMW Board of Visitors denying Divest UMW’s request to speak at the BOV’s next meeting. The refusal generated enough outrage from UMW students for the BOV to take back their denial and instead offer Divest UMW an opportunity to speak for 15 minutes at their next meeting.
The goal of Divest UMW and other Virginia environmental organizations is to urge universities to divest from companies that profit from fossil fuel.
Kronemer used the experience to tell students they are making headway.
“Each step will bring us to the future that we deserve,” said Kronemer.
Shortly afterward, the students took those steps through the campus.
Students held signs that varied from inspiring, such as “We are unstoppable: another world is possible,” to cheeky, such as “Don’t be a fossil fool.”
Students also made noise, shouting chants such as “We will not rest ‘till we divest” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
The march ended at Ball Circle, where students crowded together holding multiple signs, of which Kronemer and others took pictures and recorded from the roof of Virginia Hall. The sign read: “VA BOVs: Whose Side on You On?” Another sign read: “Divest!”
Doug Searcy, vice president for student affairs, attended the march and said he was impressed by the large turnout and the groups’ level of dedication.
“I am pleased that the group came out to show their perspective and opinion in such a positive and constructive way,” said Searcy.
After Friday’s march, students were ready on Saturday morning to turn their attention toward a more in-depth discussion of the conference’s goals.
By 9 a.m., the students rolled into the Digital Auditorium of UMW’s new Information Technology Convergence Center, sitting cross legged with coffee cups in hand.
Overflow settled down in the balcony, and handmade posters hung on the front walls. The posters defined some of the conference’s key topics of discussion, such as “privilege,” “identity” and “-isms.” These subjects focused on various social justice themes and ways to affect change.
Rabib Hasan, a member of Divest UMW, helped kick things off by telling the crowd, “All these next workshops are geared towards giving you guys the tools you need to get engaged, get involved and get active.”
Throughout Saturday and on the following Sunday, students had the opportunity to attend information sessions on a wide range of topics, such as renewable energy, student debt, pipelines and power structures, amongst many others.
Two of the most popular sessions were “#BlackLivesMatter” and “Sexual Assault on Campus: The Landscape & Spaces for Student Activism.”
The host of speakers for Power Shift was made up of students and professors from various Virginia universities, including the University of Virginia and George Mason University.
There were also two keynote speakers, Elise Keaton, the fundraising director for the Keepers of the Mountain organization, and Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus.
Kronemer encouraged students to attend at least one session that was not geared toward their top interest as a way to broaden their knowledge bases.
“Think about how you can act to create change and affect change in our state and around the world,” Kronemer urged his peers.
Other leaders of the conference also encouraged attendees to get to know those around them, stressing the opportunities available for networking.
In fact, many attendees said the community created there was a major draw of the Power Shift.
“I think the main point of the conference is for people of a similar age and similar goals to have a chance to meet up and create something,” said Katherine Barry, a UMW sophomore who said she was inspired to attend the conference after taking part in UMW’s Mindfulness program earlier this year.
“If there isn’t an opportunity to do that,” continued Barry, “then you have a lot of little groups trying to make things happen, but when you come together you have more people power.”
Her sentiment was echoed by others.
“It’s cool to see what other schools are doing,” said Wynne Davidson, a sophomore from Virginia Tech.
Dianna Borkor from Virginia Commonwealth University agreed.
“It’s really seeing the energy of everyone here,” she said.
For some, like VCU’s McKayla Burnett, Virginia Power Shift was a time for exploration.
Burnett is majoring in social work and said she is excited to learn more about the social and environmental issues discussed during the weekend.
“I wanted to get my foot in the door,” said Burnett.
For others, like Virginia Tech freshman Sam Gittelman, Virginia Power Shift menat making students’ voices heard.
“I think it’s important to give more exposure to Virginia college students who care about the issue, and give it the attention that it raises,” said Gittelman.
Like Gittelman UMW senior and Ecology Club president Alice Redhead also said she wanted the Virginia Power Shift to garner awareness. Redhead said she hopes that the weekend event will get the administration’s attention and invite a larger discussion about climate change that extends beyond the student body.
“It affects us,” said Redhead.