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  • Davin Hutchins

Sunrise Movement: Lessons In Climate Activism


As of this writing, no organization has done more to elevate the scope and necessity of bold federal climate action in the United States. Sunrise Movement was instrumental in pushing for a climate change debate with the Democratic National Committee. While a dedicated DNC-endorsed debate has yet to happen, the momentum led to an unprecedented 7-hour Climate Crisis Town Hall on CNN with the likelihood of more yet to come.


Better yet, Sunrise's ability to elevate the urgency of the climate crisis and communicate it in clear "do or die" terms to politicians, combined with other moonshot climate proposals like from Washington Governor Jay Inslee, has translated into the perfect political conditions. The United States could finally reach its potential in solving the climate crisis as one nation. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have all introduced multi-trillion dollar plans modeled off of the Green New Deal.


While I don't agree with everything articulated in the Green New Deal resolution that failed the House of Representatives in March 2019, especially including sections unrelated to climate policy or those politically or logistically unrealistic like a universal health care or a federal jobs guarantee, I'm thankful for Sunrise Movement's ability to raise the ante in ways we never thought possible.


Therefore, I wanted to recap one of the actions I participated in after the Democrats took back the House of Representatives to share some tactics and strategies I saw Sunrise Movement leveraging first hand.


Sunrise Movement was started by two University of Massachusetts Amherst students involved with pipelines and divestment fights on their campus in mid-2016. They assumed Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and was worried about Democratic business-as-usual climate policies that happened under Obama. After Trump’s election, they realized that the U.S. would likely go backward (leave Paris agreement, undo Clean Power Planet, etc.) instead of staying put at its lackluster measures. They needed a national action plan that would allow youth/students to influence elections and set the national agenda to put climate center stage.


For most of 2017 and 2018, the movement led university-centered, student focused bootcamps that educated about climate science but contextualized it as a travesty that would affect their generation disproportionately. They would pay the price of political inaction, non older generations. The trainings focused on mass civil disobedience inspired by Dakota Access Pipeline techniques.


At the same time, a group of young activists called the Justice Democrats formed in the form of a Political Action Committee (PAC) to endorse Democratic candidates who pledged to take no corporate campaign funds, especially from fossil fuel companies, during the 2018 midterm elections. The Justice Democrats comprehensive platform to combine climate action with green job creation and climate justice. One of the movement’s luminaries was a former bartender from the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist and Bernie Sanders ally, that beat the centrist Democrat. She went on to win her seat along with several other JD-endorsed candidates. Most women of color - Muslim, Latino, African-American.


The Green New Deal

One of the big ideas that Ocasio-Cortez ran on was the implementation of a Green New Deal, borrowing language of massive U.S. government spending and job creation in the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration after the Great Depression to transform society. Most Americans learn about this in grade school.


But this deal would be for climate mobilization. Huge government stimulus spending and policies, in their mind, is the only thing that can address the scale of this crisis. Also after the most recent IPCC report, the Sunrise Movement began using #12Years, the time the report suggested we have for serious action to avoid catastrophe. Shortly before the election and after, The Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement began coordinating more on message and tactics. Specifically, the idea emerged from Ocasio-Cortez for a Green New Deal special committee for the goal of creating a legislative package by 2020 for a Green New Deal outside of the current committee structure where the Energy and Commerce and the Natural Resource committees prevail.


The Moment

On Nov. 14, Sunrise Movement sort of lucked out in a moment they’d actually been preparing for for more than a year. Sunrise organized 200 students to enter Congress to protest at the offices of soon-to-be Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding the GND committee. Ocasio-Cortez was notified and showed up when the students and press were live-streaming the sit-in and chanting, giving them all high-fives. The protesters were separated into those who chose not to risk arrest and those who would. In all, 51 protesters were arrested for refusing to leave Pelosi’s office. This made lots of headlines.


The press suggested that Ocasio-Cortez staged the protest in Pelosi’s office with the youth (she didn’t, she came later) and was setting up a generational battle over climate amongst Democrats. The coverage went viral and the Green New Deal has become the centerpiece of all climate discussion in the U.S. in a matter of weeks. But the visuals suggested that this was a generational battle between fed-up youth and complacent older Democrats. It was the involvement of this key influencer that brought the attention, brought the press and set the tone.


The Second Moment

The organizers were so surprised by their success in the press, they decided on a second action a few weeks later for December 10, 2018 - a few days before Congress adjourned. I decided to volunteer with my local climate network and with students at the local university, George Mason, to see Sunrise in action up close. What transpired was truly inspirational organizing and open campaigning and I wanted to share some of the tactics that made this second action such a success.


The first action in Pelosi's office allowed Sunrise to obtain about 10,000+ new email sign ups and a surge of donations. They then email blasted their expanded list, explaining they wanted groups of college students to descend upon D.C. on Dec. 10 for an action to support the Green New Deal in Congress bigger than the first.


They needed recruiters so I joined the first call. They wanted 500 students were to take a car, train or bus for three days of training and action. Yet, they didn’t even explain what the action was other than it would be bigger than the first they saw on the news. The simplicity of the goal and the secrecy of tactics helped motivate people across the nation to show up in blind trust. They call it “prophetic promotion” - hype the shit out of something but be fuzzy on the details. It creates a mystery.


The ask was simple: We are making history and permanently changing the politics of climate change. 22 Democratic Congresspeople and nearly 100 of the most powerful community, environmental, and economic justice organizations in the country have endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal. We don’t have a moment to waste. We have 12 Years to take bold action and avert the worst effects of the climate crisis. We will have the largest youth protest this year to get as many lawmakers to back the deal.


On the first call, we recruiters were given a Recruitment tracking form and Recruitment Tool Kit

The instructions on the call were light but the forms were so well laid out and organized, people figured out what to do. Everyone on the call was under the age of 25 - most in a dormitory room. They also gave people things to do virtually in the lead up to the DC event including kits for a Tweet Storm and Personal Story Selfie Video, addressing lawmakers directly. Clear instructions and trust get a lot done. Don’t try to do everything at the center, push it do the edges. Assume people will be responsible.


Training before the event: Distributed Campaigning

The day before the event, we were given a clear Action Participant Guide that had details on the action, agenda, meeting place, travel advisories, ways to raise money to travel. This included art builds and other activities.

We were told to meet at a new location at church in downtown D.C. because the numbers had swelled to 1100 people. It was chaotic but inspirational. T-shirts, everyone singing rally songs like hymns, great speeches from organizers, noise-making - it was like religion.


The program went over the action logistics and the organizers divided all of the volunteers into roles: those that would lead lobbying delegations, those who would negotiate with police, those that would talk to the press, those who would shoot social media, handle live streaming, etc. They all had clear titles and even dress code like colored hats or vests to be identified in a crowd. And it was loose but hierarchical enough where it stayed organized. There was also legal advice for those risking arrest for not leaving offices including how to get out of detention by paying a fee.


Our group was assigned a few Congresspersons to meet and convince with assigned storytellers, social media takers, notetakers, etc. Most people had a role.



Lobbying Day

1200 of us met at a park in our respective groups with Sunrise T-Shirts and after a rally, entered the office buildings in teams and politely met with more than 50 lawmakers in one hour with personal stories and the same asks. We actually met with two lawmakers staff. In that hour, a few lawmakers tweeted out they would join the Green New Deal endorsement. Once one lawmaker joined, we would use social media on that win to pressure another.


About an hour later, we then mobilized for three actions: again in Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi’s office, her number two Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and the head of the Rules Committee Jim McGovern. The Rules Committee basically determines the agenda for the next Congress and bills and committees.


I was on the B team and opted not to risk arrest. We stood in the halls in front of the press and left after the cops arrived. The A team entered the offices refusing to move from Pelosi’s and Hoyer’s floor - singing protest songs and giving speeches with the press shooting everything. More than 100 were quietly arrested and released with a $50 fine some hours later.


Lessons for any campaign organization

Based on this experience, I’d like to offer these suggestions for any other campaign push wishing to utilize the principles of open, distributed campaigning:


Engage youth - Youth are natural organizers and are simply more technology savvy, have more free time and are more idealistic and engaged. Any successful mobilization should have a youth-specific engagement outreach that complements perhaps other target groups. If we focus only on new personas like mothers, it might not work. We need the youngsters, college students.


Keep it simple and mysterious - The ask that volunteers are asking the political targets has to be ultra-simple. So does the ask of what you want organizers to do to show up in the first place. Use emotional and even hyped language to build momentum. This includes not disclosing logistical or tactical details. In live situations like trainings, put on a show when you meet that creates momentum and a community. (Denmark just did this. See Hanna Hogbom’s report.)


Prophetic promotion - Make sure there is a secret element to the action that people need to show up for to know the details. Hype the action and create FOMO (fear of missing out). Make it sound epic.


Involve a key influencer - Do everything you can to make sure that key influencer participates and endorses the action.


Clear roles and cascading delegation - Create an org chart of how you want organizing power and decision making to flow from the center to the edges. Create clear roles and a hierarchy on the fly that everyone respects. Create roles with simple tasks, names for roles, dress code for roles and make sure everyone knows their function in the action and who to report to.


Clear toolkits but also tools - Toolkits that are rich in detail solve a lot of confusion later and people can ask others who might have read if unclear. But they are also just something you read. Collaborative workspaces like Google Docs or Sheets create a transparent way to organize. G Suite is great for organizing if people know how to use it. Create things to read but also write in.


Leverage social media broadcasting tools - If you focus on youth, assume a literacy in social media (selfies, tagging, livestreaming) and ask people to perform those roles to raise the profile of the action by broadcasting or tweeting live. If it goes viral, it makes the next action easier. The livestream of this action got more than 100,000 views.


Be responsive to circumstances - Be ready to pivot on target, tactics, press outreach at a moment’s notice and take advantage of momentum. Don’t plan everything in advance but create ways for people to contact, e-mail or text someone if situations change. Be improvisational.