Fueling the Future of a Fossil Free University: Q&...

Fueling the Future of a Fossil Free University: Q&A with Keala Uchoa, Fossil Free NU president

Fossil Free Northwestern is different from other environmental student groups at Northwestern University. Instead of just focusing on environmentalism, the group places an emphasis on environmental justice and climate justice, specifically how inequities fueled by environmental harm disproportionately affect low-income communities of color worldwide. In spring 2019, following a four-year hiatus, second-year Weinberg student Keala Uchoa renewed Fossil Free NU. Since then, she and her team have built a strong organization supported not just by students but also faculty, staff, alumni and community members. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Jacquelyne Germain: What is the current mission of Fossil Free NU?

Keala Uchoa: Our more circumscribed tangible goal is getting the university to divest in fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energies, restorative justice practices and reinvest in communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental injustice and climate injustice in Chicago specifically. So, we’re talking communities like Little Village, Pilsen and all the communities on the South Side.

Our main theme is being a safe and nourishing space for POC at Northwestern, because a lot of activist groups are pretty monolithic and are not coming at it from a critical race perspective, which we try to challenge.

JG: What are your thoughts on Northwestern priding itself in being a progressive and sustainable institution while investing in fossil fuels?

KU: My thought is that no institution of higher education is progressive considering that all institutions of higher education in the United States are built on stolen indigenous land and are continuously operating on this stolen land. A lot of the money and capital to build and fund these universities comes directly and indirectly from slave labor and oppression of all forms.

There’s just so much irony in any university saying they’re a progressive institution, but to get at your question: you can commit yourself to principles of sustainability—that’s great—but if the promises are empty, that’s exactly what they are. They’re empty promises, they’re hollow promises that have no effect on actual communities. So, it’s a question of are you doing this to be performative? Or are you actually committed to sustainability? I would suggest that the former is the reality.

JG: Can you explain Fossil Free NU’s 100% Transparency Campaign?

KU: It is very hard to write a proposal, especially when you’re a low-income student of color to begin with who has a lot of other responsibilities. If Northwestern is not even going to practice very basic financial transparency, it’s going to make that process a lot harder. The 100% Transparency campaign is really about being transparent about where the money comes from that funds financial aid and research.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy in funding scholarships by investing in the fossil fuel industry that directly harms low-income students of color. Like yes, you’re giving me a scholarship, but if you’re poisoning my community, I don’t really know how to feel about that.

Another layer is that the university is funding research saying that we need to stop fossil fuel extraction right now. The university has so much brilliant climate science research that is being partially funded by the fossil fuel industry. The hypocrisy in that is just beyond me.

JG: How is Fossil Free NU continuing the fight in quarantine?

KU: We’re meeting with the Board of Trustees soon, so we’ve been preparing for that meeting a lot. All of our members are a part of a really robust research campaign where we’ve been researching for that meeting and researching coronavirus as its unfolding and how that is amplifying racial injustice and economic injustice.

Moving forward, it’s all contingent upon our communications with the board, how it goes and future communications with them. We stay connected through group messages and then we have committees that do different tasks. I would say that the transition to the digital platform has presented some challenges, but in general we have such a strong member base that it’s been good. People are still very committed.

JG: What are you expecting from this upcoming meeting with the Board of Trustees?

KU: We don’t have any expectations for this meeting. We’re going in really looking to form a relationship with them and negotiate with them in any way. I would say our overarching goal is just direct and open communication and looking for ways we can partner. We don’t want an antagonistic relationship with the Board of Trustees because that’s not useful. We want to look at ways divestment can be viable for them and address some of their concerns.

JG: You mentioned that a part of your research for this meeting focuses on some of the impacts of coronavirus. There are intersections between racial health disparities due to the coronavirus and environmental injustice. What are your thoughts on this?

KU: From a critical race perspective, around the world but specifically in the U.S., the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding that is, “oh, you know, they have diseases that make them more susceptible” or “they’re predisposed to chronic diseases like heart disease or asthma.” When you say that, you’re obscuring the reality that what is actually going on is that the very same folks that have been disproportionately affected by the current virus are living in some of the communities with the worst housing conditions.

These communities are being hyper-policed, hyper-surveilled and are disinvested from. These communities are also disproportionately located near sources of environmental harm like factories and waste incinerators. Obviously, if you’re a child growing up in a community right next to a coal burning power plant, science and logic tells us you’re way more likely to develop asthma. Obviously, that’s going to put you in a more vulnerable position to something like a respiratory virus like the coronavirus. So many different compounding structural inequalities intersect in this pandemic, and they’re just being amplified. For example, undocumented communities are facing all of these issues and they also don’t get stimulus checks.

JG: What have you learned during your time as president of Fossil Free NU?

KU: I think I’ve learned that there are a lot of people at Northwestern who are ideologically committed to some of Fossil Free NU’s principles, like anti-capitalism and anti-racism, but they’re also the same people who are not showing up for the community.

Fossil Free NU was really born out of my desire for a space for POC to be together and build some of the visions of a more equitable society. So, what I’ve learned from Fossil Free NU is that if you’re not finding those spaces, you have to create them yourself. It’s very difficult and takes a lot of work and emotional work, but it’s definitely worth it. We’ve built something that’s sustainable and that will extend into the future, and we’re all very proud of that.

JG: How can students join and support Fossil Free NU?

KU: You can email us at, you can reach out to me personally, you can DM us on any of our social media accounts and we can get you signed up. We can also sign you up for our newsletter for general updates. We can use any single talent or perspective or lived experience.

All is welcome and it helps us advance our movement. I would really encourage people to join even if they don’t know how much they can commit. Any level of commitment is fine. We have some members that do a lot and some members who pop in once in a while, and that’s all good. We’re still a community and looking to grow and build our base.

JG: What is the future of Fossil Free NU?

KU: The future is about continuing this long fight, not just for getting divestment voted on, but also the implementation of divestment. There are a lot of ways in which implementation can stray from the principles. Beyond that, again, just focusing on political education, which is harder to do digitally, but we do have a lot of resource guides. As we move into the future, I would like to see more events and more spaces for members to come in and do mini teach-ins. Just a space for critical thinking and reflection in addition to the tangible goal of divestment.


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