Growing up on a farm in rural Nobleboro, Me., Chloe S. Maxmin felt a powerful connection to her home. When, at the age of 12, she learned that the state’s North Woods would be threatened by a development proposal, she wanted to do something. Maxmin’s involvement with the effort to stop that development sparked an abiding commitment to activism.
Maxmin’s public high school had no environmental club, so she decided to start one. The club took off. “I learned the power of individuals and what one group of committed people can really do,” Maxmin says. “We galvanized this huge movement in this rural Maine community where no one really talked about sustainability or environmentalism that much.”
At 18, Maxmin was honored with the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in recognition of high school activism. But Maxmin was just getting started.
In her first year at Harvard, Maxmin began to reconsider the direction from which she was approaching climate activism. She learned about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and about tar sands extraction—discoveries that prompted her to consider the bigger picture. “I realized that no matter how many light bulbs I changed, no matter how many reusable bags that I use, it’s not really questioning the fundamental structures of our energy system, and that’s what we need if we’re truly going to prevent climate change,” Maxmin says.
In August of 2012, Maxmin co-founded Divest Harvard. At the time, there were only about a dozen divestment movements on campuses in the U.S. That fall, Maxmin says, “things went viral.” The number of divestment campaigns on college campuses in the country shot up to over 400 by the end of 2012.
Maxmin had a lot to learn in order to effectively organize on campus. “I didn’t know what a share price was. I didn’t know what direct holdings were,” says Maxmin of the early days of Divest Harvard. She began to attend activist trainings, where she learned how to strategize and to speak the language of activism.
There were many questions to consider, Maxmin explains: “How do you create a multi-year trajectory for a campaign using a variety of different tactics? Building momentum, building your base, getting more students involved, having these conversations—but also building pressure."
Soliciting student engagement in Divest Harvard hasn’t always been easy on the Harvard campus, whose culture is so deeply rooted in institutional power. “General Harvard culture and activist culture don’t really mesh,” Maxmin says.
For Maxmin, empathy is key to climate activism. “One of the injustices that we’re highlighting is the extreme lack of empathy in our world: the lack of empathy for communities that are being impacted for fossil fuel extraction, the lack of empathy for future generations that will be impacted by climate change,” she says.
“Empathy is not embedded or inherent in modern society in the way that we interact with each other. I think that Harvard culture can often be very brutal in the relationship between professors and students or the competition between students. Even empathy within one’s self…we hold ourselves to such high standards.”
Maxmin tries to remedy this lack in both basic daily interactions and “on a more macro level,” through the strategies Divest Harvard uses and the tactics it employs. “We don’t want tactics that will unnecessarily target someone who shouldn’t be targeted.”
Maxmin recalls an experience she had freshman year, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, when Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager, came to speak in Kirkland House. Messina arrived from a different direction than the protestors were expecting, and so students began sprinting across Kirkland courtyard towards him. “You could just see the feeling of assault on his face,” Maxmin says, “and I felt so horrible afterwards. A movement is not about penalizing people, it’s about looking at systems and critiquing them—and looking at alternative systems.”