Alumna Daniela Lapidous raises awareness about fossil fuel divestment

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Harker alumna Daniela Lapidous (‘12) is on a quest to divest. The Columbia University sophomore has been working individually and with Barnard Columbia Divest to stop the university from investing its endowments in the fossil fuel industry.

In her freshman year, Daniela co-founded Barnard Columbia Divest (BCD), a group that advocates eliminating the school’s investment, or “divesting,” from the fossil fuel industry. Hundreds of universities across the country, including Cornell, Brown, and Harvard, have joined the divestment movement as well.

“What we’re asking is that the school stop giving money to the top 200 fossil fuel extraction companies,” she said.

On Feb. 7, Daniela, along with BCD, sent a petition to the President of Columbia, Lee C. Bollinger, and the Board of Trustees, stating that “as leading institutions of higher education, Columbia and Barnard have the responsibility to pave the way toward a future free of climate chaos.”

According to an op-ed published by Columbia sophomore and BCD member Michael Greenberg in Columbia Daily Spectator, Bollinger was unresponsive to the idea of divestment.

BCD also attempted to schedule a meeting with the Board of Trustees in February but was unsuccessful. The Board “practically laughed and suggested that was an infrequent, if not impossible, event,” according to Daniela in Columbia Daily Spectator,

Despite the difficulties they faced, BCD garnered public support recently via the first-ever Columbia ballot initiative in which students were able to weigh in on the proposal for fossil fuel divestment.

“It was the first time in Columbia’s history that students have been able to vote on an issue and not just a candidate,” Daniela said.

On Oct. 18, the results of the ballot initiative were released: 73.7 percent of students surveyed (1166 students) were in favor of divesting, according to BCD’s official website.

“Our goal for the end of the school year is to get a clear ‘Yes, we will proceed forward with the divestment!’” she said.

Daniela first became interested in environmental issues while studying population studies in middle school. She joined HEART Club, now Brilliant Organizers of Student Sustainability (BOSS), in high school and became the club’s Vice President in senior year. With Shreya Indukuri (‘12), Daniela also co-organized Green Teen Summit, a conference for high school students that featured keynote speaker Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and an environmental activist.

In Nov. 2012, Daniela attended one of McKibben’s talks in New York City.

“I read about the talk and it said he was advocating for students to start divestment movements on campus,” she said. “Even before the talk, we were like ‘Alright, we’re doing this,’ so we just started building our group.”

As a freshman, finding a cause to work for helped Daniela integrate into the new university environment, and she credits her Harker background for her activism.

“After doing a bunch of environmental stuff in high school, I didn’t know how to be involved in college,” she said. “But if I didn’t have all [my high school] experiences, I wouldn’t have been so prepared to just dive in and lead a campaign first semester freshman year.”

In addition to her HEART Club involvement, Daniela also wrote for The Winged Post. Continuing her writing in college, her editorials on divestment were published by online news sites including The Nation and Columbia Daily Spectator.

BCD has also been rising in attention on the web, with articles in The Huffington Post and Columbia Political Review, among others.

“Writing editorials about divestment has been a useful way to get divestment out there,” she said. “On a college campus, especially at Columbia in the middle of city, having a conversation about one topic for more than a day is pretty rare.”

Also pushing for social reform past climate change, she believes that divestment is just one step of the process.

“Divestment is just a tactic to strive for a broader vision,” she said. “It is not the end goal itself. It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around, but definitions can be different for everyone.”

Her favorite quote relating to the holistic nature of fossil fuel divestment is from anti-mountaintop-removal activist Dustin Steele, who stated “When you fight oppression anywhere, you fight oppression everywhere.”

This piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on Nov. 5, 2013.