Varshini Prakash on Youth Power and Building a Broad Climate Movement
A week after Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterm elections, Varshini Prakash and a then-little-known youth organization called Sunrise Movement held a sit-in protest at the office of former House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who would go on to become the Speaker of the House.
“I remember just shaking with the intensity of what was going on,” recalls Prakash. “I think it was nervousness. I think it was excitement. I think it was a feeling of power, an agency, a feeling that we were coming together to proactively send a message about what the Democratic Party should be and who it should stand for.“
Their message was clear: take meaningful action on climate change, and prioritize the Green New Deal to do that. Over 50 fellow activists were arrested that day, and the group was joined by newly-elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Green New Deal was then introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey a few months later, and Sunrise Movement’s vision for a just green economy to tackle the mounting challenges of the climate crisis became a household idea in America.
Of course, Varshini’s generation are the ones who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. For them, the need for action from national and world leaders is that much more urgent.
“We have a responsibility and a duty to each other in the world to engage to the extent that we can in whatever power and capacity that we can,” says Prakash, whose organization is hosting a national day of action on climate policy today.
For the latest installment of “The Next Wave,” Rolling Stone‘s series on the new leaders who will shape America’s future, Prakash discussed problems within the climate movement, her assessment of Biden’s leadership so far, the broad range of issue interests from her generation, and Guns N’ Roses.
What was the moment that you decided to start Sunrise Movement?
At the tail end of the Obama years, a lot of young people were feeling like there was a burgeoning and growing climate movement. We had tackled some big wins like the Keystone XL pipeline and secured the first major international climate policy. And at the same time, we were seeing climate disasters worsening. We were seeing all of these UN climate reports getting worse and worse, in the picture that they were depicting of the future. And we were realizing our movements were absolutely not powerful enough to change politics as we knew it. A number of us were, throughout 2016 and 2017, trying to figure out how we could build a youth climate organization that could truly contest for power, elect climate champions that represented us, and help make the climate crisis the existential, urgent issue that it truly was, but our politicians weren’t treating it as such.
What does the name Sunrise Movement mean to you?
Sunrise was created really as a metaphor. We thought it up in twenty sixteen, right at the tail end of the Obama administration, at the beginning of the Trump administration. And it reflected this feeling that so many young people felt of really being in a dark time in America. Of seeing what white supremacy and white nationalism rearing its head. And this president who was calling the climate crisis a “Chinese hoax,” and so many other terrible racist things. And Sunrise felt like the metaphor that we needed in our lives, that one day we would get through these dark times and the sun would rise again and the light would shine through, and it would be one of the actions of millions and millions of young people.
Who first inspired you to get involved in politics?
I think the entry into politics was a bit of a slow burn. I don’t think there was ever a moment when I was like, “I’m getting into politics.” And I always was really allergic to politics. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I was like, like a lot of young people, I didn’t see how the state or the government was going to improve my life concretely. And I think it was through a series of trying to change the world and realizing my actions weren’t enough, that I eventually led into politics. I started recycling club in high school and realized it just wasn’t on the scale that I wanted. I started a fossil fuel divestment campaign at UMass Amherst, and it even won after thousands of young people took action and thirty four people were arrested for civil disobedience. And at the tail end of that, realizing we could divest these private institutions of piddling amounts of money, but that wasn’t going to transform the system as a whole, and that wasn’t going to unlock trillions of dollars of investment and create millions and millions of good high-paying union jobs like the federal government could. And so I think at every step it was this moment of recognizing if I actually care about the people, if I want the actions that I take here in America to affect the communities that I love and where I’m from in India, our work has to have national and global impact. And I think that’s what brought me to believing that we have to engage in politics not as an end in and of itself, but as a tool to get to the more just and equitable world that we believe in.
What’s the biggest problem the climate movement has right now?
I can think of so many [laughter]. I think one of the biggest problems the climate movement has right now is we’ve really come out of a legacy of a lot of environmental racism. Of this sense that environmentalism is for middle class, upper middle class, educated white people. And in many ways, organizations past have excluded and not built solidarity with many of the black and brown and indigenous and working class and poor people who have been driving this nation forward on a lot of environmental issues. And I think we’re still grappling with the legacy of that today. If the climate movement cannot figure out how to invest in and develop the leadership of more black and brown people, if we can’t figure out how to speak across race and class lines and communicate the story of the climate crisis, not in terms of carbon dioxide or all of these inanimate things, but about people’s lived experiences and the things that they need most in their lives, I don’t think we’re going to be able to win. I also think the climate movement has been extremely reliant on mobilizing people to action, but not actually deeply organizing them to become leaders in their own community in the long term. And as a result of that, we haven’t been significantly growing our base of leadership or developing strong leaders for the long term and bringing them into the movement to lead this fight. For decades, we’ve had a lot of mobilization, through the strikes, through the actions, etc. But a lot of those folks have gone home and not remained engaged in sustained action.
What is the single biggest challenge in the United States for taking action to address climate change?
We have the technology. We actually have the public will. I think people of both political parties actually support the government to take action on climate, the creation of jobs, making sure we have access to clean, safe, healthy air and water and land. The challenge ultimately that we are facing right now is the lack of political will. And we’re seeing it in the Biden administration right now with the ways that they have been reducing their efforts and ambitions in order negotiate with a GOP that is, frankly, holding climate action hostage. And we have seen it in the past with the way that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have utterly failed to treat the climate crisis like the emergency that it is.
What advice do you have for people who are feeling frustrated by the political process who might be inclined to give up or tune out?
I’m frustrated. I’m with you, I feel you. There are a lot of days when I’m like, “what am I doing? Should I give up?” And at the end of the day, I think what it comes down to is pouring through the history books, remembering the lineage of organizers and people and heroes who came before us. The shoulders of giants that we really stand upon, who fought in the civil rights movement, who fought in LGBTQ movements, in the immigrant justice movement, the environmental justice movement, and the ways in which these individuals fought, sometimes for decades. And while it was hard and at times discouraging, ultimately the involvement of millions of people, ordinary people, was the only thing that created extraordinarily extraordinary policy change. And that, to me, is worth it. And it’s what I come back to every day that I feel a little bit sad and a little bit demoralized, is this sense that it’s not the politicians that make this change, it’s us. And we have a responsibility and a duty to each other in the world to engage to the extent that we can in whatever power and capacity that we can.
What are young people understand about America that politicians might not?
I think young people today are living at the logical conclusion of a busted economic system that has created astronomic economic inequality, that has allowed for gun violence and mass incarceration to explode, that has allowed for the climate crisis to grow unfettered. That has just created a situation where schools are becoming killing fields, where young people are in the midst of so many different crises that are intersecting all at once. And we don’t live single issue lives. We care about ending mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline. We care about stopping climate change. We care about stopping the detention of migrants. All of the issues that we are fighting on feel like they have a common thread that we are deeply tied with in a way that I think previous generations did not. And I think that allows for us to fight for a vision, a future, that includes everybody. That doesn’t exclude people from the solutions that we’re fighting for. And I think that’s the hardest thing about going up to our politicians who are several generations older than us or, other adults, and hearing people say, “well, the first thing on the chopping block is jobs and unionization,” or seeing that the first thing on the chopping block is the provisions around racial justice. And I think our generation is saying “absolutely not.” In this new green economy that we build, it must work for black and brown people. It must employ formerly incarcerated people. It must house every unhoused person in this nation and guarantee everyone the right to a good job and housing.
How much power does your generation have in America and how will you get more of it?
I think our generation has the power to be just the best storytellers, to communicate in live time what it will look like for us to take on the responsibility of the world, and the generations above us’s duty to leave us a world that is salvageable, that we can thrive and not just have to survive in. I think our generation is passionate, is tenacious, is deeply ready, is learning so much on the Internet and in classrooms and figuring out politics in a way that honestly, I never did when I was a teenager, like some of these folks are doing. I think our generation, like every single fight to create progress in America in the past, has the power to move us forward. That is something that cannot be squandered, and I see a lot of kids who feel sad or demoralized, and I think our greatest threat is that people don’t realize the immense power that we can have if we come together and organize. And I will say I think we need a lot more power in America. I don’t think Sunrise has it yet. I don’t think other organizations have it yet. I think we need the power, like in the New Deal, to be able to make thousands of strikes happen that halts business as usual until we get the action that we need for our people. I think we need the ability to organize in communities across America. I think we need the ability to train tens of thousands of young people and do deep political education and bring so many more young people into the fold and give them the tools to empower their communities. I think we’ve got a long way to go. But I’m I’m ready for that fight and I hope people join me.
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