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On the Horizon: the Building of the Sunrise Movement

Varshini Prakash, the 26-year-old executive director of the climate activist group Sunrise Movement, thinks we still have time to solve the climate crisis. In her view, the challenge is actually an opportunity. “The climate crisis affords us an opportunity to improve people’s lives on a deadline,” she said. It’s not just about cutting carbon emissions—Prakash believes that an effective climate solution requires focusing the impacts of climate change on human lives. “Now we have solutions that are not only about eliminating emissions, but also about incorporating justice into every part of it.” 

Advocating for an equitable climate action agenda has been her mission at the helm of Sunrise Movement, a group that catapulted from relative obscurity to national prominence in the span of a few short months last year. The organization burst onto the national stage in November 2018, when a dozen young adults occupied the office of newly-elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand a Select Committee on a Green New Deal. While the Select Committee—a specialized task force of House representatives—never emerged, Sunrise succeeded in establishing itself as a powerful engine of youth climate activism. 

Since then, the group has worked to raise the profile of the Green New Deal, a congressional proposal to meet 100 percent of U.S. energy needs through renewables and zero-emission sources within 10 years. Sunrise has been pressuring politicians to get on board, organizing sit-ins on the front steps of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and leading dozens of climate strikes in cities across the country. Though the group has no official membership, their success is marked by the expansion of their “hubs”—local Sunrise chapters charged with mobilizing youth at the municipal level—which have multiplied thirtyfold in the last year. 

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When speaking with Prakash, the first thing you notice is her ardent enthusiasm for climate activism. She frames the movement in unapologetically positive terms that refuse boundaries on the definition of “success.” In other words, while the movement has yet to succeed in getting politicians to pass a Green New Deal, Prakash elects to highlight the small steps that the organization is taking toward a long-term victory.

She uses this approach when describing Sunrise’s sit-ins last August on the front steps of the DNC. The activists were pushing for a Democratic presidential debate that focused solely on the issue of climate change, and though the DNC never ultimately approved the debate, Prakash still sees the sit-in as a success because of the massive support and attention that it produced.

“It was just this incredible wave of action and mobilization that put climate change on the map, that made it a popular issue in our nation’s politics, that got almost every presidential candidate on the Senate side to endorse a Green New Deal, and that really paved the way for much of the national conversation that has happened on the issue of climate change over the past few months,” she said in an interview with The Politic. Since the sit-in, the climate crisis has moved onto the short list of issues discussed in the Democratic Primary—candidates are increasingly weaving the topic into their debate performances, regardless of whether the moderators pose climate-related questions. Senator Bernie Sanders was the lucky winner of Sunrise’s coveted presidential endorsement, but the group has been active in supporting messages coming from all candidates pertaining to climate change and the proposed Green New Deal.

Of course, though Prakash considers Sunrise’s agenda-setting role a success, the organization’s objectives are concrete; its victory hinges on the Green New Deal’s passage. Support for the Green New Deal is high among Democrats but critically low among Republicans, and few conservative politicians seem amenable to the plan. But for the time being, Sunrise is seizing every opportunity to push its agenda, and making incremental yet persistent gains in this uphill battle. “I think the question of what constitutes a victory can’t always be in the creation of a legislative outcome,” Prakash said, “But we need to pick fights no matter what, and fights that move us forward instead of push us back are always worth it.” 

Prakash believes that Sunrise, a self-described “army of young people,” is at war against colossal enemies—the fossil fuel industry, Fox News, and the GOP—who come to the battle armed. “Their tool is always that of misinformation and confusion,” Prakash commented, “largely to just cripple the government’s ability to create broad, sweeping change.” 

Sunrise’s not-so-secret weapon? Their messaging. “We should know what’s coming for us,” Prakash said. “We have to go on the offensive with our message, with our understanding and our definition of what the Green New Deal is, who it’s for, what it does, because I think that if we actually argue on our turf, rather than getting caught up in the denial and the misinformation campaigns, they ultimately win.” 

Sunrise’s rhetoric is carefully wielded to highlight the stakes of the war they’re waging, and the significance of young people’s role in the fight. However, despite this attempt to bring the youth into the fold, some climate justice activists like Martin Man ARCH’19, are put off by the combative approach that the Sunrise Movement takes to rallying its troops. Man is an organizer with Fossil Free Yale and Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition, and said in an interview with The Politic that he “doesn’t feel like the just and sustainable world we want to create should or needs to appropriate militaristic language.”

Militarism, however, isn’t Sunrise’s only persuasive device. Prakash also sees the Green New Deal itself as a rhetorical tool of outreach. Sunrise’s predecessor, the Occupy Wall Street movement, was ultimately debilitated by the ambiguity of its objectives. To avoid the same fate, Sunrise hopes to rally climate-anxious young people around more specific and decisive policy targets. “It’s not some vague notion of climate action,” Prakash contended, “but specific policies that are commensurate with the scale of the crisis—more clear demands and asks of our targets, going after politicians, not just vaguely asking the world for action on climate change.” 

Prakash and Sunrise are hoping to disseminate and reproduce this message on an enormous scale so that the movement can further intensify its methods. “What might it look like to hold a climate strike not just for a couple of hours, but for a few days?” Prakash wonders. “What might it look like not just to take the streets of our cities and towns, but to the front door steps of our politicians offices?” They are well on the way to establishing the following Prakash seeks—the Sunrise Movement has been able to maintain a consistent following on social media, with several hundred thousand followers on predominant platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

To engage in the kind of mass noncooperative protest that Prakash has envisioned for the movement, Sunrise has been working to rebrand environmentalism—a movement generally perceived as white and wealthy—to include everyone, especially young lower and middle-class people of color that have been consistently excluded from climate organizing. Part of this strategy is to move away from the environmentalism of yore. When prompted to consider the historical precedent for Sunrise, Prakash acknowledged that “Sunrise stands on the shoulders of giants,” referring to leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and many past nonviolent protest movements. “We have studied contemporary movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in order to try to crack the code on how to build the kind of social movement that can both change the political weather and also have the sound strategy and structural validity to continue creating these viral moments again and again and again,” stressing the significance of building broad and inclusive coalitions of climate activists.

Of course, Sunrise doesn’t divorce itself entirely from the environmental activism of the ’60s and ’70s, but Prakash speaks about these movements differently—as models of scale, not of strategy. “There were 20 million people who were out in the streets on Earth Day 1970,” she said, “this was before the internet, everything was arranged and organized by phone, by traditional press and media, and during that time we saw the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency under politicians like Nixon.” In Prakash’s view, this mobilization had the numbers, but not that secret “code” of organizing that Sunrisers hope to crack. Old environmentalism “gives you a sense of the kind of mobilization we need to create,” but it is justice movements that serve as models of “sound strategy and structural validity.” 

By contextualizing Sunrise within a legacy of civil rights and social equity, Prakash casts the climate justice movement as inclusive, and driven by dual motives: stopping climate change and—front and center on the Sunrise website—“creating millions of good jobs in the process.” The economy is a top priority of Americans on both sides of the aisle, but climate change doesn’t have the same bipartisan appeal. But the demand for sweeping federal action to stop climate change is rising rapidly, and by casting the crisis as a threat to the economy, Sunrise hopes to build a grassroots mobilization capable of putting real pressure on political officeholders to take aggressive action. 

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Building the mobilization that Sunrise demands requires the inclusion of all young people, including those who may come from an educational background that looks quite different from the majority of Sunrise organizers. When asked about the role that the increasingly popular university fossil fuel divestment movement may play in the coming tidal wave of climate action, Prakash pivoted, saying, “This is a movement for college students, but also for all young people, and for it to actually be successful, it’s going to need to include an intergenerational fight as well.” She talked instead about “strike captains,” Sunrise’s informal organizing positions that it depends on to organize communities and build Sunrise’s influence on the local level. This response was surprising, coming from Prakash. At UMass Amherst, she played a central role in the campus divestment movement before she graduated in 2015. Now, however, she seems reluctant to say that divestment should be a central part of Sunrise’s mass-noncooperation. 

In practice, however, Sunrise seems to be neither an “intergenerational fight,” nor “for all young people” yet. Fossil Free Yale and Yale Endowment Justice Coalition organizer Emma Phelps ’20 commented that “people [my] age are pretty much entirely college students, and the high school students are pretty much all college-bound.” Many of the Sunrise leaders—Prakash, as well as co-founders Sara Blazevic and Stephen O’Hanlon—were leaders of their college divestment organizations a few short years ago. “They are coming at it still thinking of everyone as students at their elite liberal arts colleges,” said Phelps.  

Phelps conceives of Sunrise as “the logical extension of the divestment movement,” and its strategy still smacks of its origins in higher education. “Their actions are incredibly well-planned,” Phelps said, “down to the level of what facial expression you should have and what angle you should hold your sign.” Although this attention to detail allows Sunrise to produce striking imagery that is invaluable to its enormous media presence, it comes at a cost. “It risks making people feel like a number,” Phelps reflected. “It doesn’t empower people to feel like organizers in their own right.” Phelps, an activist with Yale’s leaderless divestment group Fossil Free Yale, admits that she may be biased: “I definitely have an anarchic streak to me—I believe in non-hierarchical organizing, I believe in a little bit of chaos, for what it’s worth.” Phelps’s criticism begs the question—for Sunrise to build a broad-based movement that appeals to “all young people,” not only college and college-bound students, will it have to change its tactics? 

Still, Phelps and fellow Fossil Free Yale organizer Martin Man spoke in glowing terms about much of Sunrise’s organizing. “I have full faith that they are constantly trying to improve where they may be falling short,” said Man, and, like Phelps, went on to express an interest in organizing with Sunrise. “I think they’re doing a pretty darn good job,” said Phelps. “I probably will get involved with them in the future.” 

It looks like they’ll both have that opportunity. Sunrise isn’t going anywhere—it has a robust strategy ahead of 2020, and Sunrise leaders like Prakash hold a vision for the organization that extends past this election cycle. “We have to keep the pressure up even when our politicians get into office,” she explained. “In the spring of 2021, whoever the president is…we are pushing for what we hope will be the largest youth mobilization in history.”