Politics

Where the Sunrise Movement Goes From Here

The youth-led initiative had a gigantic growth spurt. Now, it’s retooling for a new chapter.

Hundreds of young climate activists marching along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The Capitol is behind them, and they carry a sign with the phrase "Our future is not negotiable."
Hundreds of young climate activists marching along Pennsylvania Avenue in June 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Sunrise Movement first exploded into the national consciousness in 2018 with a viral sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, the organization seemed to have cropped up out of nowhere. The little-known group was barely a year old and consisted of about 15 chapters of high school and college students scattered across the U.S.

But Sunrise’s demand for a “Green New Deal,” linking racial and economic justice to climate action, was bold enough to put Sunrise on the map. That day in Pelosi’s office, a newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood with the 200 young protestors, 51 of whom would be arrested later that day for “unlawful demonstration.” Ocasio-Cortez commended the demonstrators for pushing Democrats to take urgent action on climate change, saying “I just want to let you know how proud I am of each and every single one of you.” Sunrise was thrust into the national spotlight overnight.

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“Our goal with the Pelosi action was to raise the bar on the debate around climate right at the beginning of the congressional cycle,” said Varshini Prakash, 29, co-founder and executive director of Sunrise. “We didn’t know it would be quite so successful.”

Six months after the sit-in, Sunrise’s 15 chapters had ballooned to more than 150. Six months after that, the concept of Sunrise’s Green New Deal gained further ground in the form of an eponymous congressional resolution presented by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. Sunrise’s momentum kept building: In 2020, Prakash was asked to join a climate task force put together by onetime rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. And this summer, the group saw its biggest win yet with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest investment in climate action in American history.

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The legislation, known as the IRA, wasn’t based on Sunrise proposals, but took the organization’s vision for federal climate action as an engine for job creation and ran with it.

“Without their Green New Deal proposal, we never would have gotten the IRA—that was its genesis,” said Bill McKibben, a veteran climate activist, writer, and founder of 350.org and Third Act.

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For all Sunrise has done to shift what kinds of climate policies are considered viable over the past five years, its leadership admits that the group’s original playbook has begun to play itself out. It’s time for a reset. To remain a key player in climate policy for years to come, the group is bringing what McKibben describes as a “remarkable and exceedingly rare combination of bold idealism and shrewd political canniness” to bear on a new strategy. It’s called Sunrise 2.0.

Origins and Impact

Founded by a group of young people who cut their teeth in the campus fossil fuel divestment movement, Sunrise launched officially in 2017 to make “the climate crisis, rooted in racial and economic justice, a priority in American politics,” said Prakash, who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the organization.

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“Understanding the scale of the climate crisis, it became apparent that there was no way to resolve this issue without the federal government doing everything in its power to decarbonize our economy,” she said.

Initially, Sunrise focused on urging Democratic politicians to refuse fossil fuel money. The organization became known for confronting politicians on camera in an effort to either get them to publicly commit to climate action—or be exposed as weak on the issue. One of the most viral confrontations, between Dianne Feinstein and a bunch of schoolkids in 2019, showed the senator admonishing children over their intrusion. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein said.

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During the 2020 presidential campaign, Sunrise pushed for Democratic candidates to submit climate plans. And though its campaign to make the DNC hold a climate debate was unsuccessful, news networks latched onto the idea, with CNN ultimately hosting a seven-hour climate town hall for the presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, whom Sunrise endorsed.

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By the time Biden emerged as the Democratic nominee, Sunrise couldn’t be ignored.

Prakash, who was 27 when she was asked to join the Bernie-Biden climate task force, thinks of that acknowledgement of Sunrise as a turning point. It was also an acknowledgement that building an ambitious climate plan could help Democrats win the presidential election.

“That was an indicator that we were being recognized as a key player,” she said.

According to Sunrise strategic director Aru Shiney-Ajay, 24, it was also in line with one of Sunrise’s key goals: to move climate from a third-rail issue to a top priority.

That move has undeniably taken place. Polling shows that climate change is much more of a policy priority for voters now than it was in 2016, and climate advocates won several key governors’ races in the midterms. Some of that can be attributed to a wider zeitgeist shift—youth strikes around the world, the rise of Greta Thunberg and her ilk, increasingly alarming IPCC reports, and 1 in 3 Americans living through an extreme weather event in the past two years have all played a part. But Sunrisers assert that a zeitgeist shift alone wouldn’t have been enough to secure policy change.

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“We made politicians directly accountable for their stances on climate,” said Shiney-Ajay. “The zeitgeist shift was happening, but the state of democracy in this country means that public opinion shift doesn’t always translate to political changes. We played a crucial role in catalyzing that.”

As Prakash pointed out: “Biden’s climate plan in 2020 was more ambitious than Bernie’s climate plan in 2016.”

Internal Tensions

A gigantic growth spurt—Sunrise has more than 500 hubs and currently boasts “tens of thousands” of volunteers who have participated in more than three Sunrise actions in the past 12 months—has not come without growing pains.

Though the group has strongly advocated for a multiracial, cross-class climate movement, it has drawn criticism both internally and externally for still attracting largely middle- and upper-middle-class white members and leadership.

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Last year, reports began to surface that some Sunrise members of color, including the longest-tenured Black staffer at the organization, were feeling “tokenized” and “ignored.” According to BuzzFeed News, one Indigenous member said they were treated as the “token Native” on speaking tours; some Black members felt that their concerns about the movement’s use of the Black power fist gesture and civil rights songs were dismissed by leadership; still others described being overworked and underpaid. Groups of Sunrisers calling themselves the Black Caucus and BIPOC Caucus wrote letters outlining ways the organization could be more inclusive, saying “we are losing more active members than we gain, especially Black members.”

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Sunrise officially responded by saying, “the level of Black participation in our movement has remained steady” and that by 2021, the “vast majority of the BIPOC demands [had] been met.” But the internal turmoil seems to have fueled, in part, the way that Sunrise’s leadership began to approach the organization’s next chapter.

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Shiney-Ajay was tasked with leading an internal strategy process that would assess organizational issues and also deal with the sense, Shiney-Ajay said, that Sunrise had “moved a lot of the people who are easy to move, and now it’s about the people who are harder to move on a national level.”

John Paul Mejia, 20, Sunrise’s national spokesperson, said recently that the organization was looking to be able to better respond to the rise of a “new and emboldened right” that has started to “cripple democracy.”

“How do we foster democracy and decision-making in a growing movement so that it doesn’t implode due to internal fractionalization?” Mejia asked. “And there’s also the rise of a new strand of ‘eco-billionaires’ and ‘green capitalism,’ which could distort our notions of what it means to move forward on climate policy. Our movement needs to have answers to that.” This last line of thought seems to be an almost direct response to some of the criticisms made by Alex O’Keefe, Sunrise’s former creative director and a vocal member of the Black Caucus who was fired in 2021.

A New Way Forward

Sunrise 2.0, a strategy best encapsulated in a 12-page document that was finalized in June, outlines four big shifts: a focus on Green New Deal policies for schools and for communities; a renewed emphasis on building a multiracial, cross-class movement; a new structure for internal democracy meant to streamline decision-making across a decentralized movement; and more resources for leadership development. (The strategy document is not publicly available but was reviewed by Slate.)

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Initially designed internally by a small team of Sunrise members that was “majority working-class women of color,” according to Mejia, Sunrise 2.0 was ratified by hundreds of voting Sunrise members this summer.

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Behind the lofty goals, what does it all mean? The organization will continue to use “the full set of tactics that we have used in the past,” said Prakash, meaning that Sunrise’s bird-dogging and sit-ins probably aren’t going anywhere. But the organization’s increased focus on regional chapters means that dispersed groups of Sunrise members will run campaigns for local fights. This is meant to give members a greater sense of agency over—and connection to—the work, as well as serve as a testing ground for policies that could be scaled up to the federal level. One example of what this might look like comes from Portland, Oregon, where this year Sunrisers have been successfully organizing to limit highway expansion in an effort to decrease emissions.

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“Many of the victories that have been won by the right in recent years have been because they built up a bench of elected officials, grassroots forces, advocacy organizations, think tanks, and so on at the local level,” said Prakash. “This is our opportunity to build up a field of thousands of organizers across the country.”

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Though Sunrise 2.0 was fully ratified before the surprise passage of the IRA this summer, leadership sees the new priorities for the movement dovetailing nicely with the new climate bill.

“A lot of what the IRA does is move money towards local communities, but some of that money is in grants that expire in 2024,” said Shiney-Ajay. The only way the funding will actually get used for decarbonization and environmental justice initiatives as intended, she said—especially in red states and cities—is if there are groups ready to mobilize around ensuring that happens. That’s what Sunrise 2.0 is meant to accelerate.

In addition to prioritizing a more local focus, the organization is also talking about ways to provide more financial assistance to working-class organizers so that they can afford to take the time to be involved. Mejia, who describes himself as a “working-class Latino kid” who came into the organization as a teen by way of a Sunrise training for high schoolers, said that investing in more training and leadership development that prioritizes people of color and working-class people will help address that demographic gap.

It’s an idealized vision of a future for the movement. But that doesn’t discourage its members.

“We’ve shown that movements have the capacity to not just impact one-off elections or influence from the outside, but also have the leverage and power to guide governance,” Prakash said. “It’s the role of movements to be able to take what feels politically impossible today and bring it into political reality.”

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