Education of an Activist

Inside one student’s early days in the divestment movement

By Benjamin Franta

September 28, 2020


In April 2016, student activists from Divest Harvard held a sit-in at the Boston Federal Reserve, where Harvard Management Company is located. This photo was taken shortly before they were arrested. | Courtesy of Benjamin Franta

It was a snowy winter night at Harvard. The year: 2012. My friends and I sat at the university pub. We’d come from the physics lab where we worked and were chatting about lasers and quantum computers (which I faked understanding) and whether to play a game of darts. I glanced at my watch.

“Oh! I have to go. Some kind of climate change meeting.”

“You’re going to a meeting now?” my friends asked, gesturing to the empty glasses around us.

I tromped through the thick snow across Harvard Yard to what I thought was the right building. I peered into a side room. Dark wood framed a large fireplace, and a handful of students were sitting in a circle in deep chairs.

“Is this the, uh, climate change meeting?”

“Hi! Yes. Are you here for Divest Harvard?” 

“Um . . . yeah. I think so.”

I took a seat in the circle, trying to look alert. We all introduced ourselves, which didn’t take long, since there couldn’t have been more than half a dozen of us. These students wanted Harvard to divest from—that is, stop investing in—fossil fuels. It was an unheard-of idea, although an eminently reasonable one, I thought. After all, we’d heard time and again that global warming represented a threat unparalleled in human civilization. I spent each day in the lab developing solar cell technology for that very reason. If Harvard divesting—I still wasn’t used to the word—could make a difference, even a small one, then why not pursue it?

And yet, as I left that meeting, wondering if my still-rosy cheeks had given me away, I was not optimistic. My world as a grad student was one of right and wrong answers, detailed plans, and hard-nosed military funders. The students I’d just met, in contrast, seemed too nice. How were they—how were we–going to persuade the richest university in the world to do something with its money that no one had ever even heard of?


I wasn’t an activist, not really. And I certainly wasn’t an environmentalist. A few years earlier, I didn’t even think global warming was real.

Growing up conservative in small-town Iowa, climate change just never came up. It wasn’t that I’d avoided it—it just wasn’t part of my universe.

I left Iowa at the age of 23 to study archaeology at the University of Oxford in England. It was a new world: talking to people from different countries, learning to eat with a knife and fork (not an easy skill to acquire as an adult), and in my archaeology classes, hearing about the history of the planet’s climate and how it’s shaped human societies for tens of thousands of years.

I was intrigued. But I’d never heard of this so-called climate science before. As a physicist doing archaeology, I was skeptical of the details. The story was too neat, I thought. Surely something’s being overlooked. 

So I set out to find the problem. What better way to make a name for myself than to prove conventional wisdom wrong?

I read hundreds of journal articles, interrogated my professors, and emailed prominent researchers in the field, some of whom responded. I went to presentations by climate scientists, and when they asked if there were skeptics in the audience, I’d sheepishly raise my hand and blush (I was that guy). I asked esoteric questions about things like “Dansgaard-Oeschger events.” I asked about isotope diffusion in ice cores. I asked about how climate records are dated. In retrospect, I’m certain I was very annoying.

And yet, with each passing month, my skepticism waned. I was surprised to learn that my objections had been studied, often for decades, by teams of scientists. It was humbling. It was also exciting: a whole field of knowledge I never knew existed. By day, I was learning to excavate human remains; by night, I was excavating papers about glaciers and sediment cores, often written decades earlier, but to me brand-new.

With the excitement came a twinge of dread. If climate science was well developed, and if global warming was real, what did that mean for the future of humankind? Archaeology had taught me how dependent even the most sophisticated societies are on their environments. If we change the planet’s climate faster than ever before, to a place humans have never experienced, what will happen to us?


A year later, I was at Harvard, doing a PhD in applied physics. I missed archaeology and my friends, but I also felt a moral obligation to do something about global warming, and working on solar energy as a scientist seemed logical. I took classes in atmospheric science and energy policy and attended every public talk related to climate change I could. And yet, I still had the nagging feeling I wasn’t making the difference I wanted. Worse, I began to suspect that global warming was as much a political problem as anything else. And politics was something I knew nothing about.

Discouraged, I attended a discussion with Tim Wirth, a former US senator who was visiting campus. Wow, I thought. He’s passionate. Gone was the dry, abstract language of the scientists I worked with. The politician, though advanced in years, spoke with an energy and moral urgency about climate change I’d never heard before. I had no idea at the time that he’d worked on the Kyoto Protocol nearly two decades earlier. All I knew was I wanted to learn more—but I felt intimidated and could think of nothing intelligent to ask. So I went home and promptly wrote him an email.

"Do you have any recommendations for books I might read about politics and how to create social change?" I typed. I knew the words sounded stupid as I wrote them. But it was worth a try.

Incredibly, he responded. I opened the message excitedly. "The best way to learn about changing the world," he said, "is to try to do it."

I stared at the words, disappointed. How am I supposed to do that? I asked myself. 

So I began looking. I heard some students were having a meeting about climate change. And as I left my friends at the pub and tromped through the snow, I wondered what I was doing.


I’d been wrong about climate science, and I was about to be wrong again. I was getting used to it.

Within months, the half dozen students I’d met had made national news. Despite being few in number, they organized a university referendum on divestment—the nation’s first—and it passed with 72 percent support. The suggestion that most students at Harvard thought fossil fuel investments were wrong sent waves through the world of finance. Was it a sign of things to come or merely an expression of youthful naivete? Every week brought news of more divestment campaigns being established across the country—soon, there were more than a hundred. Within a year, the young activists I thought were too mild-mannered, nerdy, or nice to make a difference were giving interviews to The New York Times

I began to think that maybe they were onto something. I had no idea fossil fuel divestment would teach me what I could never learn in class. In the following years, I’d sue my own university, plan my own arrest, and work with the best leaders—most of whom were students—I’ve known. I’d learn that a small group of people can make a difference. I’d learn that people of all kinds–even and especially those who don’t quite “fit in”—have something important to offer the world. That snowy winter in 2012, I thought I knew a lot. But my education was just beginning.


Shlip, shlop. Shlip, shlop. 

More than a year later, in early 2014, I dragged a lame foot to a meeting with Harvard’s president, historian Drew Faust. A mishap in the snowy New Hampshire mountains had left a group of friends and me with hypothermia and frostbite, and though we’d survived (after days in the hospital) our prospects of keeping our toes were still uncertain. Now I schlepped a damaged, blackened foot in a plastic grocery bag I thought would keep the winter slush out. But when I sat down across the president, a puddle unceremoniously began to form below us.

At least I survived to have this meeting, I thought. Hope it’s a good one.

After the referendum, the divestment group began meeting with the university trustees, a process that had become spectacularly, almost comically, unproductive. One trustee suggested writing thank you letters to the “good” oil companies instead of divesting (she’d been impressed by BP’s sustainability-themed advertising campaigns). Another fretted primarily about some beachside property his family owned in Canada. In a particularly heated session, I foolishly let slip the phrase “means of production,” which nearly caused an apoplectic fit among the highly corporatized trustees assembled (some scoffed audibly; one glowered as if I’d just initiated some sort of Satanic ritual). In another, more subdued, meeting, we sat in catatonic, somewhat bemused silence for an hour as a representative of the Harvard Management Company explained what an endowment is (unfortunately, or perhaps conveniently, that was all we had time for that day). The meetings, which dragged on for months, were so fruitless they ultimately converted the student body president, who acted as a neutral facilitator, into a divestment supporter and eventual whistleblower.

But this time will be different, I thought. Just me and the president. I’m sure we can find some common ground.

It was obvious the president would not agree to a policy change on the spot, so my goal was simply to request a public discussion. Without one, we reasoned, the trustees would just keep stalling in private, and if they truly believed their own arguments, then they should have no problem explaining and defending them to others. Besides, we weren’t the only ones with an interest in Harvard’s decision: Insofar as it could affect the course of global warming, the entire world deserved to know why Earth’s richest university was actively defending and enabling the fossil industry.

Who could possibly say no to a public discussion? I asked myself. Surely the president of Harvard will understand. Open inquiry, after all, is one of the essential purposes of the university.

I was not prepared for what I encountered. The conversation quickly veered into why divestment was a bad idea: 

“Harvard isn’t really that influential, so divestment won’t make a difference.”

“Instead of divesting, we’re going to talk to fossil fuel companies and convince them to become clean energy companies.”

“If we divest from fossil fuels, what are we going to divest from next? Sugar?”

A torrent of dubious opinions, baseless plans, and logical non-sequiturs proceeded. Am I really listening to the president of Harvard try to convince me that Harvard isn’t influential? I thought in disbelief. They didn’t mention that in the brochure.

I asked for details on Harvard’s plan to convince fossil fuel companies to abandon their core business model. There were none. “We’re going to shift the landscape. We’re going to shift the incentives,” the president answered vaguely.

Her insistence that fossil fuels and sugar were indistinguishable left me truly gob-smacked. It suggested one of two possibilities: Either the president of Harvard doesn’t understand the gravity of this problem, I thought, or she’s pretending not to understand. Both seemed bad; I didn’t know which was worse.

After 20 minutes, my cautious optimism was a smoldering husk. The energy had left my body. I decided to pull the emergency escape cord.

“Well, I see we’re not going to agree on these issues today,” I suggested, “but would you be willing to speak about your positions publicly?”

The answer was a swift no. “The second I stand up in public and say something about divestment,” the president responded, “there will be a front-page article about it in The New York Times.” That was, apparently, something she wanted to avoid.

She was already gathering her things and leaving. Deflated, realizing I’d accomplished nothing, I pleaded, “You’ve given me lots of answers today, but I’m not the only one interested in them. Other people want to know too.”

She stopped on her way out, and I’ll never forget what I heard next: “Let’s figure out the answers,” Harvard’s president said, turning to me, “before we start asking the questions in public.”

I sat there, my foot now a soggy puddle, trying to make sense of the exchange. Is this what Veritas really is? A choreographed show? The president’s desire to avoid embarrassment is more important than the untold number, around the world, who deserve to know the truth?

As I shlip-shlopped home, I knew the time for talking was over. I’d thought logical persuasion could win the day. But now I was ready to protest, to raise rabble, to break the law if need be, to challenge the unjust obstructionism coming not just from the usual suspects—industry lobbyists and the like—but also, I’d learned, from society’s most learned, most respected, and most praised. Those who publicly make grand speeches about the urgency of action while privately defending the status quo. In some ways, I thought, the industry lobbyist is more honest: At least he plies his mercenary trade openly, rather than seeking the accolades of society while quietly enabling its destruction for personal expedience.

I’d learned, from society’s most learned, most respected, and most praised. Those who publicly make grand speeches about the urgency of action while privately defending the status quo.

It was an unpleasant lesson, but those meetings with Harvard’s trustees, and its president, taught me something about power and prestige no classroom ever could.


Discussion alone had failed; protest was called for, and in the following months and years, protest we did. By May, one student was arrested—the first within the national divestment movement—for blockading the president’s office in protest of her continued refusal to discuss divestment publicly. A year later, Divest Harvard had developed the organizational capacity to plan and execute an entire week of continuous civil disobedience, involving hundreds of people, including prominent scholars, politicians, and celebrities.

But as we started, we had a lot to learn. Escalating tactics raised a host of new questions: How to force confrontation while remaining ethical? What if we alienate supporters who find our actions too aggressive? What’s the right balance between horizontal and hierarchical decision structures, especially when making high-stakes decisions in the middle of actions? How do we interact with other social movements that may be escalating simultaneously?

Within a few years, Divest Harvard became experienced in a wide range of tactics and skills, from media relations to civil disobedience. We knew how to create decision trees to account for just about any possible action from the Harvard administration during a protest, and how to assign field decision-makers and communicators to keep unpredictable actions running smoothly. We learned how to strike a balance between secrecy and efficiency in planning and how to use liaisons in police encounters to maintain emotional and situational control. We learned how to mobilize concentric circles of support: 20 reliable organizers, 100 active supporters who could turn up to an action with a week’s notice, 1,000 passive supporters who could show up to a rally once per year, and 10,000 to 100,000 who could amplify a message through online media. Had it not been for Divest Harvard, few of us would have learned these skills or even the concepts behind them.

Yet we also learned another fact of activism: that it’s often impossible to predict the impact of an action before carrying it out. In 2015, we decided to carry out an act of civil disobedience in a setting Harvard couldn’t fully control: the office of Harvard Management Company, which happened to be in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In a high-security building, we had little room for error.

Our plan was simple: Four of us would dress in business attire and meet in a nearby train station at noon. We’d enter through the revolving doors, but instead of going to the metal detectors, we’d approach the front desk, turn around, and sit down, simultaneously unfurling a large banner (hidden in one of our handbags) reading “Harvard Management Company: Divest Now.” We had previously scouted the location and created a mock-up of the lobby; by practicing and color-coding the corners of the banner we were confident we could enter the building, sit down, and unfurl the banner in about five seconds. As we sat, our police liaison, an Iraq War veteran, would enter. His job was to maintain a calm demeanor and act as the sole conduit for communication between the police and us. This would allow us to better maintain our composure and control the tempo of interactions. Once approached by security or police, we’d explain through our liaison that we were protesting the Harvard Management Company’s investments in fossil fuels, that we would be peaceful, quiet, would not block ingress or egress—and that we’d stay until the building closed at 5 P.M., or until Harvard Management Company agreed to meet with us, or until we were arrested, whichever came first.

As we sat down, others would begin calling media contacts to tip them off that the protest was occurring and that arrests may be imminent. Meanwhile, a few dozen others would create a small rally outside the building to generate spectacle and ensure that whatever transpired could be recorded.

The plan, which we executed in 2016, went off without a hitch. Within a few hours, we’d been arrested and were sitting in Suffolk County Jail. As an organizer, I was pleased the action had been carried out so flawlessly. But I also wondered whether our efforts would make a difference. We were arraigned, charged with trespassing, and convicted the following month. 

The media impression ended up being subdued. In that sense, the action had little impact. But I noticed something more important in the following months. As I’d walk from my lab to drop off papers at one office or another, staff would pull me aside, saying, “Thank you for what you did.” I began receiving emails from professors and even some administrators sending their support. Friends who’d never shown interest in the divestment campaign began to voice their astonishment at Harvard’s inaction and ask how they could help.

One can never precisely predict the impact of an act of protest before it’s carried out. That’s why taking a stand only if it’s “worth it” is a losing proposition. Sometimes it’s not worth it in a utilitarian sense, but it’s still the right thing to do, and in that sense it’s the best thing to do. And when others see that, they can be moved. 


By 2016, the divestment movement had made gains around the world, but the situation at Harvard was stuck. A lawsuit filed by six other students and myself against Harvard to compel divestment had stalled on legal technicalities. Exhaustion was setting in among group members, many leaders had graduated, and opportunities to put pressure on the administration seemed scarcer.

Moreover, the administration seemed intent on censoring any discussion of divestment. In April of that year, former vice president Al Gore was scheduled to give a university-wide lecture. We sent him a request: Would he help us put renewed pressure on the university by calling out its refusal to act?

Gore began his speech to a packed theater, and then, after pausing for a moment, appeared to go off script. He noted Harvard’s refusal to divest and said

“The behavioral scientists talk about the ‘endowment bias’—no pun intended.  They also talk about the ‘status quo bias’ or the ‘system justification principle’—we have a need to believe that things are basically OK, and if they’re not, it creates anxiety, so we try to push it off.  We need to speed up the shift away from dirty, carbon-rich fuels toward a true renewable economy. And I would dearly love, for economic reasons alone, to see Harvard leading the way.”

The audience erupted into applause, the greatest of the night. Surely this will make waves, I thought.

Yet in The Harvard Gazette’s coverage of the event, fossil fuel investments were scantly mentioned. The dreaded d-word—divestment—was absent entirely. Gore’s intervention and the enthusiastic response it received had been erased from official history.

Yet in The Harvard Gazette’s coverage of the event, fossil fuel investments were scantly mentioned. The dreaded d-word—divestment—was absent entirely. Gore’s intervention and the enthusiastic response it received had been erased from official history.

Luckily, some students had recorded the truth on their phones, against Harvard policy. One sent me a copy in case I wanted to bring it to public attention. The student was afraid to act on their own for fear of backlash from the university, but I saw no choice. I quickly posted the video with a transcript. 

The student was right to fear backlash—soon, I received a message from a senior director at Harvard saying I’d be unwelcome at any similar future event. 

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was a research fellow studying climate change impacts and adaptation, many of my professors appeared to stop speaking to me once I began writing about the school’s ties to oil industry funding. I’d hear them complaining about my research over hors d’oeuvres during mixers, and they became unresponsive to basic greetings in the hall. It was not a complete surprise, since we’d been privately instructed not to talk to journalists who asked about the oil money (when I heard that, I decided to become the journalist), but that didn’t make the internal blacklisting any less awkward or perplexing. In the world of science, where I spent most of my time, we were proud of our funding. The climate policy researchers at the Kennedy School, in contrast, seemed to be doing everything they could to hide it. It didn’t seem very Veritas.

Backlash seemed to extend to my postdoctoral applications too. As graduation neared, a senior director who’d long criticized my support for divestment told me my applications for an appointment at Harvard would be unsuccessful, noting that because of my activism, the review committee didn’t think I was “objective.” The underlying message: I told you so.

It would be naive, of course, to expect no repercussions when you challenge a powerful system. The key is to try to stay one step ahead, and try to capitalize on opportunities created even as some doors shut. Still, the ostracism stung. After all, I’d done my homework: Divestment was supported by scientific research showing investment patterns had to change to avert catastrophic climate change and meet the Paris Agreement. That fact was being selectively ignored—and recognition of it punished—by senior scientists often funded, coincidentally, by the oil industry itself. While they enjoyed prosperous careers and public adulation, it fell on students, at their own risk, to point out the obvious. I began to see Harvard as deeply corrupted.


Since I graduated, a new wave of Divest Harvard leaders has emerged, with their own style. They’ve built coalitions with other movements and carried out incredible actions like the one at the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, which garnered national attention. The resurgence of Divest Harvard speaks to another aspect of activist campaigns: They move in waves, with ebbs and flows. And at some point, we have to step back to create space for a new generation of leaders, who will learn their own lessons.

Harvard has moved too. In 2017, it agreed to “freeze” its fossil fuel investments. And earlier this year, it announced a new investment policy of “net zero” carbon pollution by 2050. It’s a far cry from the urgent action climate justice requires, but it’s also a marked difference from the outright refusal to take responsibility exhibited only a few years ago.

In 2012, hardly anyone had heard of fossil fuel divestment. Today, more than a thousand institutions with more than $14 trillion between them have divested in one form or another. The impossible became conceivable, then inevitable. Change can and does happen, with sustained effort.

But the equivocation and obstructionism still present in universities—often tied to fossil industry funding—must be challenged. A stark example of the delay created by Big Oil’s dollars was on display earlier this year at Stanford, where I’m now a JD-PhD candidate. The Faculty Senate debated divestment, but those receiving largesse from the industry voiced their fear of losing it. As at Harvard, dollars again came before justice and truth. It’s a corrupting dynamic, and especially concerning given that Stanford, MIT, and other universities are awash in oil money.

How the divestment movement will unfold is yet unwritten. It’s up to you. The advice I received all those years ago—that the best way to learn about changing the world is to try to do it—is true. Who knows what you’ll learn along the way, whom you’ll meet, and what adventures you’ll have?

Go get 'em.