Two days after Doug LaMalfa, a climate-denying Republican, was re-elected to his fourth term in Congress, the Camp fire — the deadliest fire in a century and the most destructive in California’s history — broke out in his district. It raged for two and a half weeks, displacing 52,000 people and killing 67. On Saturday, Audrey Denney — an environmentalist and professor who lost to LaMalfa by six points in 2018 — became the first 2020 candidate endorsed by the Sunrise Movement when she announced her intention to challenge him again.
“We are rising from the ashes to demand climate action on the local, in the state, and on the national level,” Denney said from a stage in Chico, California, this past weekend. “The time to act is now.”
In 2018, Sunrise Movement, then a little-known grassroots youth organization, endorsed just 30 candidates. Nineteen of them were elected. Like several of the young candidates they backed — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — the organization vaulted into the spotlight almost immediately, starting with a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office in November demanding action on a newly envisioned piece of legislation they called the Green New Deal.
In the months since, the organization has grown exponentially. Starting with just 30 organizers who cut their teeth in the student-led fossil-fuel divestment movement, the group has grown in less than two years to encompass more than 200 hubs in cities around the country. Interest in Sunrise continues to grow as videos of its actions, like the one of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chastising a group of middle schoolers who were advocating for the Green New Deal, go viral.
The organization’s endorsement of Denney, followed a day later by its sharply worded critique of presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s climate plan — Sunrise called the proposal “out of line with science and the Green New Deal” — show the organizers are positioning Sunrise to have an outsize impact on the climate conversation in the upcoming election. Rolling Stone spoke with Sunrise co-founder Victoria Fernandez and Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, the organization’s digital media manager, in April about the group’s sudden rise in influence and their strategy to build support for the Green New Deal “in every corner of the country.”
Sunrise calls itself a youth movement — how young are the people involved?
Jimenez-Hudis: Typically younger than 35. There isn’t a bottom rung to that — last summer at one of the actions in California a young woman came with her one-month-old child.
In the video of Sunrise activists confronting Sen. Dianne Feinstein, some look like they’re in elementary school. (She was criticized for dismissing them as too young to vote.) How did that moment happen?
Jimenez-Hudis: The original source of that footage was a livestream from a local Sunrise chapter. The entire interaction is actually 45 minutes long. Sunrise is a national organization, but the beauty of it really is that young people anywhere can start a hub in their communities. Young leaders on the ground in the Bay Area organized and found people as young as middle-school age who were ready to come out to Feinstein’s office and try to reason with her around the Green New Deal.
The kids were asking her to support the Green New Deal resolution. (She refused.) Sunrise has been heavily involved in lobbying for the legislation — how involved were you in drafting it?
Fernandez: For the resolution, [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator [Ed] Markey consulted dozens of organizations and stakeholders, one of which was Sunrise.
[But] we know that actually the Green New Deal itself is more than just one bill — it’s more than just one resolution, it’s gonna be a suite of diverse policy levers, essentially, that will be melded together to really create the huge economic and societal transformation that we need.
Beyond sit-ins, what strategies are you pursuing to spur that transformation?
Jimenez-Hudis: We do sit-ins and we lobby politicians, but we also do the electoral footwork that goes into electing climate champions. We probably wouldn’t have a Green New Deal if AOC hadn’t been elected. So we’re looking to young people to step up as leaders, not just in the movement [as activists] but also in the political sphere [as candidates], because we know if we wanna get this crisis taken seriously we’re gonna need more young people in power, and people who aren’t gonna listen to fossil fuel billionaires when they come and try to donate.
How far back does Sunrise Movement’s relationship with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez go? Your profiles seem to have risen in tandem.
Jimenez-Hudis: We go way back with AOC… In order to identify climate champions, you need a kind of metric, so [during the 2018 midterm elections] we were really pushing candidates to sign something called the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. When candidates sign this pledge, they’re agreeing to not take donations over $200 from fossil fuel industry executives, CEOs, lobbyists and PACs. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the first people to sign that pledge that we asked. We canvassed for her, we door-knocked for her, and we were very happy to watch her win her primary.
Beto O’Rourke also signed that pledge during his Senate campaign, but he turned out to be one of the top recipients of money from the oil and gas industry that year. Some folks argued that it would have been hard for him to swear off those donations in Texas, where so many people work in the industry. What do you make of that rationale?
Jimenez-Hudis: It’s a real shame that Beto broke the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, and we really hope he signs it again, because we really feel firmly about our position. If you wanna be taken seriously as a climate champion, and if you want the excitement, the energy, the power of the youth vote, then you need to sign this pledge and reject special interests coming from the fossil fuel billionaires and CEOs that have had a stranglehold on our politics and our economy for far too long. That’s our position.
So you believe he broke the pledge?
Jimenez-Hudis: Oh, yes — because he took over $200 from fossil fuel industry executives and CEOs. I’ve seen the pledge, I’ve handed it to multiple candidates asking them to sign it. It’s just a couple sentences long. [But Sunrise Movement and other groups] follow up with the proper communication channels within a campaign team to make sure that the pledge is well-understood, and that it’s actually being followed. So, yeah, our position is that he did break the pledge.
What is the goal at the hub level? Protesting? Lobbying? Working to elect politicians that are on board with the agenda?
Fernandez: I think the biggest thing is, we need to build a mass movement to pass the Green New Deal for America. So that means young people, at any age, in any city, in any town putting our politicians into a place where they are pressured and feel like they have a choice: Will they support our generation’s best and last hope, essentially, at avoiding climate catastrophe in our lifetime, or will they cave to fossil fuel lobbyists and back away from the Green New Deal?
The science is really clear, the solutions are ready, overwhelmingly popular, will create millions of good jobs. In 2019 and in 2020, the goal of young people everywhere who are interested in Sunrise is to build support for a Green New Deal in every corner of the country, pushing it to the highest of highest levels, cementing it as a litmus test for every politician seeking the presidency. Any presidential candidate who wants to be taken seriously on climate and [wants] the support of the young people needs to support the Ocasio-Cortez and Markey [Green New Deal] resolution.
How do you plan to make that demand known? What’s the strategy?
Fernandez: This summer we have this ambition of having 10,000 people descend on the first Democratic presidential debate — we’re calling it “Change the Debate” — to make sure that climate change and a Green New Deal is an issue in the 2020 election. We have about 2,000 who have pledged their time already.
How does Sunrise go about recruiting young people?
Fernandez: You mentioned the Feinstein video. We used that as an online organizing tool, and we were able to reach out and speak to a lot of young people through that video who were seeing themselves in the young people who were confronting Feinstein. They saw Feinstein who, in that moment, came to represent some of the people in both parties who are standing in the way of progress. That’s how we reach people.
Jimenez-Hudis: After our first sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, [our online presence] grew exponentially. Now we average about an increase of 1,000 followers on Twitter every week.
How do you feel when people like Speaker Pelosi dismiss the Green New Deal? She’s called it the “green dream.”
Jimenez-Hudis: I kind of shrug that sort of thing off because we know from talking within our communities — and even from really recent polling from big name institutions like the Yale Climate Advocacy Institution — we know that well over 80 percent of American voters support the Green New Deal when they read an explanation of it. So I think that just goes to show that the establishment in Washington D.C., is so far out of touch with where the majority of the American people are on climate change, on economic policy, on food security, on immigration — it’s just crazy.
It just shows that we need to be organized in our communities, because if we don’t then the same people will be in power who make up the establishment and will just keep being in charge and will keep watering policies and resolutions down until we have no more time left to address the crisis.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are Republicans, like Rep. Matt Gaetz, who are now trying to draft off the name recognition you’ve created. Gaetz, who has proposed abolishing the EPA, called his clean energy plan “Green Real Deal.” Did you guys have any reaction to that?
Jimenez-Hudis: Honestly, I wasn’t really paying much attention to him.
I will say, though, that it really has been quite astounding what the Green New Deal resolution has been able to shift, in terms of the window of extremes in the climate policy conversation. In November 2018, right after the midterm elections, the debate on climate policy wasn’t even about policy: the Dems believe the crisis is actually real, and Republicans believe it’s a hoax. Then suddenly AOC and Markey dropped this resolution and the climate debate suddenly does become about policy. And now you have Republicans who are actually legitimately arguing and advocating for a carbon tax.
If you told me two years ago that this would be the situation I would be waking up to in 2019, I would have been astounded.
But even so, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a vote on the Green New Deal resolution, most Democrats voted “present” rather than “yes.” Were you guys disappointed by that?
Fernandez: When they did that I think we viewed it as a protest vote in and of itself. They were meeting Mitch McConnell — what do you call it, a show vote? — they were meeting his theatrics with more theatrics…McConnell was trying to kill momentum on the Green New Deal, and those Democrat leaders said, ‘’We’re not gonna play this game.” The Green New Deal is a common sense policy about the American people, no matter their political party or where they live. So to see Republican political leaders not backing the Green New Deal, seeing those people as out of touch with their own base of voters, is also quite shameful.
Jimenez-Hudis: There’s so much evidence that we know that this vote was such a sham — it was a cynical political ploy. Two weeks earlier young people in [McConnell’s] home state of Kentucky, in his home city of Louisville, were at his office everyday for a week looking for him, trying to find him, [saying] “Where’s Mitch? Because we wanna talk to him about our future and we wanna talk to him about the fact that the Green New Deal is the only solution on the table that we’re comfortable with because it’s the only solution that meets the scale of the crisis.” And he was nowhere to be found, and then they went to D.C. and they sat in and they got arrested and still he was nowhere to be found.
He brought this resolution to a vote without any kind of serious platform of debate within Congress, and clearly — clearly — without talking to his constituents. These people are not listening to the people who put them in office, and it’s a real shame and it’s a real insult to our democracy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.