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College has no current investments in oil, gas and coal companies, but new policy formalizes its commit to divestment

COURTESY PCC - Student Alex Bell-Johnson, far right, and Sustainability Manager Briar Schoon, second from right, led the divestment effort. From left, students who also made a difference include Kien Truong, Molly Walker and Sebastian Scholene.Alex Bell-Johnson wanted to leave his mark on Portland Community College.

When he arrived in Portland after a gap year spent driving trucks across his home state of Colorado, he was ready.

PCC recently announced that it will refrain from investing college funds in companies that produce fossil fuels, a policy Bell-Johnson championed.

PCC becomes the state's first two-year college to commit to divestment, says James Hill, the college community engagement representative.

The PCC divestment movement was spearheaded by Bell-Johnson and other students, who were supported and guided by staff and administrators.

"One of my favorite things," Bell-Johnson says, "is that everyone here is oriented toward change from the top down."

PCC has more than 78,000 students in the Portland metro area, more than any other Oregon institution of higher learning. It's current endowment is around $220 million.

In the movement to forestall dramatic climate change, full divestment is generally known to mean immediate selling of funds invested in fossil-fuel producing companies found on the Carbon 200 list. Bell-Johnson notes that the divestment resolution passed by PCC's board of directors serves more as an accountability measure, because the college didn't have any holdings in fossil fuel-producing companies.

College Sustainability Manager Briar Schoon says that she has been working on this initiative since December 2015, when student leaders first came to her to advocate for divestment.

"I worked with Alex Bell-Johnson," Schoon says. "He was our Cascade campus student body president and a total rock star."

Bell-Johnson, who is majoring in environmental studies, says the idea of divestment was brought up during his first year at PCC, when he was just getting started in student government as a club leader.

In addition to full commitment to divestment, Schoon says PCC's policy is unique because it also bars investment in companies that are socially irresponsible. Each year, when the treasury manager and student leaders sit down to review PCC's portfolio, they will seek companies that are environmentally friendly and not associated with human rights abuses.

Schoon says that students are thrilled.

"Our student body is very passionate about sustainability and social justice," Schoon says. "They want to ensure that the institutions they are a part of live true to their values."

Putting this policy into place is one way Schoon says the PCC community is "operationalizing" its dedication to sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion.

"The more we can responsibly invest, the better, because this is about much more than just returns," Schoon says. "It's about affecting climate and social change on a global scale."

Although Schoon says Bell-Johnson was at the forefront of this initiative throughout the year and a half process, he says he received evaluation, advice and counsel from climate-action organizations like 350PDX and Go Fossil Free.

On campus, the two worked closely with the college Treasurer's Office and the bursar, Dee Wilson.

"When Alex and Briar came to me to talk about divestment, I was intrigued," Wilson says. "We were already careful about our investment choices and favored those that supported the college's sustainability goals, so their idea was a natural fit. Personally, it's really rewarding to know that the values I hold close will be reflected in the college's investment holdings long after I'm gone. It's a good feeling."

Since the announcement of PCC's divestment, Bell-Johnson says he has been contacted by students from Lewis & Clark and Oregon State University who are trying to do the same thing.

Bell-Johnson, who is a third-year student at PCC, has his sights set on a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. After graduation, he hopes to work in outdoor education with young people.

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