The Women of Sunrise

Lauren Manus has a story to tell.

“I’m 21 years old and I’m originally from Palm City, Fla., where climate change-fueled increases in hurricanes and algae blooms ravage my town every single year. I’m here because my elected officials are so corrupted by corporate money that they can’t do their job and protect my

Aru Shiney-Ajay has a story too.

“My [early childhood] home of Kerala in India faced the worst floods we have seen in 100 years. I was worried that my grandmother’s home would be swept up or that my aunt would be stranded without food and water.”

And so does Olivia Freiwald.

“There’s a pipeline running straight across Pennsylvania called Mariner East. It’s been there for almost 90 years carrying petroleum. Now [parts of it] are being revamped by Sunoco to carry extremely explosive natural gas liquids to be shipped overseas to make plastic. This pipeline is going, literally, through people’s backyards.”

These are just three women’s experiences; there are many others. Together they tell the story of the Sunrise Movement, the fast-growing organization that’s leading the drive for the Green New Deal: a 10-year mobilization to meet America’s power needs with renewable energy and to create millions of jobs in the process.

Sunrise, as its members refer to it, is something else, too: an organization led largely by women. They’re Gen Zers and young millennials, most of them students, who understand that, if left unchallenged, climate change guarantees that the world they’ll inherit will be a hellscape of monster storms, flooding, scorching summer heat, immense poverty and more.

As the impact of climate change continues to become more pronounced, as it did with last year’s wildfires in California, youthful optimism has given way to youthful dread. Psychologists even have a term for it: climate grief. Jordan McAuliff, a teenage Sunriser from New York, talked about what that means when she spoke at a protest at the D.C. offices of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“I have been a lifeline for my friends who struggle with suicide because they don’t understand what the point is of staying on Earth any longer,” she said. “How much longer can young people go without hope?”

Through Sunrise, young people have been turning their dread into action and, in the process, made their organization into one of the last best hopes to stop the steady advance of climate change. Varshini Prakash, 26, was one of the eight climate activists who formed Sunrise in 2017. “We really wanted to give young people a pathway to have their voices heard and make climate change a crucial political issue,” she says.

From the start, Sunrise rejected the notion that activists had to choose between being involved in protests—including civil disobedience—or jumping into electoral politics. They needed to do both. Last year, at the same time it was protesting the Democratic National Committee’s repeal of its ban on contributions from fossil fuel interests, the group was also backing 30 Democratic candidates in 34 states who’d pledged not to accept such funds for their own campaigns. Beginning from scratch, Sunrise assembled and trained an army of volunteers who made direct contact with 254,000 voters. Thanks in no small part to their work, 19 of the candidates Sunrise backed were elected.

A week later, Sunrise burst onto the national scene by organizing a sit-in at the office of then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to demand the creation of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal. Though the participation of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) triggered a media feeding frenzy, she and Sunrise didn’t get the special committee both had sought.

Yet that protest, together with a 1,000-person lobbying blitz and other actions that followed, touched a chord with so many young people that local Sunrise groups (called “hubs”) were forming faster than the national staff could keep count. No less important, Sunrise had strengthened the hand of climate change activists in Congress. One of them, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), campaigned on his own Green Deal for America when he first ran in 2016.

“I found their entrance on the scene completely refreshing and a little mystifying, because I didn’t know where they were coming from,” Raskin recalls. “Then they told me they were working to get a select committee to get Congress focused on climate change and I was thrilled. This is exactly what we need.”

With the Green New Deal resolution now before Congress, Sunrisers are working to make life miserable for its Republican opponents and pressing Democratic presidential candidates to back the measure. Some already have. The group also hopes to see the Green New Deal make it into the party’s platform. And that could happen, though it would be a far less ambitious proposal than the one Sunrise is backing.

As it nears its third year, Sunrise has become a powerful expression of generational politics, but also one rooted in feminist values. More than half of Sunrise’s steering team members are women, as are most of its principal staff, and in January founder Prakash became Sunrise’s first executive director.

Sara Blazevic, 26, also a Sunrise founder and now its managing director, says that supporting strong women leaders is a Sunrise value: “Seeing leaders like [Prakash] inspires other young women to get involved. It’s like a multiplier effect.”

If there’s one word that best describes the Green New Deal, it’s big. Very big. The resolution by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) outlines a 10-year national mobilization to accomplish five goals: achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions; establishing millions of high-wage jobs and ensuring economic security for all; investing in infrastructure and industry; securing clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment for all; promoting justice and equity.

Once Congress commits to this statement of principles, proponents plan to submit subsequent legislation that, step-by-step, will work to achieve each of the Green New Deal’s objectives. The cost? Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science estimates that replacing America’s energy system alone would require a 10-year annual investment in the range of $1.5 trillion. That’s a humongous sum of money, but he points out it would amount to 7.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Advocates say that the Green New Deal would create millions of middle-class jobs in manufacturing, construction and other sectors of the economy. The job creation would be targeted to communities already feeling the effects of climate change and people living in poverty or struggling to stay out of it.

Coupling the battle against climate change with job creation may seem unorthodox, but polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that, when told about that and other aspects of the Green New Deal, a stunning 81 percent of voters backed the plan—including 64 percent of Republicans. “The American public tilts towards us.

There’s no question about that,” says Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a Green New Deal cosponsor. The challenge is “making clear there’s a need for immediate action.”

For the Sunrise Movement and other Green New Deal proponents, that’s now the biggest goal of all. The group’s key values are embodied in an official set of guidelines that define it less as a traditional progressive organization than as a community that prizes creativity, collaboration and respect for one another’s ideas. Among these principles are that “changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process and we let that show.”

Not a perspective generally associated with groups led by men. United Farm Workers cofounder and lifelong social justice activist Dolores Huerta knows well the difference between how men and women often work in social-change groups. “Men [often] … try to position themselves so they can leverage what they’re doing in terms of enhancing their own position and their own power,” she says. “We as women have a different way of thinking. Our ideas are very important because they’re often very different.”

That different way of thinking is readily apparent in how women are responding to the climate crisis. Jonathan Voss, who tracks attitudes about climate change at Lake Research Partners, points out that “research consistently shows that women place a higher priority and with greater intensity on the need to address climate change, pollution and clean energy than men.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a climate hawk and a cosponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, adds, “A lot of prominent male scientists would tell us, ‘We’re warming this much and it’s this degree.’ It’s so abstract to people as opposed to asking, ‘What will happen to our community if the wildfire hits?’”

Will Sunrise’s different way of thinking about climate change give it the political mojo it will take to win the Green New Deal? Freiwald is convinced it will.

“No way we can totally transform the political landscape in the span of days. But because of every single person in this movement, we did. One thing I’ve learned is that when you have hope in your heart and fire in your veins, you can pull off just about anything.”

Let’s hope she’s right.


Jim Grossfeld is a writer living a Bethesda, Maryland. He previously covered the women bolstering Michigan's Democratic wins at The American Prospect.