Youth activists, including many from Oakland, hold a rally outside of CalSTRS' headquarters in West Sacramento before marching to the Capitol Mall on October 23, 2021. Credit: Julia Kane

On a Wednesday afternoon in November 2019, Magdalena Meyers-Dahlkamp stood in the back of a West Sacramento meeting room, shifting nervously in her black, high-top sneakers. Normally, the 11-year-old, now an eighth-grader at Bret Harte Middle School, would have been in class. But that day, she was attending an investment committee meeting of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS.

As board members settled into their high-backed chairs at the front of the room, Harry Keiley, CalSTRS’ committee chair, called the meeting to order. Everything proceeded smoothly for the first six minutes.

Then, from a seat in the audience, Meyers-Dahlkamp’s older brother, Rio, held a speaker above his head that filled the room with ominous music. Meyers-Dahlkamp strode forward wearing a maroon dress dotted with small flowers and a sash that read “URGENT.” She began performing a dance set to a fiery speech by Greta Thunberg, the prominent young Swedish climate activist.

Keiley called a recess and most of the board members left the room, but Meyers-Dahlkamp continued her performance, weaving around a security guard who tried to steer her out of the center aisle. At the back of the room, a row of fourth- through eighth-grade students unfurled a banner. It was a letter to the CalSTRS board, demanding that they dump the pension fund’s investments in oil and gas companies. It was signed “From the many young climate justice activists who will continue to be at every one of your meetings until you divest.”

For years, Oakland youth have been at the forefront of the climate justice movement, organizing around issues like air pollution in West Oakland and the need to protect communities of color and low-income communities in particular. Now, they are calling on CalSTRS to divest from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell.

Public pension funds invest billions in fossil fuels

Established in 1913, CalSTRS is a government pension fund that provides retirement benefits to California’s public school educators. The pension giant has over 980,000 members, including current teachers and retirees. CalSTRS pays benefits to its retirees by taking a portion of educator’s paychecks and investing this money in stocks, bonds, and other funds where it grows. With nearly $320 billion in assets, CalSTRS is the second largest public pension fund in the United States and it has holdings in almost every corner of the economy, including tech and pharmaceutical companies, real estate, U.S. and foreign government bonds, foreign currencies, private equity, and more. About 1% of CalSTRS funds, or $4.1 billion, is invested in oil and gas companies.

Although there’s ample precedent for CalSTRS and other public pension funds to divest from harmful industries—in 2015, the California State Legislature passed a bill requiring the pension fund to divest from coal—its board has rejected the pleas of youth climate activists to divest from oil and gas companies. The pension system’s official position is that it plans to “engage” with fossil fuel companies to help them shape their climate policies in ways that reduce carbon emissions. 

Magdalena Meyers-Dahlkamp disrupting a CalSTRS board meeting in 2019 to call attention to the fund’s investments in oil and gas companies. Credit: courtesy of Fossil Free California

Pressure is mounting on CalSTRS, though. In late February, state Senator Lena Gonzalez introduced a bill that would require it and CalPERS, the other giant state workers pension fund, to eliminate investments in fossil fuels. 

In the past, the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators union, has followed the CalSTRS board’s lead when it comes to big investment decisions, but this weekend the union will hold an educational forum on fossil fuel divestment and decide whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on Gonzalez’s bill. If the California Teachers Association decides to throw its weight behind divestment, it would put significant pressure on CalSTRS to sell off its fossil fuel holdings. 

Oakland youth have been a driving force behind this recent progress. “It’s been hard, but I feel like we’re getting somewhere,” said Meyers-Dahlkamp.

Activists hope divestment will stigmatize fossil fuels and spur a green transition

Eight months before Meyers-Dahlkamp disrupted the CalSTRS meeting, in February 2019, she and other youth activists from Oakland were briefly thrust into the national spotlight. A group of young people from around the Bay Area, including Meyers-Dahlkamp, her brother Rio, and other Oakland students, confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein at her San Francisco office, asking Feinstein to support the Green New Deal. Feinstein was criticized for lecturing the children about why a Green New Deal wasn’t possible. Video of the interaction went viral, and the young activists suddenly became the new darlings of the climate movement.

All sorts of environmental groups reached out asking them to sign on to their causes. “It got kind of overwhelming,” said Meyers-Dahlkamp.

One invitation caught their attention, though. Jane Vosburg, a retired teacher from Santa Rosa and co-founder of the group Fossil Free California, asked if they would join a campaign urging CalSTRS to divest from fossil fuels. 

“We felt like that was where we wanted to focus,” said Meyers-Dahlkamp. Her teachers, who are CalSTRS members, work hard so that she and her peers can have a good future. Their money shouldn’t be invested in an industry that is putting that future in jeopardy, she said.

Around the world, the divestment movement has been growing. Nearly 1,500 institutions—churches, college endowments, pension funds, cities, and other organizations managing a total of $39.2 trillion—have now publicly committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. The University of California made headlines in late 2019 by pledging to sell its endowment and pension fund’s stakes in the fossil fuel industry, and the California State University system followed suit in October of last year. Just over a year ago, New York State’s pension fund announced it would divest from most fossil fuel companies by 2025.

The primary goal of the divestment movement isn’t to hurt fossil fuel companies’ bottom line, say activists. After all, if a fund decides to sell its shares, they’re almost guaranteed to be bought by someone else. Rather, divestment chips away at fossil fuel companies’ “social license,” stigmatizing them for their role as the primary drivers of climate change

Activists have also launched separate but related efforts to pressure banks and insurers to stop doing business with the fossil fuel industry in an effort to cut off funding and insurance protections for companies constructing new oil and gas pipelines, drilling wells, and building refineries.

Youth participation was a turning point in the divestment campaign

Just a few months after the youth movement’s confrontation with Senator Feinstein, in May 2019, a caravan of cars driven by parents and teachers pulled up to CalSTRS’ sleek, 17-story headquarters on the Sacramento River. A group of fifth- through eighth-graders piled out, including Ra’Mauri Cash, now a freshman at Skyline High School. Cash and his peers were there to attend a board meeting to express their concerns about climate change and urge CalSTRS to divest. To their dismay, they learned that the board would not livestream or record public comments from anyone under age 18, even if they had a parent present. (CalSTRS officials said they were concerned about minors’ privacy.)

Ra’Mauri Cash, a freshman at Skyline High School, leads a march across the Golden Gate Bridge with his snare drum on March 26, 2021. Credit: Julia Kane

“I was pretty upset,” said Cash, a leader with the Bay Area climate justice group Youth vs. Apocalypse. “Just because I’m a kid doesn’t mean you don’t have to listen to me,” he said. “What I’m saying is right.”

Since then, youth climate activists from Oakland have made their voices heard. In addition to attending every in-person CalSTRS board meeting open to the public, and most of the virtual ones, they’ve also led or participated in a number of direct actions. In 2020, they drenched themselves in mock oil and hauled a model oil tanker from Sacramento’s Capitol Mall to CalSTRS’s headquarters. Last year, Isha Clarke, a 2020 graduate of MetWest High School and co-founder of Youth vs. Apocalypse, led a march across the Golden Gate Bridge. For the past nine weeks, they’ve spent every Friday afternoon outside of the California Teachers Association headquarters in Burlingame, calling on the union to stand with them. They’ve recorded music videos, painted street murals, and held numerous rallies.

Cash often helps lead marches with his snare drum. Being part of Youth vs. Apocalypse “has really given me a chance to speak out for frontline communities and disenfranchised groups that struggle with environmental racism,” he said. “We’re looking out for everybody.” 

Vosburg, co-founder of Fossil Free California, said it was “a turning point” when the youth activists joined the CalSTRS divestment campaign. They’ve brought a strong focus on racial justice and a renewed sense of urgency, she said. “They’re showing how the climate crisis is going to impact their lives, and is impacting their lives.”

Since the students began pressuring CalSTRS, two of the board’s 12 members—California State Treasurer Fiona Ma and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond—have said they support fossil fuel divestment. Other members are either opposed or have not taken a public stance.

CalSTRS’s Chief Investment Officer Chris Ailman, is firmly opposed. At a discussion last month on divestment that was initiated by Thurmond and moderated by Sacramento State University, Ailman stressed that his primary responsibility is to act as a fiduciary for the fund, meaning his job is to ensure it remains profitable so that it can pay out the retirement benefits it owes to teachers. “We have to only make investment decisions. These are not social or moral decisions,” he said.

Divestment activists counter by pointing out that ditching fossil fuel stocks can be viewed as a responsible investment decision. They point to a study of CalSTRS’ investments from 2009 to 2019 that found if CalSTRS had sold its fossil fuel investments and reinvested those funds proportionally across its other investment sectors, the fund would have made $5.5 billion more than it actually did. Oil and gas stocks used to be sound investments, but in recent years they’ve become increasingly volatile, meaning their values rise and fall dramatically, and they haven’t kept up with growth in the rest of the market.

During the discussion, Ailman also said he believes the most effective way to tackle climate change is to engage with fossil fuel companies to get them to reduce their carbon emissions and invest in clean energy. “This transition can’t be a fight,” he said.

But so far, engagement has failed to persuade major oil and gas companies to significantly update their business models. Last month, a peer-reviewed study found that while companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have ramped up their rhetoric around climate and sustainability, between 2015 and 2020 most fossil fuel companies actually increased their oil and gas production. And while many companies have flaunted pledges to become net-zero by 2050, “no [oil] major is currently on the way to a clean energy transition,” the study found.

Oakland teachers support students’ calls for divestment

Like their students, many Oakland teachers have strong feelings about divestment. For Cory Jong, an eighth-grade ethnic studies and U.S. history teacher at Urban Promise Academy, learning that her pension was invested in fossil fuels was “super upsetting,” she said.

“Knowing that people who are contributing to climate chaos and the destruction of the planet are using my money to do it? That is absolutely unacceptable to me,” she said. Jong now volunteers as a member of the adult advisory board for Youth vs. Apocalypse.

In 2018, Oakland’s local teachers’ union—the Oakland Education Association, or OEA—passed a resolution calling on CalSTRS to divest. During the recent discussion moderated by Sacramento State University, OEA president Keith Brown said, “Fossil fuel divestment is a racial justice issue. It is communities of color and low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel pollution.”

“We are proud to stand with our students in supporting divestment of fossil fuels in CalSTRS,” Brown added.

Oakland youth activists and OEA hope that the California Teachers Association, or CTA, with more than 300,000 educators statewide, will soon join them in demanding CalSTRS divest.

Later this week, nearly 800 union delegates from across the state will gather in Los Angeles for a quarterly meeting. There, they will hold an educational forum on divestment and decide whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on the fossil fuel divestment bill recently introduced in the state Senate.

Meyers-Dahlkamp, Cash, and others from Youth vs. Apocalypse will be heading south for the conference, where they plan to team up with young climate activists from Southern California. They won’t be able to attend the meetings, but they’ll be outside on the sidewalk, handing out patches that read “Fossil Free CalSTRS” and talking with teachers. “What we need are allies,” said Cash.

Jong has faith in her students’ resolve to keep pushing for divestment. “I’m always talking with my students about how, if we understand the past, and we can really take on a leadership role in the present, we can shape the future,” she said.

“It’s only a matter of time. I really believe that.”

Julia Kane is an Oakland-based reporter who covers climate and environmental justice. She a has masters in journalism from UC Berkeley and is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran.