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Fossil Free Penn and their encampment outside of College Hall on Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Anyone who has walked by College Green in the past two weeks has likely noticed Fossil Free Penn’s colorful tents and banners strung up on trees. Between classes, students involved with FFP said that they have spent upwards of 12 hours at the encampment each day, with many sleeping in tents during the night.

Even after positioning tents to avoid nightly sprinklers and dealing with aggressive squirrels, these students said that they remain resolute in their beliefs and do not plan on leaving College Green until Penn meets their three demands: a public commitment toward preserving the UC Townhomes, total fossil fuel divestment, and making payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, to Philadelphia public schools. 

President Liz Magill, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, and Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli sent an email to FFP coordinators on Sept. 28 stating they “share [FFP’s] concerns regarding these three issues” and “the University has taken thoughtful and solution-focused actions to address them consistent within our mission,” according to an email sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian from University spokesperson Ron Ozio.

The email from Magill, Winkelstein, and Carnaroli said that administration would “welcome the opportunity to engage in a genuine dialogue,” and, in return, they requested that FFP honor its commitment by ending the encampment on College Green.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with FFP coordinators to learn more about their requests of the University, the community they have built on College Green, and their hopes for the future.

What are their demands?

College sophomore and FFP coordinator Eug Xu said that a common misconception about FFP’s protest is that the encampment’s demands are disconnected from or unrelated to each other.

FFP wants Penn to commit $5 million to $10 million or land toward the purchase of the Townhomes as a low-income housing complex, publicly divest Penn's direct and indirect holdings in fossil fuel companies, and pay 40% of foregone property taxes to support local public schools.

Xu said that both the City's struggle to maintain affordable housing and the University's refusal to pay PILOTs are fundamentally issues of climate justice, citing how heat waves and poor infrastructure shut down more than a hundred Philadelphia schools earlier this school year. 

“We know that it is important for Penn to take money out of fossil fuels, but we also know that it is equally important for them to put their money back into the community,” Xu said. “The idea of PILOTs and the future of the UC Townhomes are matters of reinvestment.”

When do they plan to leave?

FFP coordinators told the DP that they do not plan on leaving College Green until their demands are fully met. 

College first year and FFP coordinator Omar Elsakhawy said that FFP does not currently have plans to compromise on any of the demands. He said that all of the coordinators have already “sacrificed so much,” and they are more than committed to wait the University out.

“We will continue to sit through storms, even snowstorms. We will sit through anything and everything until they divest,” Elsakhawy said. “The message I would give the administration is clear: We are not leaving. We are not budging until you do.”

Ozio previously wrote in a statement to the DP that the coordinators declined to meet with the Penn administration. In response, FFP published a press release on Sept. 22 in which they detailed their communications with University administrators.

In the press release, FFP coordinators explained that they would be open to meeting with administrators, but that FFP would not suspend the encampment in exchange for a potential meeting.

College junior and FFP coordinator Megha Neelapu described the encampment as a “bargaining chip.” They said that after going through divestment proposals and hosting town halls, it has become apparent to FFP members that the best way to get the attention of administration is through collective, public action.

“Some people might ask, ‘Why don't you just leave? And then you will get your meeting with administrators and maybe get what you want.’ But we have had so many meetings, and we have gone through all the formal channels. It has not led to anything,” Neelapu said. “We are not going to end our encampment until Penn publicly pledges to meet our demands because we have student power through this.”

Even though students have been making these demands for years, Xu said that they are "optimistic" that Penn will agree to the encampment's demands in the near future.

"I think that [Penn administration] is so sufficiently scared that it is a matter of weeks," Xu said. "We are pretty close to breaking them, and we're ready to make a final push."

What has the encampment experience been like?

FFP student coordinators, like Xu, stressed that the encampment has become their "home" over the past two weeks.

Previously disillusioned by mainstream climate activism due its individualistic nature, Xu said this experience offered them a lot of hope for the future of advocacy because of the community it fostered.

Last semester, FFP had camped on College Green for six days, demanding Penn divest from fossil fuels and support climate justice. Xu said FFP coordinators used the previous semester's experience as a starting point to plan for this encampment over the summer.

College junior and FFP coordinator Sarah Sterinbach said that the people she has lived with at the encampment have become one of the tightest-knit communities she has had on campus. She said that everyone checks in with each other daily, making sure that they have been eating properly and taking necessary breaks.

“The best part is that there has been so much community and care,” Sterinbach said. “I'm going to have withdrawals whenever this ends.”

In addition to bonding with other coordinators, Neelapu said that the encampment has allowed her to create organic connections with other progressive students and groups on campus. 

Clubs across campus, ranging from Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine to the University’s ultimate frisbee team, have hosted teach-ins and events in partnership with the encampment. 

Neelapu said that professors have asked FFP coordinators if they could teach their classes outside on College Green.

Overall, the coordinators said that students passing by College Green have reacted positively to the encampment. Sterinbach said that she has been happy to see how many people have been receptive to learning about the club’s demands, adding that some students have offered to bring food or send money for supplies.

Before the semester began, Elsakhawy said he did not expect to be camping in front of College Hall during his first month at Penn. After reading the Penn Disorientation Guide and seeing FFP’s encampment in person, Elsakhawy decided to do homework at the encampment one evening and loved the "diverse and inclusive community."

Elsakhawy now serves as one of a dozen coordinators spearheading the encampment’s strategy. He urges students to come by the encampment and "engage with [FFP's] message."

“[The encampment] makes Penn's campus better,” Elsakhawy said. “A goal of the University is to ensure that students are cooperating with one another and that this school is an intercultural space where we can exchange ideas. The commons that we have created on College Green is the quintessential idea of this.”