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The Sunrise Movement — five years later

Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash speaks on stage during an NYC Climate Strike rally and demonstration at Foley Square.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

In the fall of 2020, Black members of the Sunrise Movement came together to voice concerns about the ways in which the budding political action organization was harming members of color. In a letter of demands that September, Black Sunrise leaders took a stand, writing, "Either we lead this movement or we leave this movement.”

The letter revealed that Black Sunrise members were frustrated by the lack of Black and brown leadership, over reliance on electoral politics rather than direct community needs, and racism that permeated the culture of the organization.

The Sunrise Movement formed in the summer of 2016 with six people, some fresh out of college, terrified about the climate crisis. Hillary Clinton was the assumed winner of the upcoming 2016 election, yet the co-founders of Sunrise were afraid that even a Democratic administration wouldn’t be aggressive enough to prevent climate change from rapidly progressing.

Four years later, the Sunrise Movement is now made up of more than one hundred staff members, more than 500 active hubs (most of which function remotely and receive $12,000 annually from Sunrise national in direct financial support), and tens of thousands of volunteers across the country.

“[Sunrise] started out, in many ways, as a small group of people who were trying to figure out, how do we make climate justice matter in our politics?” Varshini Prakash, 28, executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, told Vox. When ten staff members turned into “10s of 1,000s of people knocking on our door,” Prakash and her team were forced to ask themselves, “What do you do when your organization erupts?”

Though the Sunrise Movement officially launched in the spring of 2017, the organization garnered national media attention when 250 Sunrisers sat in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018 to demand a Green New Deal, a congressional resolution that calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, high-paying jobs, access to clean water, healthy food, a sustainable environment, and the end of systemic oppression. Since then, Sunrise co-organized the 2019 September US Youth Climate Strike — one of 150 countries participating in the largest global strike against climate — continued to champion the Green New Deal on the local, state, and national level, and secured electoral wins in the 2020 election, campaigning on behalf of candidates such as Ed Markey, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and most notably, President Joe Biden. Prakash even landed a spot on the Sanders-Biden Climate Task Force in 2020, helping to shape the Biden campaign’s agenda on the climate crisis.

The Sunrise Movement is largely known for its work to push the Green New Deal, but focusing on a single piece of legislature or political campaign ignores a second strategy in fighting for climate justice, which is to directly support the most affected communities through mutual aid and leadership training, according to employees who have raised concerns about the organization in recent months.

So, as more people continue to mobilize around the climate crisis, Sunrise’s membership, staff, and political power has grown at an incredibly fast rate. Internally, the young organization has faced its own growing pains, reckoning with issues of racism, classism, burnout, fair pay, and unions showing that no movement is immune to the broader societal forces that pervade even progressive youth-powered movements.

Former Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator Johnathon Williams, 24, left his position at Sunrise because of the burnout that the Black Sunrise Caucus called attention to. “My job started out coaching organizers,” Williams said, “And then more and more, I got drawn into conversations of what does equity look like? What does accountability across this conversation across this organization look like? What does it look like to set strategy with people of color in mind?”

These repeated conversations Williams had about equity, he said, took over his capacity to do ground work and “was just very exhausting.”

From May to July, the Black Sunrise Caucus Implementation Team evaluated the Black experience at Sunrise, the state of the demands, and worked to ensure “a more equitable and accessible experience than it has been in the past,”said Halla Jones, 24, past coordinator of the Implementation Team.

The environmental justice movement makes way for Sunrise

Historically, white, middle and upper-class activists have been at the forefront of the environmentalist movement, Dorceta Taylor, a scholar of environmental justice at the Yale School of Environment, argues in The Rise of the American Conservation Movement. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, founded in 1892, “­were not established as multiracial or cross-­class institutions,” resulting in a “legacy of race and class discrimination and the practice of separating environmental issues from those of social in­ equality are challenges that the conservation movement has had a difficult time overcoming,” Taylor wrote. The legacy of race and class discrimination is one of the reasons burnout is more prevalent among marginalized people in environmental movements.

In This Is an Uprising, authors Paul and Mark Engler contend with the issue of burnout and the sustainability of social movements. “For as long as people have experimented with building movements around strategic nonviolence, they have grappled with a dilemma: how to reconcile the explosive short-term potential of disruptive power with the need to sustain resistance to meet long-term goals,” the authors wrote.

One reason why even the left struggles with racism, classism, etcetera is, as Alexis Shotwell writes in Against Purity: living ethically in compromised times is because of a perceived immunity from those problems. According to Shotwell, however, “There is not a preracial state we could access, erasing histories of slavery, forced labor on railroads, colonialism, genocide, and their concomitant responsibilities and requirements.”

Instead of a movement that seeks moral purity, Shotwell argues, “It would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.”

Unacknowledged complicity pervades environmentalist organizations, says progressive communications consultant and cofounder of mvmt communications Karthik Ganapathy, who consults with Sunrise. “Every organization in a progressive space struggles with the gap between the diversity they want and the diversity that they have” said Ganapathy. Lack of diversity across progressive organizations is connected to who has the time and financial security to participate in activism, Ganapathy said.

Not free from the constraints of left-wing nonprofits and political action committees, this year Sunrise has wrestled with how to make its movement more sustainable, equitable, and accessible.

The Black Sunrise Caucus demands accountability

The Black Sunrise Caucus formed as Sunrise was preparing for the 2020 Presidential election and wrote a letter of demands, voicing concerns over Sunrise’s electoral strategy, funding accountability, movement structure, hiring, and culture. The letter was shared with department and division directors within Sunrise.

“As Sunrise, we take the stance ‘racial justice is climate justice’ but we can significantly do more to embody this statement as a movement,” the letter stated. Critiquing the organization for outsourcing racial justice fights to other organizations, exploiting Black culture, and undervaluing and excluding Black organizers from organizational decisions, the anonymous collective of Black Sunrise leaders wrote, “Let this serve as notice that we will no longer allow the Sunrise Movement to exploit our voices, body, and labor.” The letter also included ways to align the organization’s organizing strategies with racial equity goals, steps to improve funding transparency and accountability, and ideas for overhauling the organization’s allegedly discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.

Seven months later, four Black Sunrise leaders, frustrated by the lack of progress on the demands, drafted a new letter in March 2021 titled Do What Must Be Done, re-upping earlier demands. This time, they shared the letter with all of Sunrise’s staff. The letter was later made public in June by former creative director Alex O’Keefe in now deleted tweets.

“We are calling on Sunrise Movement organization to publicly reckon with the movement-wide crisis we are in; dismantle our white, owning-class culture: and to publicly commit to using the tens of millions of dollars we have to equip our base, and build multi-racial, cross-class community power for a Green New Deal,” Do What Must Be Done states.

More specifically, the Do What Must Be Done letter demanded that Sunrise staff and volunteers personally act on the Black Sunrise Demands, top leadership publicly commit to the demands, and that there be “a public reckoning and public transfer of power.”

The Black Sunrise Caucus Implementation Team was created in response to the Black Sunrise Caucus and Do What Must Be Done and worked from May to July this year to create formalized processes to address the demands.

Jones said one of the things that Sunrise has struggled with is the question of, “Are we a community-based organization or an issue-based organization” and “the role of mutual aid in the work that we do.”

Another critique both letters made was calling out the organization’s culture of burnout, particularly for members and staff of color and/or working class. A core part of burnout within Sunrise is linked to “watching people in your community, in your family, and in your own home, [suffer] because of what we’re trying to fight against,” Jones said. “People that are more impacted by that are often people of color.”

While Jones said the implementation team was “a necessary step” in addressing the demands, she said “there was harm that was caused in that process.” The implementation team was “a structure that was built within a really broken structure.” The fulfillment of the demands is still in progress, hence, it is still to be seen how much change the team can actually bring forth.

Sunrise has not only worked to address issues of racial justice within its organization, but also that of economic justice through unionizing. In December, Sunrise staff won unionization with voluntary recognition and 97 percent of unit members signing parts. “I saw the need to bring a voice on economic justice within the movement to our organizing work,” Gabbi Pierce, internal communications coordinator and Sunrise staff union leader, said.

This past May, the Sunrise Movement Staff Union reached an agreement to substantially raise the sliding scale pay cap with the organization’s management. “[This] was deeply beneficial to people in Sunrise who, for example, had dependents and were supporting families, or were in high cost of living areas or came from poor working class backgrounds and needed that higher salary,” Pierce said. She noted that this was “a very positive collaborative relationship with management” and “that they actually brought the idea initially to us after some people in the union had raised it.”

Prakash said she was excited about the union. “I actually think it gives us a very clear pathway for communication and a way to make policies, strategy, decision making all of that so much more transparent,” Prakash said.

The recent unionization and efforts by the Black Sunrise Caucus Implementation Team are reflective of the movement’s necessary evolution since its founding. The organization’s vision originally extended four years, through the end of Trump’s presidency. Now, Sunrise is looking to reimagine its future.

Sunrise 2.0

Aru Shiney-Ajay, frontloading team leader, is working on Sunrise’s vision for the next three to five years. The frontloading team was created because “we grew really fast in 2018, and in many ways, both outgrew the structures that we already had, and also outgrew the political moment that we had been planned for and outgrew a lot of our original DNA,” Shiny-Ajay said.

Two key influences in designing Sunrise 2.0 include building a multiracial and cross-class movement and democratizing decision making between local hubs and national staff, Shiney-Ajay told Vox.

Prakash has always seen Sunrise as a multiracial, cross-class movement. “​​You cannot win on climate justice, if economic justice isn’t a priority,” Prakash said. “People of color, working class people, undocumented people, indigenous people, those are the communities that are constantly getting ravaged by the climate crisis.”

When asked about how Sunrise is addressing burnout, particularly for working class people and people of color, Prakash said Sunrise has experimented with vacation policies, limiting team meetings, and giving every other Friday off during certain times of the year. “I think we haven’t quite hit the nail on the head,” Prakash said. She continues to grapple with questions like, “How do we actually systemize those practices across the board?” and “How do you build a culture where things feel so urgent and life threatening and existential all the time, but we also need to deeply take care of and preserve the energy and vitality of our people?”

Something Prakash contends is Sunrise initially underestimated the need, but is focusing now on “directing resources, staff capacity, money, and time towards leadership development,” to support incoming Sunrisers “to actually be able to do the work” and to “have support systems to not experience [burnout].”

“We came from like six people to thousands of people. But frankly, that level of power isn’t enough,” Prakash said, expressing her hopes for the future of the organization. “I want tens of thousands more to feel like they have a home in Sunrise, and I want many more leaders of color and working class leaders to feel like they have a home in Sunrise.”

But controversy may always be on the horizon for the organization as it finds its footing and its identity shifts. Just a few weeks ago the DC hub of the organization came under fire for posting a statement on Twitter that critics called anti-Semitic. The organization announced that it wouldn’t speak at a DC rally because it would have to share the stage with Jewish groups that back Israel’s zionist mission. The group made its tweets private after the backlash.

But there’s still hope for Sunrise — a movement that has galvanized millions and who still has support from hundreds of employees who want to help the organization be better and do right by its employees. Jones, inspired by the Black Sunrise Caucus Implementation Team she led, is optimistic about the future of Sunrise.

“I think the amount of direction and clarity that we’ve been missing this year is on the horizon,” Jones said. “I see us being able to be in actual healthy, generative conflict that it takes to create the movement we talk about creating because of the structures that we’re setting up for ourselves for next year.”