“Are you one of those flat-Earthers?” The young man looked at the flaming Earth at my feet. 

“No,” I laughed. “I’m in the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots youth movement to stop the climate crisis. Can I tell you about our upcoming climate strike?”

It was September 2019. I had just joined Sunrise and was working to grow the San Diego hub through canvassing the local farmers market. The issue: I had no experience and no supplies. I struggled to articulate the what, where, and why as I tried to pin down strangers for their phone number and email. I think it had something to do with the tagline on the back of my shirt: Good Jobs and a Livable Future.

We were approaching the end of the hottest decade in recorded history. I had just graduated college, an experience scarred by the biggest wildfire in state history. I was stricken with climate anxiety and grief, and determined to do something about it. A friend told me about the Green New Deal, a national solution to avert the approaching apocalypse, and I decided to join the Sunrise movement to fight for my generation’s future. 

But when I talked to the man at the farmers market, I found myself explaining CO2 parts per million. I should have pitched my story instead because he said: “No, thanks.”

Eventually, I learned better recruitment tactics — both through trainings with the national organization and my own trial and error — and “No, thanks” began to turn into “Yes, tell me more.” I also expanded my reach beyond the local farmers market. I learned how to recruit online, table events, and give presentations to local schools and organizations. Our hub grew. Soon, we began planning actions, hosting our own trainings and events, and campaigning for local candidates. We became known as the new climate kids. 

My story is the story of so many organizers who have joined the Sunrise Movement over the past four years: young and inexperienced but driven to be the generation to solve the climate crisis. That shared story is why so many of us stay. In Sunrise, we have found a deep sense of understanding and community. 

The organizational structure of the Sunrise Movement is built to train young organizers fast, to equip us with the tools to build a local chapter so we can grow the climate movement across the United States. Sunrise has done this job well; since its inception in 2017, the organization has grown to over 400 hubs across the United States. Founded during the Trump administration, the Sunrise Movement has only ever organized in hostile territory. The Biden administration presents an opportunity to continue the movement for environmental justice on more fertile terrain, and I’m confident the Sunrise Movement can grow to meet the moment. Over the past four years, we’ve learned how to rapidly expand a movement and train new leaders. We’ve also begun expanding our understanding of environmental justice and its relationship to the movement for Black lives. Over the next four years, we have an opportunity to deepen leadership skills, focus on member equity, and make racial justice central to our vision of climate justice. The 2010s birthed the global climate movement; in the 2020s, we will mature into a movement ready to lead this country through the Decade of the Green New Deal.

 

Training a new generation of leaders 

Trainings are the backbone of any movement; for the Sunrise Movement, they’re our biggest strength. When a new member joins Sunrise, they are invited to participate in Sunrise 101, a training that offers an introduction to our history, mission, and principles; a rundown of the climate crisis; our theory of change; and our plan to win the Green New Deal. Last spring, we launched Sunrise School, weekly courses led by volunteer trainers on different skills, such as movement building, data, and graphic design. Sunrise School was a great introduction to organizing for new and emerging members but lacked a ladder for leadership development. The national team met this need by organizing a high-capacity volunteer network to train up movement members hungry for growth.

Sunrise 101 is the first step for a new movement member, but the decentralized structure of the organization allows for the next step to be dependent on the member and their hub. Some hubs are large and well developed, with clear roles, teams, and ladders of engagement. Other hubs are small, and a new member may find themselves in a leadership position right away. When I joined the San Diego hub, I led the “growth” team: outreach, recruitment, and one-on-ones. In larger hubs, one might find themselves joining a well-established art team and contributing to an existing project that matches their interests or availability. In an intermediate-sized hub, a new member might take the lead for a tabling outreach event by printing fliers and organizing shifts. 

For a Sunrise member who wants to commit the time and energy to the movement, all paths lead to leadership. The best leaders nurture the potential of other leaders. In Sunrise hubs, leadership development often happens through the creation of a “deputy” lead for each team: someone new and eager to learn who can then transition to the full leadership position. Every hub is different, but in San Diego, team leads transition power to the lead-in-training every six months. Old leads may become hub coordinators tasked with hub development and maintenance, lead a different team, fall back into a member role, or explore organizing outside the Sunrise hub.

Not every hub does leadership development and power equity well. I’ve spoken with a number of women and BIPOC members who felt that either the white members took up too much space in leadership and hub direction or that women and BIPOC members were prematurely pushed into a visible leadership role simply because the hub wanted a person of color or woman in leadership. If we are a movement for environmental justice, we must model the world we want to build, and it starts with the hub structure. The climate crisis worsens historic injustices for BIPOC, women, poor, and working-class folks. Centering the voices of the people most impacted by the disparate consequences of the crisis is crucial to our shared vision of a just and livable future.

To that end, the national movement has been working to train hubs on equitable and intentional recruitment without tokenization. For a future, non-Zoom world example: hub general meetings and trainings should meet in a public and non-majority white part of town. Consideration should be given to public transportation lines, working hours, and disability accommodations; hubs should offer food. After a member is recruited, current leaders should prioritize developing the leadership of members of marginalized groups. 

But hubs, especially smaller ones, do not always have the resources to meet the needs of new and developing members. Sunrise National offers resources like paid regional organizers, training networks, and online information resources, but other barriers exist for historically marginalized movement members, like time, money, and English proficiency. The national Sunrise Movement has recognized the need for document translation as well as member and hub stipends. We cannot pay every member for their time, especially when the movement operates on a basic budget, but additional financial support for hubs in historically marginalized communities could be the path forward.

Since the uprisings for Black lives last summer, Sunrise has also worked to deepen our movement’s commitment to fighting environmental racism — and to root our demands in environmental justice. The Sunrise Movement is still majority white, and many Sunrisers were uncertain how to respond to the uprisings. To help our members make sense of this moment, Sunrise School put together a new course, Defund the Police, which drew nearly 4,000 attendees. Defund the Police gave background on the Movement for Black Lives and the intersection of racial and climate justice while guiding the movement through a whirlwind moment not directly tied to the climate crisis. This is the moment that Sunrise started on the path to becoming an environmental justice movement, when we began to take action in a way that expressed an understanding that carbon was not the only environmental enemy. We rewrote our organizational principles to include language on abolition, and I helped form the Sunrise Black Caucus to center Black voices in the movement.

 

The Path Ahead

The Sunrise Movement has over four hundred hubs across the country, a massive scale for an organization founded in 2017. We have chosen size over depth, and quantity over quality of hubs. This decision has served the mission of the organization well; climate was a central issue in the 2020 election, and Joe Biden has proposed a Green New Deal-like climate policy. But as we move out of the Trump years, it is critical that our organization focus on local, deep organizing. 

I subscribe to the city model of global climate action — the idea that each city has unique climate challenges and is best equipped to adapt and mitigate the crisis while keeping its residents safe. The Green New Deal, while funded with federal dollars and guided by a shared national vision, is at its heart about empowering local communities, transforming neighborhoods, and building small-scale resilience. As a federal policy proposal, all bills passed through Congress must then be interpreted, implemented, and enforced by local and state government bodies. 

Poor people and people of color — who have historically suffered from environmental injustice — must be at the center of developing climate solutions that repair, restore, and intervene in systemic injustices. The Sunrise Movement can play a critical role in ensuring that the Green New Deal works towards restorative environmental justice, creates jobs and grows wealth for the people often left out, and champions justice in local climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. To achieve this, we must offer more in-depth training on local policy advocacy and municipal and state bill writing while formalizing political power by running our own members for office.

Thinking back on my early days canvassing the farmers market on Saturday afternoons, I have come far as a climate organizer, and we have come far as a movement. We managed to keep organizing through Bernie Sanders’s primary loss, COVID-19, and an online 50th Earth Day. We protested alongside the Movement for Black Lives and organized to defeat Trump with the Count On Us Coalition. We are more than just electoral organizers; we are culture changers. After decades of neglect, climate is the issue that will define the 2020s, and we will push to make racial justice and economic equality a defining feature of the conversation about how we combat climate change. The long nights, the constant trial and failure, the deep self-doubt — it was all worth it. The Sunrise Movement gave me the training that will allow me to become a lifelong organizer fighting for climate justice. In the coming years, I am excited to see how Sunrise grows and brings into reality our vision of a Green New Deal.

 

Read the issue: Debriefing the Resistance  

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