By Sam Nelson
The chill in Moscow air is more than physical. It permeates through the cracks of Russian law, strangling the voice of its people with its icy grip, freezing words in their throats. Although free speech is technically a right in Russia, in practice, the government cracks down on any language it deems incendiary.
These were the conditions under which Masha Vernik matured. The 19-year-old International Relations major (CAS ’19) was born in New Jersey, but attended an international school in Moscow from elementary school until her high school graduation.
“There, people are really disempowered,” Vernik said of Russia. “There’s a lack of ability to change things because of limitations on free speech. Russia is authoritarian, and going to an international school made it hard to stand up to authority and make systemic change because we were isolated from the rest of society.”
After her family’s return to America before her freshman year at Boston University, Vernik found that social justice advocacy thawed her frozen voice, and ensured that it is used effectively. That’s why she’s part of Divest BU.
Divest BU is the student-run advocacy group that aims to urge the BU Board of Trustees to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuel companies.
When harvested and used as sources of energy, fossil fuels are burned and change the chemical composition of the atmosphere. These changes contribute to ongoing, human-caused environmental issues such as global warming and climate change. Such issues threaten the well-being and survival of humanity, as well as all other forms of life.
By accepting money from fossil fuel companies, with which many members of the Board of Trustees have close ties, Boston University is profiting from harmful environmental changes. Divest BU sees it as a moral imperative for the university to remove itself from a practice that is quickly killing the earth.
“Coming back to America after being in Russia for so long has made me want to really be active and stand up for change,” explained Vernik. “Free speech is a privilege that not everyone has. We, as American students, have the power to stand up and say what the Board of Trustees is doing is not in our interest.”
Back in September, the Board of Trustees pledged to avoid making new investments in fossil fuel companies, but did not pledge to fully divest from its fossil fuel holdings. Although this was a small battle won for Divest BU, it was not a complete victory. By not fully divesting, BU continues to contribute to environmental issues, and thus, Divest BU must battle on.
In spite of everything stacked against the movement––skeptical faculty members, the Board of Trustees’ ties to fossil fuels, apathetic students––Vernik remains steadfast. “I think that the obstacles are practical, not theoretical,” she emphasized. “We could fully turn to renewable energy tomorrow. The only thing standing in the way of that is special interest groups and others making decisions on our behalf.”
Vernik is involved in Divest BU because she believes in putting the power into the hands of students. “We, as students, are removed from the decision-making process of fossil fuel investments. We should be able to have a voice in trying to get this centralized decision-making body [the Board of Trustees] to see that a lot of students don’t want our university to be involved in fossil fuel injustice.”
For Vernik, using her freedom of speech on behalf of environmental justice is automatic and unquestionable.
“Environmental justice is about making sure we aren’t making the planet worse for people who are already here,” she said. “I think that climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity. Because it’s such an impending threat, we have to take it seriously.”
The issue is intersectional as well. “When push comes to shove, the people who will be most affected by climate change are poor people, women, and people of color,” Vernik said.
Intersectionality was evident in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where protestors objected to the construction of an access pipeline that could contaminate the water of Native Americans if an oil spill were to occur and would be built on sacred Native American land.
While Divest BU has been involved in some of the North American Indian Center of Boston’s #NoDAPL efforts, Vernik made it clear that “it’s so important that we’re not part of the problem by stressing fossil fuels as the real issue. At Standing Rock, the rights of the Native American people are at stake, and their voices need to be magnified, not drowned out by groups shifting focus too much toward fossil fuels.”
And yet standing idly by when social injustice occurs is not an option.
In fact, for Vernik, standing by has never been an option. Over the summer, she tirelessly canvassed for a progressive Floridian running for Congress. She participates in and helps organize political rallies. She attends lectures about social and environmental issues. She is the quintessential student advocate.
Above all, Vernik accredits her interest in advocacy to education. Last semester, she took an Introduction to Sustainable Development class and has read various books on environmental justice.
“I’m always in the process of learning more,” said Vernik. “I try to do research and always be up to date on the news. I try to read from various sources, which is really important because of echo-chambers; we need to expose ourselves to various viewpoints.”
This vein of education carries over into how Vernik advocates. Rather than allowing discussions with people who disagree with her devolve into shouting matches, Vernik tries to educate them through open dialogue. Open dialogue is more conducive to honest conversations and fostering understanding between each side.
“I think that when your opinions are challenged they become stronger,” she said. “You need to engage in dialogue with the other side to grow. We want to make a change in society, and if those ideas aren’t challenged, then it’s hard to grow.”
Advocacy is never easy, but change is only achieved by fighting to overcome adversity. Vernik’s experience in Russia taught her that the only way to melt away the ice of injustice is to use her voice to bring on the heat; her passion for combatting environmental justice through Divest BU is fiery.
Now that the president-elect is a climate change denier, Divest BU’s mission has never been more pressing.
On January 23 within 100 hours of inauguration, students and divestment organizers are holding nationwide walkouts, rallies and meetings to show that we resist and reject Trump’s climate denial, Join this national day of action with Divest BU!
Interested in environmental community service? Join Branch Out!