Dear Hanlon: Thank You

by Leehi Yona | 6/10/16 7:20pm

Dear President Phil Hanlon:

I came to Dartmouth with wide eyes eager to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. As I walk to receive my diploma on June 12, I am more cynical, jaded and empowered than I have ever been.

I came to Dartmouth already carrying a heavy burden: I knew that climate change was going to be the defining issue of my generation. When I arrived at the College, I dove headfirst into science research and policy studies. My research culminated in a Senior Fellowship, where I studied interdisciplinary solutions to climate change full-time for the past year. I am eternally indebted to Dartmouth faculty –– some of the world’s leading experts on climate change, from Arctic science to international policy –– who mentored me and pushed me to expand my sense of academic comfort.

All the while I was conducting this research, I was deeply involved in advocacy for climate action. I attended United Nations conferences as a youth delegate. In my freshman year, I launched the Divest Dartmouth campaign to disinvest the College’s endowment from 200 fossil fuel companies. I was helplessly trying to bring this broken world back together.

President Hanlon, I know you already know all of this. After all, I’ve been to your office hours dozens of times to talk about divestment and climate change. The irony isn’t lost on me when, in response to divestment, you tell us that we misguided activists should do our research, when we are in fact these very climate researchers.

In fact, Dartmouth has featured my climate research in its promotional materials at least seven times in the past year –– conveniently omitting the social justice work at the very core of it. I have seen the ways in which my own voice has been stolen so that lip service can be substituted for real action.

And, while my research has been praised, my advocacy –– advocacy very much informed by my research findings –– has been ignored. You have both praised and belittled me in the same breath. As an individual, I embody what you treat as two very different people on campus: the former honored, the latter disdainful.

Divest Dartmouth’s membership has tripled over the past year. We have an engaged alumni constituency spanning 53 class years. In April, we organized a rally on Gold Coast Lawn that, at nearly 500 attendees and with more than 115 co-sponsors, broke both New Hampshire and Dartmouth records. We have a petition with over 2,500 signatories.

Finally, this term, an objective report you commissioned in 2014 that offered a fair, evidence-based assessment of the impacts of divestment was released. At the end of its analysis, the report found that under no circumstances could refusing to divest ever be a wise or rational decision. The question that remained was not if to divest, but when, and how much –– a question that you, as of press time, refuse to entertain.

If you were to tell me that we could start a campaign our freshman fall and find ourselves in our senior spring without a single public, on the record meeting with the president or Board of Trustees, I never would have believed you.

President Hanlon, what does our Dartmouth education teach us when you act as though climate change isn’t urgent enough? When you act as though lip service will be enough? When you tell us that Dartmouth should be conducting climate research, yet doing nothing in response to the alarm bells that ring and ring and ring as a result of that research? When you tell me to do my research when I am the one doing the research, when I am the one going to the Arctic and witnessing it all firsthand?

You have taught me so much about the world: that an institution’s rate of change will never be swift enough to address urgent problems. That for some, the desires of special interests matter more than the lives of future generations. That young people who so boldly dream of the “Big Ideas” you encourage will be dismissed as naïve and misguided. That students can work diligently, peacefully, and patiently for an urgent issue throughout their entire Dartmouth career without being granted so much as public dialogue. That, for any necessary change to happen, we as young people need to build a world of our own.

Thank you for teaching me that progress is the work of the restless.

Thank you for teaching me to trust the power of my own voice, and to recognize when my voice is being co-opted.

Thank you for teaching me that I can follow all the rules I am told are necessary to make change, and still get nowhere.

Thank you for showing me just how much love there is in the communities of students, faculty and alumni who strive to make Dartmouth –– and, by extension, our world –– better.

Thank you for giving me the fire that I feel in my veins to keep fighting for our future, my future, for the Class of 2066.

Thank you for giving me the knowledge, the anger, the hope I need to keep fighting.

Leehi Yona ’16 completed a biology and environmental studies double major and a public policy minor. As a Stamps Leadership Scholar and a Senior Fellow, she studied interdisciplinary solutions to climate change this year. While at Dartmouth, she was named Canada’s Top Environmentalist Under 25 in 2013.