Reed Union: How to Change the World

Community-wide event allows students to discuss responsibility and responses to the climate crisis

Disclaimer: this article was written prior to the Reed Union.

After a recess of six years, the Reed Union Committee called for a Reed Union on Thursday, Feb. 6 to discuss the duty of the Reed community in relation to climate change. While having no formal authority to enact direct change within Reed, Unions allow community members to debate important and relevant topics to the college. Unions can be initiated by students via suggestion to the Committee, or the Committee itself can decide to hold one if it feels necessary. The Committee then asks the Reed community what topic they would like to discuss, and the most popular one is chosen. Over the years, Reed Unions have been a staple of Reed College, running more or less continuously since first introduced on February 13, 1947. 

The purpose of this specific Union, titled “Community Responsibility in a Time of Climate Crisis”, is both to inform and discuss the duty of the Reed community in relation to climate change. Climate change is not a new topic for Reed Union as two Reed Unions in 2013 had the same underlying theme. Each climate change Union, however, had their own focus. One was about the politics and science of climate change, and the other was about how to make Reed more sustainable. At this Union, students will discuss how the Reed community can become involved in the fight against climate change and how to initiate change within the Reed community.

Recent Unions have moved towards a lecture-based format, a trend the current Committee is trying to move away from. Isabelle Sinclair, student and Chair of the Reed Union Committee, said, “It’d be really cool if it came back down to what it was when it started, which is a place for community members to just come together and discuss something, to hear other people’s ideas…” In an effort to change the format, the committee is limiting the amount of time the panelists speak to five minutes and adding table discussions for students to share their viewpoints and question panelists on their perspectives. These changes will, ideally, encourage a movement back towards community-based discussion in both the Union on Feb. 6 and in the future.

One student had already started ahead of the others and made their opinion known on the subject by writing the word “Divest” on posters advertising the Union outside the library and in the library lobby. Divesting from fossil fuels, a hot-button issue throughout the Reed community and college campuses nationally, represents one type of issue a Reed Union can address. One of the panelists, Carl Vance, who served as the Chief Investment Officer for Lewis & Clark College when it divested, is coming to discuss how and why Lewis & Clark divested from fossil fuels. Another panelist, Julia Adams, is a Trustee for Reed College, representing the Board of Trustees’ point of view. Divestment has repeatedly come up in the past as Greenboard and others have pushed Reed to divest for over a decade and have previously been denied by the Board of Trustees. The Union provides an opportunity to discuss what divestment would mean for Reed and how and when that would be implemented. Ultimately, it is an issue that only the Trustees can decide, no matter how much the students push. 

The Reed Union will also heavily discuss personal action, something that can get lost in the big discussions of climate action. Hayden Hendersen, Reed Union Committee panelist, Student Sustainability Coordinator, and member of Greenboard, said, “I’m hopeful that people get out of this mindset that it’s just corporations and systems that have to change because that’s true, that needs to happen, but the way that happens is by individuals changing how they want the system to be.” On the other hand, Committee member Alexander Montgomery, Associate Professor of Political Science, comments, “taking individual action is great, but it really is part of the larger communities at Reed or locally or beyond that. That’s how we can affect change.” Their viewpoints highlight a spectrum between desire for individual versus community change; however, they both hit on integral parts of personal action within a community. Individual action may not be enough to enact change, but each person must play a role in their communities to enact change on a larger scale. The ultimate goal of this Union is to encourage people to take action and engage in the community, and through that engagement, create ripples that affect both us and the world surrounding us. The Reed Union is the first step, but it’s on those who attend to use what they learn and go out and change the world.

Photo by AJ Adler

Photo by AJ Adler

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Betsy Toll
Betsy Toll
3 years ago

We’d love to have Reed students and faculty at this richly interactive 2-day and 2-evening workshop March 20-21 (opening talks, Thurs eve. March 19) in SE Portland. Climate Dharma: Love in a Time of Unraveling. With Belvie Rooks, Dale Borglum, Ronault Polo Catalani, Betsy Toll, Kavita MacMillan. Justice, compassion, courage, skill, and resilience through the eyes and voices of different cultural perspectives will be woven into this program. Can’t attach a flyer here but details are online at or contact for info.

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