It was on a Sunday in March 2014 when I first heard Varshini Prakash fire up a crowd. Several hundred young people were crammed into a quadrangle on the Georgetown University campus, ready to march to the White House—where nearly 400 of them would be arrested protesting the Keystone XL and other tar-sands pipelines. A junior at UMass-Amherst at the time, organizing the (successful) fossil-fuel divestment campaign, Prakash, bullhorn in hand, had an emphatic message for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
“We don’t want half-baked solutions!” she declared with attention-getting intensity. “We can’t gamble with false promises! We won’t settle for an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy when what this looming crisis demands is a none-of-the-above approach to fossil fuels!”
By the fall of 2015, Prakash and a small group of experienced young climate-justice activists had reached the conclusion, correctly, that what they and most of the climate movement were doing wasn’t enough. They realized, as she told me when we sat down for a conversation at a Boston coffee shop in May, “We need a new movement in America for young people.”
What Prakash and her 11 co-founders went on to build is now known to the world as the Sunrise Movement. Last November, with a media-savvy, hundreds-strong sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill, they famously launched the fight for the game-changing Green New Deal—and reshaped the landscape of the 2020 election campaign. Thanks to their resilience and steely resolve, a carefully considered organizing strategy focused on electoral politics, some fortuitous timing, and the help of—among many other people—a rock-star rookie congresswoman named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they have injected an unprecedented urgency and seriousness into the climate debate in this country.
When we talked, Prakash, who grew up near Boston and now lives in Eastie, was just home from the eight-city Road to a Green New Deal Tour. She spoke with me about the climate movement, the Green New Deal, the Democrats, and what honesty sounds like at this late hour of the climate crisis. How much of it we’ll hear this July 30-31 at the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit, where Sunrise is calling for a mass demonstration, will be another measure of the new seriousness. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Wen Stephenson: When you look at the sheer, overwhelming reality of the climate situation, do you ever find yourself struggling with despair?
Varshini Prakash: Yes! [Laughing]
WS: Good, I’d be worried about you if you didn’t!
VP: Yeah, I’d probably be emotionally broken if I didn’t. It’s a Catch-22. You’re emotionally broken if you do, you’re emotionally broken if you don’t. But the simple answer is, yes.
WS: I’ve met a lot of people doing climate and racial-justice and other social-justice work who feel that confronting despair is essential to being an activist. Do you think there’s enough recognition of that?
VP: I think there needs to be much more. If you’re cutting off the part of you that’s despairing, sad, grieving, you cut off your ability to be a whole human being. And we recognized this at the beginning of Sunrise, because we were noticing how the movements around us were not processing the fact that, like, human civilization might be coming to an end. And the magnitude of what young people, and people all around us, were carrying on our shoulders was immense, but we were acting like it wasn’t happening because we didn’t have a way of processing it.
In the planning phase of Sunrise, we spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of community practices we need to instill into the movement that allow us to grieve, share stories, understand each other’s pain, and move through that together.
WS: Is it fair to say we can’t build the kind of movement we need if we don’t honestly confront the true gravity of the situation?
VP: Yeah. Part of the reason some people are having such an intensely antagonistic response to what we’re calling for is because it’s probably the first time they’ve actually had to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis.
WS: What I see Sunrise doing—and what the climate-justice movement has done all along—is calling the Democratic establishment’s bluff that they’re serious about climate.
VP: Definitely. I mean, for 40 years, Democrats have been saying that they understand the science—and they’ve been in large part kicking the can down the road for the last few decades.
When we were starting Sunrise, we saw how it took Obama five years to put any kind of powerful climate plan forward, and it took a ton of movement energy to make that happen. It took the Keystone XL fight, it took divestment taking off, reaching a sort of fever pitch, with all the civil disobedience and marches and all of that. The climate movement was effervescing in a new way, and when push came to shove, that was the thing that caused Obama to do a lot of things.
And so for us, a great example is the confrontation that the young people had with Dianne Feinstein [in February], and her saying, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years—I know what I’m doing.” And we’re looking around, saying, “We have nothing. No, you don’t. So we’re going to push you to step up, too, because we believe that you actually care about this issue and want to do something about it.”
WS: So, if someone says they’ve been in Congress for 30 years, they’d better have a pretty good excuse?
VP: Exactly. Why do a bunch of 21-year-olds have to come and make this an actual national priority? We didn’t ask to have the responsibility of protecting human civilization on our shoulders. But we’re stepping up to the plate.
WS: I heard a great quote from AOC at that final tour event in DC, when she said, “I wish I could tell you that everything will be all right. But I can’t tell you that today, because I’m not interested in lying to you.” And then she went on, “But what I am here to say is that we have to try.” In other words, she was being honest. I have to say, I’ve worried that some of the messaging around the Green New Deal has made it sound far too easy—or soft-pedaled how truly massive and complex the challenge really is. You know, David Roberts at Vox might say we’re not being totally honest if we tell people that we can fully decarbonize the entire US economy by 2030.
VP: Yeah. We don’t believe that. People make a lot of assumptions.
WS: So what does honesty, being fully honest about the situation—as the Sunrise Movement or someone campaigning for the Green New Deal—what does it sound like?
VP: It’s an interesting question. I’m not going to have a very succinct answer, because I haven’t thought about this that much. But, I mean, most of our people come into this, and they’ve been in it for three weeks, you know? And they’re 16 years old. We need to give people something to fight for. That doesn’t mean that we need to be lying to people about what’s possible. We say it’s going to be hard. We say that we don’t know that we can do this, but we have to try. And frankly, we have no choice but to try—because we can see people dying all around us.
People need something to believe in. The role of young people in politics and movements throughout the years has been to hold the moral line, and not move from it one inch—and that is what we’re doing. And that requires us to say things that may seem crazy, illogical. But we’re looking at the science. And to us, honesty means looking at what the science says, right now, and even if it seems impossible, we’re saying, “That’s what’s necessary.” So that’s what we go for.
WS: Reading most of the mainstream coverage, you’d think the Sunrise Movement materialized out of thin air. So, what is Sunrise? And how does it fit into the movement landscape?
VP: What we really hope Sunrise is, beyond the tag line, is a political vehicle, and home, for millions of young people across America who have felt outraged and scared and frustrated at the political establishment for failing to do anything on climate for the last—for our entire lives. And that is, in its essence, what Sunrise is. And it’s forging the relationships, the connections, the leaders that our movement needs for decades to come.
WS: Is Sunrise part of the climate or climate-justice movement, or is it something different, something new?
VP: Definitely part of the climate-justice movement, yeah. I would love for you to print this. A lot of where the Green New Deal comes from, the ideas embedded within the Green New Deal, are not new. Those are there because the Green New Deal is essentially an amalgamation of ideas and work that communities of color, working people, front-line communities, have been calling for, for a long time, like decades. All of those things—like a universal right to clean air and clean water; a job guarantee or the creation of tens of millions of good, high-paying, unionized jobs; repairing historical harm to communities of color on the front lines of poverty and pollution—all of those refrains are things that were popularized by the just-transition movement, the climate-justice movement, the environmental-justice movement, which has been pushing the mainstream climate movement to be doing all of this.
WS: Those are some of the historic principles of environmental justice.
VP: Exactly. That is something that I want to make really clear. I think there are some new additions to it, I think it’s a merging of different ideas, and this is the manifestation of a lot of that work at the federal level.
WS: A lot of EJ and CJ work has been, by necessity, very localized. Do you think you had, and are you now building, strong-enough relationships with the traditional environmental-justice and climate-justice networks, like the groups that are part of the Climate Justice Alliance?
VP: We have a strong working relationship with a lot of local organizations that exist around the country, in places like New Orleans, and in Kentucky, where we’re building relationships, but it’s been on more of a local-to-local basis, and we’re now working on the national relationship more.
WS: How did you feel about some of the critiques, or qualified support, from the Climate Justice Alliance when you announced the Green New Deal? Were there things that you learned from?
VP: I think it was awesome. I didn’t see it as a critique, I saw it as a really meaningful discussion about the pieces of the Green New Deal that we really need to double down on. And that’s important, because those are the pieces that power tends to ignore and sideline immediately: just transition for workers, not leaving workers behind, making sure that communities of color and low-income folks are protected first and foremost in this transition. Because those communities have been left out of economic prosperity for a very long time.
WS: I want to talk about your theory of change and the problem of the political system—whether it’s even possible to get something like a comprehensive Green New Deal within our current system, or if changing the political system is central to the challenge. As I’ve written recently, I’m pessimistic, I think it’ll require a democratic revolution. You’ve echoed Bernie Sanders’s call for a “political revolution.” Can we get a political revolution simply by winning the next election?
WS: I guess you’d need to define what you mean by political revolution.
VP: Yeah. I think it actually does go back to Sunrise’s theory of change, in a lot of ways. We have three prongs to our theory of change: First, we need people power. Then we need political power [i.e., winning elections]. And the third one is the political revolution piece. We need a new governing alignment in this nation. And we need a new dominant common sense that governs American society. Right now, we think there is a real crack in neoliberalism, and there’s an opening to set the new dominant ideology that could govern American society. We really believe in a government and an economy that works for all people, no matter your skin color, how much money you have in your pocket, where you live, whatever. And we believe the only thing that can get us to that point is a broad-based people’s alignment of movements, think tanks and academics, businesses, unions, artists, everything under the sun.
WS: Not just a climate movement.
VP: Right, not just a climate movement. Yeah. Not just Sunrise. A lot of people are like, “So excited you guys are gonna save the world!” And we’re like, “Can’t do it alone…”
We see ourselves as part of this broader alignment, and of starting to build that alignment, and actually, the Green New Deal could be a force in this country that can realize an American society that works for all people.
WS: You seem to be pursuing both an inside and an outside strategy. Do you think we can get a political revolution without massive external pressure—shutting down business as usual?
VP: It will take all of the above. The organizing does not stop after November 2020. We feel what we need is a coalition on the scale of the coalition for health care, freedom to marry, or on par with something like what the Koch brothers are doing with their massive network—which is well resourced, has a mass-mobilization strategy, is organizing in 50 states, has a communications and a policy shop, all of these things. We have to be thinking on that scale. We need to get that structure up and running soon. We need to get ready for the greatest mass mobilization and non-cooperation strategy we have seen in a very long time.