To pursue climate justice, the College must reinvest in community

Coco Rhum

Last month, in an email to the campus community, President Mandel made a public commitment to fossil fuel divestment from the College’s endowment. Though the College had internally decided to shift its investment policy prior to the release of this letter, her public communication of this decision was significant as a first step towards investment transparency and using the endowment to take a stance regarding climate justice. While I, and other members of Divest Williams, were glad to see this initial step, we urge the College to take bolder action. One way I hope to see this happen is through a comprehensive community reinvestment plan. 

In a meeting with President Mandel and members of the Board of Trustees, Divest Williams called on the College to reallocate the money currently invested in fossil fuels towards various community projects and impact investments. The College currently has $30 million invested in sustainability-related impact investments, a fraction of the $160 million invested in fossil fuels (which will be completely divested by 2033). In addition to a more substantial financial commitment to projects like these, we also want to broaden the avenues for reinvestment to include community bonds, community loan funds, and community development financial institutions.

The goal behind community reinvestment is to specifically address issues of climate change and other systemic inequalities, especially those perpetuated by the College (for example, the College should commit to investing in the Stockbridge–Munsee Community). Similarly, the College should invest in projects that are additive to the community, such as affordable housing or sustainable local food systems. 

To be clear, reinvestment is not a zero-sum game; the College must continue to fund and expand funding for programs like financial aid and Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS) while simultaneously pursuing a policy of reinvestment in the larger community using the funds in the endowment. We believe that the College, as an institution with incredible wealth and with dramatic influence in the local economy, has a fiscal responsibility towards building a just and equitable community. Thus far, the College has failed to meet this responsibility. 

Data from the Williamstown Economic Development Committee lists the College as the largest regional employer, with the most jobs being in accommodation and food service. At the same time, Williamstown has high home values, a high cost of living, and a lack of affordable housing. The College does not pay its hourly workers enough money for them to afford to live in most Williamstown neighborhoods despite having a decisive role in the regional labor market. Through community reinvestment, we can help ameliorate injustices perpetrated by the College. Investing in community bonds, for example, might allow the College to help fund new local affordable housing, an improved public transportation system, or other similarly impactful programs. Regional economic stratification is just one example of how the College can use community reinvestment to help ameliorate injustices.

Community reinvestment is not a novel idea. Concordia University in Montreal, for example, has committed to “zero investment in traditional oil-and-gas-oriented investments and 10 percent of its long-term assets in impact investments by 2025.” We want to see the College make a similar commitment. 

Furthermore, we believe that transparency must be at the heart of any reinvestment plan. The College should open up any reinvestment processes to students and other community members for input and be accountable to those populations when it comes to reporting the choices made and their respective implementation and investment processes. Further ideas on what transparency might look like regarding the endowment are outlined in an op-ed published last week by Chris Gontarek ’25. 

As a coalition committed to the fight for climate justice, Divest Williams believes that the College cannot continue to contribute to extractive economic practices. Instead, we must shift our resources towards building a more just and sustainable community.

Coco Rhum ’24 is a critical theory major from Brooklyn, N.Y.