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A (Di)Vested Interest: An Interview with Sarah Gediman

If you’ve caught word of the divestment movement on the University of Illinois campus, you can thank Sarah Gediman. Maybe you’ve participated in a protest, signed a petition, or chosen to dig deeper into this complex topic — if not, you’re in the right place!

Sarah sat down with iSEE intern Maria Maring (MM) to talk all things divestment. Read on for answers!

MM: What is fossil fuel divestment, and why is it important?

SG: Fossil fuel divestment is removing part of the University of Illinois’s endowment that is currently invested in fossil fuel companies and reinvesting in environmentally sustainable companies. It is important because right now, 3-5 percent of the university’s endowment is invested in companies that are contributing to climate change by extracting and burning fossil fuels. It’s a huge problem that using the U of I’s money, these companies are contributing to climate change.

MM: What are U of I students doing to work towards divestment?

SG: The UIUC Fossil Free RSO has reached out to administrators about divestment. They’ve also done some research into what alternative investments could be. And a group of students this past spring semester in NRES 285, the (Illinois Climate Action Plan) iCAP class, drafted a divestment section to be included in iCAP 2020. 

I think a lot of students are really excited about the idea of divestment because it represents an institutional commitment to addressing climate change, which a lot of us care about. Illinois students understand the responsibility we have to do better, more sustainable things.

MM: What does the iCAP say about divestment?

SG: iCAP 2020 calls for the complete divestment from fossil companies by fiscal year 2025. This includes not only the Urbana-Champaign campus, but all three University of Illinois campuses divesting from companies that deal with coal, natural gas, and petroleum.

There are two main reasons for divestment listed in the iCAP. Firstly: climate change and social reasons. That includes pollution, all the voices of climate change, limited agricultural production, drought, disease, as well as the health costs of extracting and using fossil fuels. Secondly: fossil fuels are not a financially responsible decision anymore. Investing in them is unwise because looking toward the future, fossil fuel companies are uncertain what they’re going to see. We don’t want our money that’s supposed to be funding our university invested in financially insecure companies — regardless of their environmental and social standing.

MM: What can the administration do to accelerate divestment?

SG: The best way to divest is just to do it. Make the call and pull the resources. The administration needs to make it a priority. Though people have expressed interest in divestment, it is difficult to divest because the funds that are invested in fossil fuels are wrapped up in packages with funds that are invested in other things. We need to not let that be a hindrance, and just think of that as part of divestment, as something that needs to happen no matter what. Funds are wrapped up with other funds, but just not letting that be a problem is really important.

My answer is just to do it. To divest. Because it’s possible. The University of California did it in one month.

Read on to learn more about Sarah!

Sarah Gediman grew up in Wilmette, Ill., very near Lake Michigan, where her love for the environment first began. She is a senior, about to finish her double majors: one in History, and the other in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability (ESES) with a concentration in Society & Environment.

“I’ve always liked to read, write, and be outside. And when I got to the University of Illinois, I discovered that ESES allows students to combine the cultural aspect of sustainability with science and policy aspects,” Sarah said.

Aside from her classes, Sarah has been a dedicated member of the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) since her sophomore year and has now risen to the position of Vice Chair. SSC funds independent sustainability projects spearheaded by students and faculty; $1.4 million is allocated to these projects every year, made possible by $14 in fees collected from every U of I student’s tuition.

“We get to fund the Beekeeping Club, the Fermentation Club, and bigger projects like the Solar Farm and geothermal energy installations on the Engineering Quad,” Gediman said. “This committee has been an awesome way to learn about what’s happening on campus, and it’s great to have a say in where we put our money in terms on sustainability.”

Last spring, she enrolled in ESE 498: Environmental Writing for Publication. At the conclusion of this class, some students’ pieces are selected to be published in iSEE’s Q Magazine. Sarah’s feature article highlights an outdated and leaky pipeline that is contaminating Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. Thanks to her flying colors in this class, Sarah is also the Fall 2020 Student Editor for Q.

“I’ve worked with another student on her essay about the emerald ash borer, and it was really fun to see a different style of writing and learn about the topic from her,” she said.

You can find Gediman’s work in the Fall 2020 edition of Q, due out in late September or early October. This will be her first publication.

Her writing and editing skills don’t stop with Q: She has also contributed to the Illinois Climate Action Plan 2020 (iCAP) through her involvement with the iCAP Working Group (iWG). During iWG meetings, university administrators, faculty members, staff, community stakeholders, and students craft the iCAP objectives and evaluate whether its language and goals are feasible. Sarah has specifically been advocating for clean energy.

“I’ve been pushing the iCAP toward more ambitious carbon neutrality rules and divestment from fossil fuels,” she said.

Although the iCAP 2020 writing process has come to an end, that doesn’t mean the work is over. Gediman cites accountability as one of the most effective ways to be environmentally responsible: “The iCAP is great, but it’s not perfect. We have to keep momentum going with it. Having students think about ways to improve the iCAP at all times is essential to being the best that we can be.”

In her free time, she enjoys paddle boarding on Lake Michigan, and she recently became vegan in an effort to be more sustainable. She spent the past summer experimenting with vegan recipes and taste-testing vegan ice creams.

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