In an interview with Anand Giridharadas at The.Ink, one of the cofounders of the Sunrise Movement, Varshini Prakash, is able to inspire in a time of absolute despair. She talks about her experience in helping build a climate movement that focuses on how to get things done, and how an important part of winning is being able to see and uplift the million stories of power that are driving change. Her list of “what ifs” are all feasible, attainable answers to a world of inaccessible abundance:
I think if we actually talked about the climate crisis in terms of what the collective opportunity is, we would be so much more successful. We are talking about guaranteeing good-paying, family-sustaining jobs to every person in this country. We are talking about: What if every community had access to good food and didn’t live in a food desert? What if there were regionally sourced foods that you could get at your local farmer’s market in every community, not just wealthy white suburbs? What if you could ride on extremely fast trains that pick you up within two minutes of arriving at your train station and get you to virtually anywhere in the city that you want to go to? What if farming and working with the land and restoring wetlands were actually prized jobs in your community?
As I read her intro to a book of essays she co-edited on climate justice action, Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can, I am able to imagine how the key to overcoming fear and isolation is choosing “responsibility and action”—climate advocates around us are boldly doing this every day.
In her mid-twenties, Varshini is representative of a new generation of leaders that have a deep contextual knowledge of unjust, unequal systems while pushing for decisive strategic action. Part of Sunrise Movement’s success, she says, is their ability to confront racial and economic injustice as a core mechanism for tackling the climate crisis. Transitioning workers into a post-fuel economy is what will lower the rising temperatures while also guaranteeing living wages. Systemic change requires collective action.
Varshini was also a member of the “Climate Dream Team,” a phrase coined by Inside Climate News to describe the team selected by Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joe Biden to lead his climate task force. Other members included Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ); Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Donald McEachin (D-VA), Conor Lamb (D-PA), and Kathy Castor (D-FL); former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy; and former Secretary of State John Kerry. The team helped draft via Zoom meetings for six weeks a $2 trillion climate stimulus package that hopes to move the US to 100-percent clean and renewable energy by 2035 while also creating a million jobs to fuel that change. One could argue that is a no-brainer investment if compared to the almost impossible task of calculating the real cost of the climate crisis.
Sunrise has also been building a coalition to push forward the Green New Deal in Congress and supporting trainings for the new generation of school climate advocates, who are taking action like their lives depended on it—literally. Varshini told The.Ink that she’s met several youths who have contemplated suicide in the face of “every issue of gun violence, climate change, white supremacy, fascism, the pandemic,” but she’s also seen youth inspired by a movement that can help them realize the true potential for change.
Sunrise’s effectiveness, in fact, is being felt at every step of the way and most recently claimed credit for Sen. Edward Markey’s recent primary win, proving once again who “the adults in the room” truly are, Varshini writes. Next in their agenda for 2021? “Engage in mass noncooperation to interrupt business as usual and win a Green New Deal.”—Sofia Jarrin-Thomas