My interest in the Sunrise Movement began in winter 2019, when I received an invitation to join an advocacy training to help address the climate crisis. Intrigued, I participated in Sunrise sessions 101 – 103, about 6 hours fully online, where people from around the US and world gathered virtually. We shared stories of firsthand experiences with a changing environment. A group of youth leaders relayed a conceptual framework about fossil fuel billionaires’ greedy grasp on energy networks, how political power through a Green New Deal fostered by everyday people could break monopolies’ hold, and that the transition to 100% renewable energy must leave no one behind.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, and climate action is building momentum around the US and world, in good part due to Sunrise advocacy. The word has spread without insidious Twitter ads. How has Sunrise accomplished so much with little more than people power?
Sunrise is a movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. The organization describes itself as building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America, to end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and to elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people. They’re ordinarily young people (I’m termed an “elder” in the Sunrise community) who are scared about what the climate crisis means for the people and places they love. They gather in classrooms, living rooms, and worship halls to unite “by the millions” to turn this energy and motivation into political power and “reclaim our democracy.”
The Sunrise Movement Genesis
Sunrise began with 12 people drawn from the climate and divestment movements, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and attendees at the UN climate negotiations. They strategized ways to build a movement to face down the climate crisis, realizing that planning would be necessary to go to scale and engage large numbers of people quickly. To do so, they needed to release control to others in the Sunrise Movement who wanted to participate and who would need to map out their own paths — in their own places and in their own ways. The original Sunrise team created principles that today serve as guideposts to allow everyone involved to act with autonomy but also to unity across the movement.
The organizers knew that persuading climate deniers was beyond their scope or interests — instead, because they were what Marc Prensky has termed “digital natives,” they started out by declaring with a tweet and a meme that they would “redraw the political map.”
Let's redraw the political map, not the physical one.
— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) July 12, 2017
Twitter Ads are Out, Twitter Blasts are a Daily Norm
But, unlike so many other advocacy groups, Sunrise has not used Twitter for paid advertisements. Twitter’s problems with ad revenue were first reported in 2016, when earnings didn’t equal projections. In early 2017, Twitter acknowledged that it needed to be able to pitch itself to advertisers as a legitimate alternative to Facebook.
By late 2019, Twitter, caught in a firestorm of controversy, announced it would no longer accept political ads. Citing “bugs (that) affected our ability to target ads and share data with measurement and ad partners,” Ned Segal, Twitter’s chief financial officer, said that the company “discovered that certain personalization and data settings were not operating as expected. These issues were in our control and we will work to do better.”
Social media giants Facebook and YouTube have also experienced backlash from lawmakers for failure to oversee and mitigate false information during election campaigns. Those companies, like Twitter, have announced implementation of protocols to ban suspect accounts and remove fake content. (Writer’s note: Methinks they doth protest too much.)
A final note. This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.
— jack (@jack) October 30, 2019
Civil disobedience isn’t new. In Sophocles’ play from ancient Greece, Antigone, the eponymous protagonist goes to her death rather than succumb to social pressure. In the new world, Henry D. Thoreau was arrested and imprisoned in 1846 in Concord, Massachusetts for nonpayment of his poll tax as a protest against slavery and the Mexican War. In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi’s persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US.
But very few civil disobedience campaigns have been spurred to action by children and adolescents. The Sunrise Movement was sparked by the existential emergency that the climate crisis poses, yet its power is driven by digital communications embraced as organic by today’s youth. And while Twitter is an important platform for Sunrise messaging, with its immediate capacity for identifying elected officials who are or are not protecting the Earth’s future, Sunrise has not devolved into paid political ads. That’s because of the movement’s success with mobilizing young voters as volunteers who readily spread the gospel of the need for systematic, serious government action via a Green New Deal.
“We’ve been able to reach young people and mobilize them and have people recognize that as young people we do have an incredible amount of political power,” Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, digital media manager at Sunrise, told The Verge. “Our social media is the number one way that we reach new young people and bring them into the movement.” You know what that means if you’ve subscribed to “get connected to the movement” — nearly daily newsletter-like emails, often arising from youth voices, that offer a variety of ways to get involved.
Mindful of the New Deal as inspiration, the staff at Sunrise provides graphics that have consistent messaging and design. That style allows young people everywhere to see that they are Sunrise and to feel the power of collective action. By standardizing their design — from the video hyping major actions to posts for the smallest hub meetings — Sunrise makes transparent and easily accessible that such civil disobedience actions are worthy and important. Investing time in visual culture creates opportunities for more and more young people to respond and connect, so that discipline in style helps the movement grow and stay strong.
In essence, Sunrise uses that visual power to make demands of the US political system and to win over what had been up until quite recently an apathetic youth generation. No more.
It also doesn’t hurt that first term Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) was present at a sit-in outside Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office earlier this year. Defensive reactions of Feinstein and some other Democrats to the energy and spontaneity of the Sunrise youth backfired, so much so that the issue of the climate crisis has been pushed by the public to become a top topic during the Democratic debates.
Sometimes the pressure trickles in more slowly than the Sunrise youth would like, however, such as in last night’s Democratic debate. The planet emergency received one question from the team of NBC and Washington Post moderators: “What do candidates plan to do about it, and how do they aim to drum up bipartisan support for their plan?”
Bernie Sanders called the climate crisis “the existential threat of our time” and got only a brief opportunity to elaborate. “They have lied and lied and lied,” Sanders said. Yang, Steyer, Gabbard, and Buttigieg offered brief responses, but the Trump impeachment hearing was the topic of the evening. Climate change has been the topic for less than 10% of the questions asked at each of the previous four debates. A pre-debate poll conducted by the New York Times indicated that about 2/3 of the more than 1,000 readers who responded said they wanted the next president to aggressively try to head off a climate catastrophe.
Yet the Sunrise Movement isn’t giving up. With its influence, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has a detailed climate change plan, and most say they support the Green New Deal, which has been a specific focus for the Sunrise Movement. That 10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of US society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities will continue on, with social media messages reverberating in small towns and big cities across the US.
“The thing that’s most interesting to me about Sunrise, is how radically differently they present themselves, relative to much of the rest of the climate movement, through who they are and through the methods that they use to contact people,” says Jon Ozaksut, digital director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “All of that is a way to model this idea to young people on the networks where they hang out that people like you care about this, people like you are taking action.”