Three Harvard students huddle outside a tent in the middle of a deserted Harvard Yard facing the statue of John Harvard at midnight last semester.
Squatting beneath a banner emblazoned with “The Leadership Campaign”—a student-led effort to “repower” the state with clean electricity by 2020—the three look on as a Harvard University Police Department officer pulls up behind them.
After a brief conversation, the three pack up the tent and head back to their dorms.
The three students—members of Students for a Just and Stable Future, a statewide network of students pushing for The Leadership Campaign’s clean energy goals—have been organizing “sleep outs” in the Yard throughout the semester to protest the University’s use of “dirty energy.”
Though the “sleep outs” have gained little traction on its founding campus—last semester’s nighttime events attracted an average of five students—the campaign has recruited roughly 500 students, an estimated 200 of whom will camp out on Boston Common tonight to support the passage of a bill calling for the creation of a clean energy task force.
While the campaign has established its presence on college campuses across the state, Harvard SJSF members say that Harvard College administration’s resistance to their “sleep outs” has hurt the group’s ability to build a larger support community on campus.
The College does not allow SJSF to sleep in the Yard every week, SJSF spokesman Jonathan M.L. Rosenthal ’13 says as he folds up a tent pole, and HUPD asks the students to leave every time they attempt to camp out.
“But we’ll be back tomorrow night, and so will they,” Rosenthal says.
The 10 students actively involved with SJSF at Harvard continue to face outreach challenges without the backing of the administration.
Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds said in an interview this February that she could not allow SJSF to hold sleep outs due to the “safety and security” risk Harvard’s urban campus poses for students.
When asked what academic repercussions student protestors would face if arrested at a “sleep out” off campus, Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison did not eliminate the possibility of Ad Board hearings.
Though Ellison stressed that there is no blanket policy requiring arrested students to appear before the Ad Board, he said in a Feb. interview that the College does review off-campus arrests.
“We would not go after a student for protesting,” Ellison said. “But if it’s illegal protesting, that’s different.”
Given the chance that the Boston police may file charges or even arrest tonight’s protestors for trespassing on Boston Common, Rosenthal says participating Harvard students will most likely spend the night in Church on the Hill near the Common instead.
Unlike Harvard, other colleges such as Tufts and Brandeis have allowed and even encouraged on-campus sleep outs—the Tufts administration provided protestors with easy access to bathrooms for the night, campus coordinator Heather E. Bruckner says—and other coordinators say they were unaware of any academic consequences for protest-related arrests.
Rosenthal adds that Harvard SJSF lacks concrete support from the Environmental Action Committee, which has not actively pushed its members to participate in SJSF sleep outs.
At Brandeis, on the other hand, SJSF functions as a subcommittee of the larger environmental group on campus, which helped recruit over 100 students for this semester’s on-campus sleep out, Students for Environmental Action vice president Matt G. Gabrenya says.
“I do think it’s disappointing that Harvard has such ambitious reduction goals for itself but doesn’t encourage or support students who are trying to get similar levels passed elsewhere,” says SJSF founder Craig S. Altemose.
A ‘VARSITY SPORT’
Altemose, a joint student at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School, says he wanted to capitalize on the “youthful idealism” of college students when he founded the group—then called the Mass. Power Shift Movement—in 2008.
This past fall, the group changed its name to SJSF and launched “The Leadership Campaign” to lobby for 100 percent clean electricity in Massachusetts by 2020, Altemose says.
Despite difficulties in recruiting members at Harvard, SJSF leaders say that as long as there is a core group of dedicated students at campuses across Massachusetts, the group will be strong enough to effect change in the state.
After a semester-long campaign, SJSF successfully introduced a bill in Dec. 2009 to create a clean energy task force with 17 legislators signing on as cosponsors and reached out to local businesses and churches across the state to support its efforts.
“I’ve been thinking this is more along the lines of a varsity sport. The people who commit to a varsity sport commit to practicing every day, getting up early, traveling every weekend,” Altemose says. “But at the end of the day, we’re not playing a game. We’re trying to save the world.”
When the SJSF protestors wake up tomorrow morning—either in their tents on Boston Common or in Church on the Hill, if they are asked to leave—they will march over to the Statehouse, waving signs and lobbying for the passage of their bill.
Though “internal politics” within the House Rules Committee will prevent SJSF from achieving its initial goal of passing the bill by Earth Day tomorrow, Altemose says that SJSF will create an independent task force of students, legislators, and community members to reach the 100 percent clean electricity goal if they are unable to pass the bill by the time the session ends in July.
This summer, SJSF plans to ride bicycles around the state to educate local communities about clean energy as part of the Massachusetts Climate Summer project.
Harvard campus coordinator Kani Keita ’12 adds that SJSF will redouble its efforts to recruit members, especially freshmen, at Harvard and other campuses.
“The main priority is making people aware of what the issue is, what our solution is, and how they can help us if they want to,” Keita says.
—Natasha S. Whitney and Eric P. Newcomer contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at email@example.com.
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