An Interview with Sunrise

This interview was published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist in a shortened form. This is the full version.

Each year, there are more record-setting hot days. Polar ice is melting. Yet governments around the world are doing little to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. So young people — who see their fates inextricably linked with the fate of the planet — are organizing for a transition to renewable energy. Taylor-Raye Council and Griffin Mahon spoke with JP Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, about that organization’s political perspective and culture.

TRC | Give us a brief summary of the Sunrise Movement. Who are you (as an organization), what do you do, and why do you do it?

The Sunrise Movement is an organization that is building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of jobs in the process — we’re fighting for a just transition that does not leave anyone behind. Our work includes creating massive public support for a Green New Deal, and electing movement allies. Success would allow us to address problems of environmental, racial, and economic injustice in one fell swoop. 

Sunrise started in 2016, but really rose to prominence in 2018. That was when we staged a sit-in of Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding a Green New Deal. We also found an ally in a newly-elected congresswoman from the Bronx by the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or “AOC” for short. Since then, we’ve come pretty far. Our activism helped make the Green New Deal the talk of the nation. It has even been embraced by Joe Biden as “a crucial framework” for his climate policy.

At the time of the sit-in, Sunrise only had 15 hubs. Now, we have roughly 400. In 2020 alone, we have welcomed tens of thousands of young people into our ranks. And we are using that power to fight for bold climate action that not only meets the speed, scope, and scale of the moment, but also takes into account justice and equity.

GM | What do local hubs do? And how is that different from what happens at the national level?

Speaking from experience as someone who works at both levels, local hubs enjoy quite a bit of autonomy. Hubs know their communities, and have a special sense for what those communities need. So hubs do not need to be told what to do. They are fully capable of taking action on their own.

National, on the other hand, distributes Sunrise’s DNA — the story, the strategy, the culture, the structure — that provides hubs with the guidance they need to be effective and powerful. National makes clear what Sunrise’s goals are, and transmits those down to the local level so that hubs can apply them to their local communities.

Here in Miami, for example, I am very serious about my hub work. We are a front-line community that is already facing some of the worst effects of the climate crisis. We see some of the most dire climate predictions unfolding before our very eyes. That is Miami right now.

So our hub is trying to build partnerships with like-minded organizations, such as YDSA, labor groups and racial justice organizations to create a Green New Deal specifically for Miami-Dade County. Loads of other hubs have taken on similar projects. A lot of great work is being done at the local level.

At the national level, we make sure hubs have access to the necessary resources, trainings, and political education they need to be their strongest. National also plays the important role of creating “distributed campaigns,” which essentially meet immediate mobilization goals that hubs across the country work toward simultaneously. The People’s Bailout, for example, was a distributed campaign. We also threw all of our resources both nationally and locally to defend black lives during the height of the uprisings for racial justice.

TRC | How is Sunrise set up from an organizational perspective? Is decision-making democratic? What does that look like?

So, Sunrise has lots of departments. And, furthermore, we have many opportunities for democratic engagement. Our hub council is an example, which consists of spokespeople representing hubs nationwide who relay concerns to National. 

We also have a Justice, Equity, and Anti-Oppression working group. That was set up to correct for a lot of the ills that every organization, at some point, encounters. We know that — in order to build a multiracial, cross-class movement — the base of our movement has to fit those identities.

In truth, Sunrise was a very white-dominated space early on. And that failed to embody the movement that we needed. So we began working with leaders in our organization and beyond to start bringing in folks of diverse backgrounds. That is something we continue to do to this day, and take very seriously.

GM | People of all ages want to avert the climate crisis. And all sorts of people support the Green New Deal. What led to the creation of Sunrise as an explicitly youth-led organization?

Throughout all of history, young people have been the ones to move the needle. Unlike their elders, young people have not yet been subdued into accepting things how they are. Just look around you. We have grown up in an age of chaos.

Growing up in this post-9/11 world, where corporate executives run our supposed democracy, it was clear that we should not have any faith in politics as usual — and that includes the climate movement of the past. They played the game of Washington insiders. The movement was very white, very affluent, and lacked a working-class appeal. Low-income people and people of color were nowhere to be found in the environmental movement because there was nothing appealing to them and no talk of collective liberation as part of solving the climate crisis.

Sunrise seized on the opportunity to break with this hopeless status quo. We have pioneered an approach that is intersectional, with young people carrying the mantle. It is unfortunate that our generation has inherited this crisis. This is a huge weight on our shoulders. But we know we are the only ones with the moral clarity needed to solve it. That is why Sunrise is happy to place authority in the hands of such young people.

TRC | In the past, environmentalists have been criticized for their unwillingness to work with the labor movement. How does the Green New Deal appeal to workers and encourage them to take action?

The Green New Deal represents a change to the status quo. For far too long, the environmental movement was worked within the confines of neoliberalism. And that has not gotten us anywhere.

The Green New Deal is unique in that it recognizes the climate crisis’s root cause: economic exploitation of lands and people. Labor leaders like Tony Mazzocchi understood this long before anyone had ever heard of a Green New Deal. Sunrise is trying to carry on their legacy.

The mass economic mobilization that the Green New Deal calls for will create millions of jobs. But we do not want those jobs to strip people of their rights and dignity, as so many jobs today do. That means guaranteeing dignified wages, benefits, worker protections, and bargaining power.

A lot of people call the Green New Deal extreme and a trojan horse for this, that, and the third. But the reality is that it is the most pragmatic way to deal with the climate crisis. The Green New Deal centers working people in the process of cultivating a new, more sustainable world.

GM | What perhaps distinguishes YDSA from other campus groups is our disdain for capitalism. First and foremost, we desire a new economic system. What is Sunrise’s analysis of the economic causes of climate change?

Sunrise understands that the causes of climate change derive from a system that treats people and land as both profitable and disposable. That is essentially what racial capitalism is. And you cannot solve the climate crisis without at least placing significant regulations on free-market capitalism. 

The climate crisis did not begin with the introduction of fossil fuels or the Industrial Revolution. It began with colonization and white supremacy. It began with an economic system that treats people and land as means to an end. That is what convinced us of this fantasy of endless extraction.

The Green New Deal pushes back against this dangerous thinking. It is not a revolution in itself, but it can be a tool for spreading revolutionary ideas.

TRC | How has COVID-19 affected Sunrise’s confrontational tactics, particularly when it comes to pressuring more moderate Democrats to support a Green New Deal?

So, COVID-19 was unexpected for all of us. And it was kind of a double-edged sword. There has been this unjustified respect for the way things are and the way our systems work — and look where it has gotten us. Massive unemployment, racial injustice, an out-of-control pandemic, etc. The status quo is not working for us.

And Sunrise’s organizing definitely took a hit too. Our ability to gather in large numbers was curtailed. But we could not just sit idle while the climate crisis continues to rage on.

So we had to adjust our tactics. Sunrise had to figure out how to be just as disruptive, but in smaller, safer numbers. For inspiration, we looked to history.

The abolitionist movement gave us a model. There was a youth group back in the 1860s known as the “Wide Awakes.” They would visit the homes of pro-slavery politicians and wake them up.

Soon enough, Sunrise started doing the same thing. We would safely gather at politicians’ homes — both Democrats and Republicans — and wake them up at five or six o’clock in the morning. We recently did this to Trump-endorsed Kelly Loeffler, who is running for Senate in Georgia.

Sunrise is not going to sleep. We are here to show our power in the same badass ways we always have.

GM | I saw that Sunrise is launching a candidate program to support members running for office. What are candidates expected to run on besides, of course, a Green New Deal? And how do you envision these candidates relating to Sunrise after they are elected?

Well, the Green New Deal alone casts a fairly wide net. It includes many progressives stances within it. Among them are support for indigenous sovereignty and racial justice. The Green New Deal is a holistic approach to tackling not just the climate crisis, but also its root causes like racism and economic injustice. A candidate must fully understand and embrace this framework to run under Sunrise’s banner.

For years, Sunrise has had its sights on electing a new generation of leaders. Those efforts have ushered in some great people. Even this cycle, we kept The Squad and added Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and other Green New Deal champions. But their worldview extends beyond the environmental to social justice generally. These are the people Sunrise likes to work with.

For our candidate recruitment program, Sunrise is looking to elevate leaders who are either working within our ranks or in their communities. We need to fill every level of government with Green New Deal champions. We cannot underestimate how important, say, city councils are. Those are the folks who manage our utilities and police budgets. Sunrise is looking to take over the entire country in 2021 and 2022.

TRC | On your website, under the ‘Climate Mandate’ tab, you mention that “This is Biden’s FDR moment.” Care to elaborate on that comparison?

Biden was far from a perfect candidate. When Sunrise looked at his climate plan, we graded it an F-. After Bernie dropped out, though, we realized that Biden was all we had to work with.

Then the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces were announced. Bernie promoted people like AOC and our executive director Varshini Prakash to work with Biden’s team to change his climate plan. And we were able to make it the most progressive climate plan in history. In fact, it ended up being more ambitious than Bernie’s 2016 plan.

As a result, Biden’s popularity among young people surged. It is funny because Biden’s climate plan was actually more popular than Biden himself. Now that Biden has been elected in a time of crisis, he will enter office with an unprecedented mandate — just like FDR.

GM | What kind of debates are being had among Sunrise members?

There is definitely diversity of opinion regarding how to approach the establishment. The argument essentially boils down to two sides. Sometimes they compromise, and sometimes they do not.

One side promotes ideological purity and the other promotes political efficacy. Strategy, and how we relate to the Democratic Party, remains very much an open question. We are constantly navigating those waters in deep consultation with one another.

Sunrise is like any other leftist movement. Given enough time, disagreements are sure to arise. But we do not run from conflict; we lean into it. We think it makes us stronger as an organization.