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The Optimistic Activists for a Green New Deal: Inside the Youth-Led Singing Sunrise Movement | The New Yorker
"Sunrise, founded a year and a half ago by a dozen or so twentysomethings, began its campaign for the Green New Deal last month, when two hundred activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office a week after the midterm elections. The movement has allied with the incoming congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined them outside Pelosi’s office (and whose run for Congress was inspired, in part, by her participation in the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock), and Justice Democrats, the progressive campaign incubator started by former staffers of Bernie Sanders. As the Republican-led government has forced more established environmental organizations into defensive positions, Sunrise has established itself as the dominant influence on the environmental policy of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive wing.

Just as the March for Our Lives has changed gun-control activism from a movement of grieving parents to one led by students, Sunrise is part of a generational shift in the environmental movement. For years, rhetoric about climate change has invoked the future generations who will have to live with the flooding, storms, droughts, diseases, and food shortages of a warmer world. The young people of Sunrise are telling lawmakers that the future is here: they are the children in question, and the consequences of climate change are affecting them now. And, like other activist movements of their generation, they see their cause as inseparable from the broader issues of economic and social inequality. In a proposal that Ocasio-Cortez has circulated in Congress, she describes the Green New Deal as “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.”

Inside Luther Place Memorial Church, cheers erupted as activists unfurled a yellow and black “green new deal now” banner from the balcony. The crowd hushed as the first speaker, Varshini Prakash, came to the microphone. Prakash, who is five feet tall and has long curly hair, is one of Sunrise’s co-founders. She later told me that a highlight of her activism career was when she participated in a musical disruption of a Trump Administration panel at the United Nations climate conference in Bonn, in 2017, and a story about it trended on Reddit.

“We’re going to kick things off the way we always do,” Prakash said, “raising our voices in unison in song.” Part of what makes the Sunrise Movement’s activists seem so optimistic is that they conduct most of their protests while singing. Their ranks did not conform to the dour stereotype of an environmental movement composed of white-upper-middle-class Appalachian Mountain Club members. I spoke to Sunrise members whose families had roots in India, Iran, Croatia, Mexico, and working-class neighborhoods in American cities. There were some students in Carhartts and beanies, who looked like they might go camping, but one young person standing near me wore a Sisters sweatshirt, the brand started by the YouTube makeup artist James Charles, who is the first male spokesperson for CoverGirl. Sunrise’s principles include: “We are Americans from all walks of life,” “We are nonviolent in word and deed,” and “We shine bright.” The dominant culture is cheerfulness.

After leading the group in a song called “We’re Going to Rise Up,” Prakash introduced herself. She is from a town outside of Boston, but her grandparents are from southern India, and she told the story of a flood that hit their city, Chennai, in late 2015, when the region experienced its highest rainfall in a hundred years. This was typical of Sunrise members, who tend not to talk about starving polar bears, melting ice caps, or ocean acidification. Instead, they talk of family members who have lost their homes to floods or fires, young relatives who have asthma, or beloved landscapes that have been degraded or destroyed in the spans of their short lifetimes. (Another movement principle: “We tell our stories and we honor each other’s stories.”)

“I think no one should have to live in fear of losing the people that they love or the places that they call home due to crises that are preventable,” Prakash told the crowd. “My nightmares are full of starving children and land that is too sick to bear food, of water that poisons that which it should heal, and of seas that are ever more creeping on our shores,” she continued. “But my dreams are also full of a rising tide of people who see the world for what it is, people who see the greed and selfishness of wealthy men, of fossil-fuel billionaires who plunder our earth for profit.” The young people cheered.

Many of Sunrise’s founders met through the fossil-fuel divestment movement, but they tend to cite inspirations from outside environmentalism. Prakash named Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and youth-led immigration-justice organizations such as United We Dream and Cosecha. Like the March for Our Lives, Sunrise has told a story of a corrupt political process, where oil and gas billionaires like the Koch brothers have helped direct governmental policies. Also like March for Our Lives, Sunrise has focussed on the development of clear, nonpartisan policy goals. Its members are working within existing political structures, pressuring politicians to take more active stances on the issue of climate change and to reject donations from fossil-fuel entities, and getting out the youth vote.

“Our strategy for 2019 is going to be continuing this momentum to build the people power and the political power to make a Green New Deal a political inevitability in America,” Prakash told me. “In 2020, we, along with our partners, are going to be attempting to build the largest youth political force this country has ever seen.” The movement has received support from established environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and 350.org, but a spokesperson for Sunrise, Stephen O’Hanlon, said the assistance has been primarily non-financial. He added that the organization has raised less than a million dollars since it was started, from a mix of grants from foundations and grassroots donors."



"On Tuesday morning, the day after the protest in Washington, I met with four of the Sunrise Movement’s co-founders at a bakery near Washington’s Union Station. They had ended the previous day with a small party at the office of 350.org. The office of Ayanna Pressley, the newly elected Justice Democrats–endorsed representative from Massachusetts, had sent pizzas.

Over oatmeal and coffee, they told me about their personal awakenings about climate change. Sara Blazevic, who is twenty-five and from New York City, went on a volunteer trip to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when she was sixteen. Victoria Fernandez, who is also twenty-five and from California, talked about how unseasonable rains had affected business at the tennis shop her father owns, in the Bay Area. Evan Weber, who is twenty-seven and grew up in Hawaii, told me that the beaches he had played on as a child in Oahu have since been washed away. Stephen O’Hanlon, twenty-three, who is from outside of Philadelphia, had witnessed the effects of mountaintop removal on a trip to Appalachia organized by a college group.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Prakash and Blazevic, who knew each other from the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns they had led in college, began connecting with other youth climate activists to discuss how they might form a more effective movement. They saw how Bernie Sanders had helped spark a new political energy among their peers, who were suddenly inspired to see their student debt and poor job prospects in more political terms. For Blazevic, the moment of clarity came in December, 2015, when she read remarks from Sanders in which he used the phrase “fossil-fuel billionaires.”

“I remember being, like, ‘That is it, why are we not talking about the fossil-fuel billionaires in the climate movement?” she recalled. “I just remember feeling like this is the story that we should be telling in the climate movement. We should be talking about the people who are most responsible for this crisis, and naming names of the Rex Tillersons of the world instead of doing what the climate movement had been doing for a while, which was, at least, in my corner of it, getting lost in conflicts with college administrators over small pools of money.”

Their first meeting, in July, 2016, was in the Neighborhood Preservation Center in New York City. They agreed that they wanted to propose solutions to the climate crisis that match its magnitude. Since climate change disproportionately affects poor communities of color, they agreed that racial and economic justice had to be considered in any solution to climate change they proposed.

They arranged to meet once a month for the next nine months, renting houses or staying with volunteers in a different location each time. They went to an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, to Delaware, to Virginia. Their numbers grew to a dozen people.

They studied the wins and the losses of the climate movement in its forty-year history. They read books about how other mass movements had grown viral and gone to scale—Fernandez fished out a waterlogged copy of the book “Rules for Revolutionaries” to give me one example. Others: “Reinventing Organizations,” by Frederic Laloux; “Where Do We Go from Here,” by Martin Luther King, Jr.; “This Is an Uprising,” by Mark and Paul Engler. Several of their members had attended a workshop at a social-movement training institute called Momentum, where they had studied how to effectively combine structured organizing with mass protest.

The idea was to build a movement that people would join to feel a part of some larger history. “In the Bernie moment, I was seeing so many young people who were, like, ‘I would drop everything to be a part of the political revolution,’ ” Blazevic said. “After the primary ended in their states, … [more]
emilywitt  optimism  greennewdeal  climatechange  climate  storytelling  alexandriaocasio-cortez  varshiniprakash  diversity  activism  climatejustice  politics  youth  grassroots  immigration  migration  closetohome  ows  occupywallstreet  blacklivesmatter  environment  sustainability  democrats 
december 2018 by robertogreco

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