The Sunrise Movement has never been shy about what it wants. Think youth activists occupying the hall outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding action on climate change. Think elementary schoolers defiantly telling Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that the planet is dying and that we must pass the Green New Deal to save it.
Think the Green New Deal itself, the expansive package of legislation aimed at restructuring the U.S. economy to halt what its supporters see as the imminent climate crisis à la Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression.
The legislation is the life force of the Sunrise Movement, formed in 2017 as a youth-led movement with the express purpose of rallying behind the passage of the Green New Deal. Its supporters call it bold. Its detractors call it mathematically impossible. And what do members of the Sunrise Movement on UT’s campus call it? Necessary.
The local branch of the movement — or “hub,” as they are called by Sunrise organizers — was formed this past fall by students who were ready to take action to end climate change and create a more just American economic system.
Since that time, the group has been busy planning strikes, lobbying for national and local climate policies such as the so-called “Green New TVA,” and working towards getting the mayor to declare a climate emergency. Even in the face of a nationwide lockdown and the challenges of organizing remotely, Sunrise students are not slowing down.
In fact, sophomore Isabella Killius, a lead organizer with the Sunrise Movement, believes that the coronavirus may provide the fuel the group needs to emerge from the quarantine stronger than before.
“I think we need to come back, once social distancing is over, with full force,” Killius said. “And having developed the skills and toolsets while in quarantine, whether that be trainings or virtual events ... using those tools and skills when we come back in person to fight like hell for a Green New Deal and for a transition to a more clean, renewable and just system.”
According to Killius, one of the movement’s main objectives is to become “embedded in the fabric of Knoxville.” After executing two climate protests last semester, both of which were well-attended by students and members of the greater Knoxville community, the Sunrisers may have inched closer to that goal.
The latter of these events, a march held in November, was unsuccessful in its stated purpose of securing the declaration of a climate emergency by Knoxville mayor Indya Kincannon. But Killius and her fellow organizers viewed it as a crucial step forward for the still-young movement.
“When you collectivize and organize and really put your feet on the ground, people will listen to you if you’re doing it in an equitable way,” Killius said. “We still kind of created a space where we can strike a lot more in the future and be taken very legitimately as a hub.”
As for its plans in the age of pandemic, the Sunrise Movement is still looking to partner with fellow youth-led climate groups to host “Earth Day Live,” a three-day livestream featuring musical performances, voter registration and educational webinars from April 22 to 24. The Knoxville hub is also looking into making endorsements of candidates for upcoming local elections.
Despite the difficulties of isolation, the new hub of the Sunrise Movement, which is composed of a core group of 10 to 12 students, works undeterred towards its ambitious goals of securing federal action on climate, as well as championing local policies and candidates and expanding membership on campus.
Like many climate activists, the students of the Sunrise Movement do see some positives amid the chaos and grief of the current moment. With people stuck at home all across the world, carbon emissions have been greatly diminished and the rate of Earth’s warming appears to have slowed.
Logan Hysen, a senior who serves as hub coordinator, sees these environmental benefits as essentially superficial and, in doing so, reflects the integrated and intersectional goals of the Sunrise Movement. Since its founding, the movement has taken as its central stance that the U.S. cannot work towards fixing the climate crisis without also fixing the unjust and corrupt national economy.
“You can’t have a clean environment at the expense of working class people,” Hysen said. “Yes, the environment’s good, but we haven’t lifted people up so they can enjoy that environment.”
And besides, as the local Sunrise organizers strive to remind their community, we have known what must be done to save the environment since long before the coronavirus came around.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic to realize we need environmental health and safety,” Killius said.