The Sunrise Movement Rethinks Approach to Creating Change

The doctor couldn’t understand why Kidus Girma wouldn’t just eat the sandwich. Girma (26 years old) was in desperate need of food. He hadn’t eaten anything solid in four days. He had blurred vision, his heart rate increased, and blood glucose levels were potentially dangerously high. He couldn’t even stand, let alone sit. As he struggled to explain to the befuddled medical professionals surrounding him that he was on a hunger strike to protest the Biden Administration’s lack of action on climate change, he began to realize his cause was failing.

“I had felt like, maybe if I really push my limits, that’s how we win,” Girma reflected in a recent interview. “I believe that less now.”

Ten days later the hunger strike was ended, but the climate crisis was not closer to being resolved. The White House hadn’t responded; billions in proposed climate spending remained stuck in limbo in the Senate. Girma and the other activists had tried everything to bring about change but were still left in doubt.

Girma belongs to the Sunrise Movement. It is a young, six-year old youth climate group that rose quickly in its brief existence. Sunrise was founded by environmentalists who wanted to infuse their cause with people power and has since been celebrated by the liberal media and hailed by the top Democrats. It boasts millions in funding from donors and foundations, hundreds of “hubs” across the country, and thousands of volunteers. It pressured Democratic presidential candidate to support their radical climate agenda. They helped popularize the Green New Deal concept for climate change and jobs. “They’ve brought new energy and new ambition to the climate community and made a big impact in a short period of time,” says Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

What they haven’t managed to do is win. Sunrise’s focus has been on ensuring that major climate legislation is enacted at federal level since Democrats gained control of Congress and the White House last year. The Administration included $550 billion in climate spending in the Build Back Better package that was to be the linchpin of President Biden’s agenda, and Sunrise pushed hard to get the bill passed. It appears that this historic investment is now dead, despite the best efforts of Sunrise. Major climate legislation will not be possible until 2025 if the Democrats lose the Senate or House of Representatives, as many observers believe.

Some critics charge that Sunrise’s recent activism has been more hindrance than help. The group came out against last fall’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, calling it the “Exxon Plan,” even though it contained hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for things like renewable energy and environmental cleanup. Its actions usually target Democrats: chants of “Biden, you coward, fight for us!”; pursuing Senator Kyrsten Sinema to the Boston Marathon; hounding Sinema’s Democratic colleague Joe Manchin at the yacht where he lives in D.C. At the same time, Sunrise has demanded allies take up unpopular positions unrelated to climate, including Palestinian liberation and defunding the police.

Fellow travelers on the left have balked at the group’s radical politics and confrontational tactics. Center-left writer Matt Yglesias called its attacks on Democrats a “total failure to read the political situation,” while the socialist magazine JacobinThey criticized the group for its lack of understanding for the working class people they claim to represent. Though few are eager to risk the group’s ire for saying so, many professional Democrats believe Sunrise has splintered the environmental movement, alienating potential allies and hurting the image of the broader cause. “There is a usefulness generally to having a left flank,” says a veteran environmental advocate who has worked both inside and outside government. “But by imposing these strict litmus tests, they create a lot of unhelpful division within the environmental community when we need to be all working in the same direction. And the extremism of the way they come at it is the reason that even a lot of moderate, thoughtful people are annoyed with environmentalists.”

For Sunrise, the failure to enact federal climate legislation has prompted a kind of identity crisis—a painful process of sifting through the wreckage and trying to chart a way forward, recognizing that the strategy of the past six years hasn’t delivered results. “It was deeply devastating, honestly, to see the way [Build Back Better] stalled out,” Sunrise’s 28-year-old executive director Varshini Prakash tells TIME. “It’s like, we voted, we marched, we striked, you know? It was like 16-year olds who did phone banks. What more do we need to do to win?”

Over the past year, the group engaged in soul-searching and surveying members. It also held strategic talks at high levels to develop a new blueprint in order to make a world where the Green New Deal (its original animating idea) is difficult or impossible. The idea, Prakash says, is to “dig in and figure out what we can do differently and better moving forward,” and to “shift our strategy in response to a new political moment.”

Sunrise isn’t the only progressive organization at a crossroads. As unprecedented numbers marched into the streets due to political events, the Trump years marked a new era of liberal activism. Protest, once considered a rebellion, has been so popularized that CBS launched a reality TV contest called “Protest Now!” The Activist hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough—a beyond-parody rendering of activism as little more than chic posturing. It was cancelled amid outcry and the creators of it apologized for pitting causes against each other. From the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter to March for Our Lives, many of the movements that flourished during the Trump presidency have faded in the years since. As the Resistance sputters and reality sets in, the activist left now faces a collective reckoning: Why didn’t all that people power result in policy change? All the shouting and marching was just a liberal echo chamber that self-reinforces itself? And if that’s not the way to make change happen, what is?

A Friday in February, the Sunrise Movement’s brain trust gathered to chart the organization’s future. Seven flickering rectangles on a Zoom screen offered seven little windows into the lives of the young and apartment–bound: cluttered floating shelves topped with Bernie posters, barred windows topped with crooked plastic blinds. “The vibe today is, like, let’s get down to business,” says the meeting’s leader, Stevie O’Hanlon, a bespectacled white Pennsylvanian who uses they/them pronouns. “We’re very close, and my orientation is that we should just try and drive to a decision.”

These activists analyzed the argument for and against Sunrise’s possible routes forward. The group worked from a Google Doc and spoke quickly in a common patois about youth slang, nonprofit jargon, and other acronyms. Do they concentrate on an additional federal push? This time, trying to persuade the Biden Administration of Executive action? Pro: This would unify the nation’s movement. Con: Could fail, further demoralizing the troops. Should they designate certain chapter “hubs” as priority locations to push local governments to take action? (Pro: Would give members focus. Con: Nonpriority chapters might feel neglected. Once refined, the arguments and options will be put out to the group’s members, who will weigh in with an online vote this summer.

Sunrise was the result of such a process. The entire process was strategic and carefully planned. In 2016, Prakash had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she’d helped lead a successful three-year campaign to pressure the school’s administration to divest from fossil-fuel companies, the first major public university to do so. She’d cared about the environment since watching An Inconvenient Truth as a teenager, but it was the thrill of the campaign—including a weeklong sit-in at which 34 people were arrested—that got her hooked. “I learned everything about how to feel powerful and have agency in your life,” Prakash says. “Life feels big and meaningless sometimes; you see all this pain all around you. Organizing gave me a sense of power—a sense that ordinary people could come together and do extraordinary things.”

Continue reading: Varshini Prakash’s 2019 TIME 100 Next Profile.

Hoping to turn her passion into a career and her cause into a movement, Prakash and a dozen like-minded friends applied that year to a D.C. “movement incubator,” founded by veterans of Occupy Wall Street. The incubator, called Momentum, trains activists to map out their organization’s structure, strategy, and principles long before they hit the streets. By doing what they call “front loading,” the theory goes, activists can avoid the infighting and aimlessness that often afflicts social movements. The current planning effort is a second front-loading process—a sort of Sunrise 2.0 reboot. “We did a lot to change the politics of the issue, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to win the real legislative and policy changes we wanted to see, and that’s why we need a new plan for the next few years,” says Sunrise’s campaign director, Deirdre Shelly.

The planning process reflects the professionalization of today’s activists, who can draw on a burgeoning academic literature of the theory and practice of movement building. It also has led some critics to charge that Sunrise isn’t authentically “grassroots,” but rather just another grant-funded project stood up by professional environmentalists. The group’s early funding came largely from two liberal foundations, the Rockefeller Family Fund and Wallace Global Fund, and it now boasts an annual budget of $15 million. “Sunrise hopes the media falls for its image of itself as a youth-led grassroots activism for the Green New Deal, springing up naturally,” Scott Walter, president of the conservative Capital Research Center, told the Daily Signal “In fact, the group is a creature of the professional left.”

Manufactured or not, a youth movement for climate action was exactly what environmentalists believed they needed in the wake of the climate fight’s last big legislative failure. In 2009, a bill to create a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions squeaked through the House of Representatives—the first major legislation to address climate change ever to pass a chamber of Congress. There were intense recriminations after the bill was defeated in the Democrat-led Senate. The push for cap and trade was a massive effort by environmentalists. They used carefully crafted arguments and ads to position it as an attractive, pro-business idea. With the world on fire, they couldn’t afford to fail again.

In 2013, the Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a 145-page academic paper analyzing the cap-and-trade bill’s failure. She concluded that environmentalists had too focused on the inside and failed to gain strong support from the people. Her description of the effort was scathing: “Powerful and very economically secure people look down on the American multitudes with a kind of bemused amazement,” she wrote, “and try to find poll results about public attitudes to wave in front of policymakers.” It was no wonder they’d wilted in the face of corporate antagonism and a GOP energized by the Tea Party. “The political tide can be turned over the next decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left,” Skocpol concluded.

Sunrise’s formation was shaped by the idea that climate policy needed ground troops to succeed: “There were certain roles in the movement ecosystem that weren’t being filled,” Prakash says, so the group was “specifically tailored” to supply what its leaders saw as the “missing piece.” Meanwhile, armed with Skocpol’s insights, which had landed like a grenade in the world of environmental advocacy, progressives were eager to encourage mobilizations like the nascent Sunrise effort.

It was a perfect timingOther ways. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sent liberals to the barricades. Then, in 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg began leading a “climate strike” that swelled into massive protests around the world. A 28-year old activist called Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shocked the world when she won a surprise primary win over an experienced Democratic lawmaker from New York City. She had campaigned on the Green New Deal which was a relatively unknown plan for environment and jobs.

Sunrise’s early attempts to draw attention were a smashing success. In November 2018, the group staged a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats prioritize climate with their newly won majority. Ocasio-Cortez joined the movement, which attracted a lot of media coverage. Pelosi agreed to form a climate committee during the next Congress.

Continue reading: Greta Thunberg is TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year.

California Senator Dianne Weinstein confronted a group made up of young activists in 2019. She chastised them because they thought that she could tell an expert pol how to behave. This videotaped confrontation was an ideal example of young, sympathetic idealists facing off against the condescending and imperious Democratic establishment. The resulting videotaped encounter was a perfect example of young idealists facing an imperious, condescending Democratic establishment. Saturday Night Live parody, Feinstein, played by Cecily Strong, lectures a group of adorable kids: “I don’t come into your first-grade classroom and knock the Elmer’s glue out of your mouth, do I? So why don’t you stay in your lane and step the f-ck off?”

Major publications published glowing profiles of Sunrise, Prakash was featured on lists of rising leaders, and the Democratic candidates jockeying for the 2020 presidential nomination groveled for the group’s endorsement. It went to Bernie Sanders—one of 20 candidates to come out in support of the Green New Deal. Biden wasn’t among them but he campaigned with a platform which made climate a priority and offered policies that would make it a reality. Sunrise was credited with elevating this issue and moving it up the Democratic agenda.

But the group still struggles to make a living since Trump’s departure. Recent actions such as the September Capitol protest, where 13 were detained, are not well-covered and have received little coverage. Even the hunger strike did not go viral. Last fall, Sunrise’s D.C. hub boycotted a voting-rights rally because it included pro-Israel Jewish groups, leading to accusations of antisemitism that caused even Ocasio-Cortez to distance herself.

Sunrise’s focus on “moral action” to heighten the stakes of conflict, and its militancy toward fellow Democrats, strike many in the party as unhelpful; what’s really stopping climate legislation, they argue, is Republican opposition. Manchin appeared to be happy with the opportunity to reach conservative voters by aggressively arming the left-leaning climate activists, rather than being upset by them.

Others Trump-era movementsMany others have faced similar difficulties. The eponymous organization behind the Women’s March devolved into feuding over leadership disputes and accusations of antisemitism, and is now all but defunct. Time’s Up, founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, faces similar turmoil amid charges it prioritized powerful allies, like former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, over abuse victims. The national Black Lives Matter organization received nearly $90 million in donations in the wake of 2020’s massive racial-justice protests, but its founders are now at odds over accusations of profiteering. It seems that the main cause this movement championed has fallen apart: the federal law governing police reform is dead. Many Democrats who are afraid of being accused of supporting calls to defund the police have avoided the topic. The public opposition to Black Lives Matter has grown more than ever before in 2019

According to Omar Wasow (a Pomona College political scientist who studies protests), tensions and disputes over tactics are a constant feature of social movements. Public protest—the right of the people to petition the government directly—is a hallowed tradition built into the Constitution. Social media and smartphone footage have made it possible for activists to capture injustices, stage confrontations with powerful people and drive public attention. This has helped to shape the national agenda and stimulate the attention of the general public. And while it’s easy for critics to deride so-called hashtag activism as mere virtue signaling, Wasow points out that protest is performance. “All politics is in some ways a form of theater,” he says, “and every activist is engaged in a strategic effort to get attention for their cause.”

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Sunrise claims it is a success at this, if nothing else. Stevie O’Hanlon, the Sunrise staffer, recalls going through an early training session around the time of the group’s founding that included a slide showing climate change was voters’ 21st most important issue. “We needed to close the urgency gap, because people thought of climate change as an issue in the future, not today,” they say. According to polling, climate is a major issue in the United States today. It’s also a priority, but less so, for Democrats.

“The climate movement has won on the problem,” O’Hanlon says. “The next task is, How do we win on the solution? How can we build public support for Green New Deal solutions? We have to build the political muscle to be able to show up in a more powerful way around the next big climate policy fight.”

Sunrise is the future may be to focus on tangible local action and small-scale victories—like getting more left-wing Democrats elected to Congress. On Feb. 23, Sunrise volunteers from around the country gathered for a “virtual phone bank” for Jessica Cisneros, a Texas congressional candidate in the March 1 Democratic primary. “If you’re here because you want to get hype about electing Green New Deal champions like Jessica Cisneros,” says the session’s leader, a San Antonio–based organizer named Paris Moran whose center-parted long black hair evokes Ocasio-Cortez’s, “you’re in the right place!”

Cisneros (28-year-old) is an immigration lawyer and seeks to oust Henry Cuellar, a longstanding moderate Democrat. In 2020, she ran for the Laredo-based congressional district seat. She promised to support Medicare for All, and to link up with so-called Squadof far-left Democrats. The caucus now has six of its 222 members. Cuellar claims that her conservative social stances are closer to his predominantly Latino district. Cuellar won the 2020 primary by 1.5 percentage points over Cisneros.

This year, Cisneros hopes her enhanced name recognition, as well as a mysterious recent FBI raid of Cuellar’s home and office, will push her over the edge. “I’m taking on Big Oil’s favorite Democrat, all these big corporate special interests’ favorite Democrat, someone who’s been in office longer than I’ve been alive!” Cisneros exhorts the group. Zoom shows 85 participants. Most of these people put their pronouns within their screen names. Others also posted acknowledgements about Indigenous land to the chat. “Last time, we debunked so many myths that said change wasn’t possible,” she says. “This time around, we’re finishing what we started!”

Continue reading: Every corner of society was affected by the pandemic. Now It’s Climate’s Turn.

Sunrise reports that more than 700,000 members of the group called Cisneros during the period leading to the primary. Cuellar finished second by 767 votes. She also received less votes than she did in 2020. The two candidates will be facing off in May’s runoff, since neither received majority support.

Sunrise officials warn that Democrats risk losing the youth vote to disillusionment and despair if they don’t act fast on climate. “It’s really hard for us in the midterms to go back to our base and say, ‘Vote for Democrats! I know you worked really hard last time and thought maybe they would do something; they didn’t, sorry, but can you please just vote for them again?’” says Shelly, the campaign director.

More and more of Sunrise’s local chapters are looking for alternatives to federal action, pushing climate policy in their city councils, county commissions, and state legislatures, where a small group of passionate and determined people stand a better chance of turning the tide. A municipal transit initiative has been supported by the hub of Portland. Students in high school and college are seeking new methods to get their schools to take action. “People feel really excited about taking this fight beyond Congress to our communities,” Prakash says.

Yet for all its soul-searching, one thing Sunrise does not appear to be reconsidering is the philosophy that has drawn so much criticism—its core tactic of moral confrontation, primarily targeting Democrats. Veekas Ashoka, who co-leads the group’s New York City hub, calls Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, “the most responsive politician in leadership in D.C.,” and credits him with making a Civilian Climate Corps a major element of Build Back Better. Sunrise is on weekly strategy calls with Schumer’s office. Still, on March 14, Sunrise NYC protested outside Schumer’s Brooklyn home.

The Resistance’s remnants may be forced to disintegrate by the public backlash. Sunrise, or other organizations, may pay for the tactics they used. If so, the activists of these groups will become disillusioned and see their ideallism crushed by an immovable broken system. They might be motivated to make the right decisions in their local communities. That will result in a blossoming of civic engagement and more local involvement. “We’re all really screwed if we don’t solve the climate crisis, but it’s also really scary for the future of democracy,” Prakash says. “What creates the breeding ground for authoritarianism is people believing that our institutions cannot create material changes in their lives.”

In the meantime, activists can take solace in little victories. “After BBB was put on ice, there was a lot of despair and a feeling like it’s all over,” says Girma, the hunger striker, who’s gone from volunteer to full-time staffer at Sunrise. After his hunger strike ended, Girma and others began “bird-dogging” Manchin, the West Virginia Senator whose objections tanked the BBB legislation. They followed him from his D.C. houseboat to a parking garage, where they discovered that he drove a Maserati—a revelation that generated a fresh viral wave of anger. They didn’t get Manchin’s vote, but, Girma notes with satisfaction, “After our action, he stopped driving his Maserati.”

In the wake of the bill’s failure, Girma thought hard about what he was doing and why. Girma thought about the sandwich and the doctor. After he’d gotten a bag of IV fluids and revived somewhat, he remembered, he had a long conversation with her, and she ended up wishing him luck. Maybe, he decided, organizing was about moments like that—-intimate, human interactions, not pompous politicians or bills in Congress.

“It’s really fun and ageist for people in the media and corporate establishment to disregard young people’s ideals and conviction,” he says. “In this moment it feels like we may not win this bill, but I still draw incredible comfort and conviction from knowing who I am and what I’m building.”

In my conversations with Sunrise volunteers and staff, I found that they all referred to the same feeling of belonging: the satisfaction of having a part in something greater than their own. They suggested that activism had been its own reward and offered a feeling of belonging as well as commitment. “As a person I’m really small, and before that might have made me feel ineffective,” Girma says. “But now I see that a lot of small people add up to something big, and I feel big in my smallness.” They hadn’t gotten the Green New Deal, but at least they’d gotten that. —Reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Mariah Espada

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