ARIANA GRANDE’S VOICE FILLS THE rented Chrysler Pacifica minivan: “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, bops her head, keeping her hands at ten and two on the wheel. “When did this come out?” she asks Jesse Meisenhelter, fellow Sunriser and her copilot on our 10-hour drive between Louisville and Washington, D.C. “It’s so relevant!” Humming along, Meisenhelter, 25, and Prakash, 26 (the same age as Grande), seem more like carefree coeds than leaders of a self-described “army of young people” touring the country to rally support for the Green New Deal—the polarizing climate resolution presented in February to Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.
And yet here they are, at the tail end of an eight-city tour, slicing through the jewel green of the Appalachian oak-hickory forests as the early May weather shifts from fog to mist to rain and back again. Thunderstorms are a good omen, Prakash tells me. She was born during a thunderstorm; Varshini means “the one who brings the rain” in Sanskrit (her family is from the now drought-ravaged Indian city of Chennai). It thundered when she proposed to her partner, Filipe de Carvalho, 25 (another Sunriser), on a Brazilian beach in late November, as it did earlier that month during Sunrise’s occupation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the action that catapulted the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement with it, to the forefront of the nation’s conversation on climate.
More than 200 activists in their teens and early 20s lined the halls of the Cannon House Office Building in D.C. that day, holding signs saying we need the green new deal, do your job, and no more excuses. Fifty-one were arrested for unlawful demonstration, and the protest produced a flood of coverage—some 4,000 articles about the Green New Deal with Ocasio-Cortez as the face of it, bolstered by ranks of Sunrisers, wide-eyed and resolute, perp-walked in plasticuffs. “It’s no wonder that they’ve managed to find the youngest and most charismatic congresswoman that there’s ever been,” says Bill McKibben, the pioneering environmentalist author, “because that describes their movement, too.”
“Kids these days are lit and ready to go,” says Prakash of Sunrise’s base, which is trending increasingly younger—it’s not uncommon to find preteens at their rallies and events. Born too late to be seduced by the promises of Reaganite neoliberalism and coming of age between late–Obama era languor and early–Trump era despair, Sunrise’s members are furious at what they see as inaction on climate and ready to take matters into their own hands. In this they’re joined by young, angry activists around the world. “That’s been a huge shift over the past year with Sunrise’s organizing and the global student climate strikes that were inspired by Greta Thunberg in Sweden,” says Naomi Klein, activist and author of 2014’s best-selling This Changes Everything. “I think young people have a particular moral voice that is just getting stronger and clearer, a combination of optimism and existential terror. There’s also a rage and rightful disappointment with the people who were supposed to protect their future.”
Like Prakash, Sara Blazevic, 26, is one of Sunrise’s cofounders (there are eight in total, most of whom cut their teeth working on fossil fuel–divestment campaigns at their respective colleges, then were spurred to wider action by Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign). Blazevic wears a discreet nose ring, a trout tattoo on her inner arm, and projects an air of serene competence. “Almost everybody in Sunrise has lived our entire lives in a world on the cusp of climate apocalypse,” she tells me. “That’s what drives them—just the sheer scale of the devastation on the horizon.” Last fall the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change underscored how close that horizon has come, warning that the world community has 12 years to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the cutoff for averting catastrophe. Meanwhile, President Trump has relentlessly mocked climate science and heaped scorn on the Green New Deal, even as the major Democratic presidential candidates have all embraced it in some way. “It would be unwise to discount Sunrise’s capacity to keep this front and center,” says Klein. “I mean, we’ve never seen this much attention paid to climate change in an electoral cycle.”
In the six weeks I spent at Sunrise rallies, boot camps, and debate parties this summer, the young activists I met seemed caught between idealism and fury—and a longing to escape to different worlds. Meisenhelter, who grew up in a commune with goats in Portland, Oregon, routinely shares favorite fantasy or science fiction with her fellow Sunrisers. “Organizing is making science fiction real,” she says. Prakash nods vehemently; she is currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which describes a dystopian American Northwest ravaged by climate change. (Though Harry Potter is her favorite of the genre—“Duh! Is that even a question?!”—and there are plans to name the conference rooms in the new D.C. Sunrise offices after Hogwarts houses.) Growing up, Prakash and her school friend would take Bridge to Terabithia–type adventures into the woods behind their homes in Acton, Massachusetts. “All of the people I know spent lots of time in imagined worlds,” she says.
Pulling off I-64, we stop at Bojangles and order Bo-Berries (blueberry-muffin biscuits) drenched in icing. Prakash digs into the Styrofoam box and shrugs when I ask about her own consumption habits. “If eating fast food on the tour means that in five years we’ve passed legislation that has changed the system, then I think that’s okay,” she says, adding that this is a crucial generational divide. “Older generations were like ‘Change your light bulb, change your life’ and this generation is thinking, Let’s change these systems.”
It is the older generation that has leveled the sharpest criticisms of the Green New Deal, which demands a complete transition to a carbon-neutral economy in the next decade, requiring nothing less than a total overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure. This would cost trillions, on top of the plan’s proposals for government-funded or subsidized health care, education, jobs, and housing. The rebukes from Republicans were predictably unanimous, but there was pointed criticism from longtime climate advocates on the left as well. Speaker Pelosi dismissed it as “the green dream, or whatever they call it; nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” while Michael Bloomberg, who in June committed $500 million to help transition away from the fossil-fuel economy, cautioned against promoting a “pie in the sky” proposal.
In July, centrist Democrats in the House presented a more moderate plan to curb carbon emissions by 2050 rather than the Green New Deal’s eyebrow-raisingly ambitious goal of 2030. “We are inspired by the energy, activism, and outside mobilizing of the Sunrise Movement and the millions of young people across the country who are using their power to bring about transformational change,” Speaker Pelosi wrote me in an email. “Guided by their voices and the vision and values of our caucus, House Democrats are taking decisive action to defend the people and places we love.” When I speak to Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard University and a former legal counsel in the Obama administration, she tells me that while she admires the ambitiousness of the plan, “I’m not sure that the folks pushing these policies have a pragmatic view of what is possible, given how hard this is politically.”
But ambition is the point, says Klein. “I understand that it sounds more practical to just have a narrow climate policy, but we live in a time of tremendous economic stress and hardship, and if we aren’t able to show people that it is possible to tackle the climate crisis while actually improving quality of life, we will keep losing.” She cites France’s Yellow Vest riots, spurred by the introduction of a petroleum tax largely shouldered by the working class, as a cautionary tale for incremental change.
From the beginning, Sunrise has aimed to draw the support of labor groups by including plans for so-called green jobs, but while some unions have voiced support for the Green New Deal, many have loudly denounced it. This fuels worry about a fracturing Democratic Party where the firebrand progressive left drives away working-class voters, laying the groundwork for a Trump 2020 victory. Freeman also says she finds Sunrise’s choice of targets—Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example—puzzling. “I mean, these are people who would be considered allies on climate change,” she says.
When I ask Prakash about all of this on our drive to D.C., she is emphatic: “I think if you’re not creating some kind of tension and illuminating the difference between where we are right now and where we need to be, you’re not doing a very good job as a social movement.” Wide and urgent, her eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. “What is defeating Trump?” she asks. “Are you going to defeat Trump with a pathetic and tepid vision for America? Hillary ran on America’s already great, and that just is not resonant.” Joe Biden, she adds, has emerged with the same message: “ ‘Oh, Trump was just a bad dream. If you make me president, we will wake up from it.’ ” She raises both hands off the wheel; the gray light filters through her beige glitter nails, a gel manicure she got in Detroit before their tour stop three weeks earlier. “He doesn’t understand that things have fundamentally changed!”
Onstage at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., five-foot-tall Prakash bounces up and down, hyping the crowd. She wears a Green New Deal T-shirt knotted at the back to make it more fitted and faux suede black booties from Forever 21 (“Just like our movement,” deadpans Meisenhelter). Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are among the rally’s speakers, and Prakash is serving as M.C. She begins the event as she has all of the Sunrise’s tour stops, by acknowledging the original keepers of the land we are on, in this case the Piscataway tribe, and asking for a moment of silence. She ends it by gesticulating fiercely, pointing and slicing through the air with a call and response. “Do you all remember how many questions were asked about climate change in the 2016 or 2012 general election?” “Zero!” the audience yells back. “This is the year we have to change the debate.”
Outside, the line to enter stretches the length of two football fields. There are handmade we heart AOC signs; several women wear T-shirts that read AYANNA & ILHAN & RASHIDA & ALEXANDRIA, referencing the four telegenic first-term congresswomen who have become emblems of the House’s newly energized progressive left. A 10-year-old named Maria wears a T-shirt with Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama screen print replaced with Ocasio-Cortez’s image, and AOC instead of hope. “She’s an idol!” the fifth grader says.
Sunrise’s ability to rally the very young can be a powerful asset. When a gaggle of preteens, some of them only 11, confronted Senator Feinstein in her San Francisco office in March, her curt dismissal of them as non-negotiating naïfs went viral, proving that not taking the youth climate movement seriously is a grave mistake. “Sunrise’s youth has opened up space and places where no other demographic could get in,” says Rhiana Gunn-Wright of the think tank New Consensus and the policy architect behind the Green New Deal. There are also potential liabilities. Part of Blazevic’s job at the Pelosi sit-in was to ensure that no one under 18 got arrested, and Meisenhelter made “mom calls” during an action at Senator Mitch McConnell’s office. “There’s a lot of emotional support for the moms of 12-year-olds during rallies,” she says. “You have to calm them down.”
But the youthful ranks of Sunrisers keeps growing, and a month after the Howard University rally, I attend a boot camp in Stony Point, New York, for 58 incoming Sunrise “fellows,” ages 18 to 25—almost all of whom will move into dorm-style Sunrise Movement Houses for three to six months, in a variety of roles, to help carry the weight of the organization’s expansion. In 2018, Sunrise’s operating budget was $850,000; this year that number has risen to $4.5 million (fueled by fund-raising, which is a 60–40 split between grants and individual donations). Last June, no media outlet would respond to Sunrise’s press releases; this week, The New York Times sends a five-person video crew to the boot camp to film an episode of The Weekly, the TV show inspired by the popular podcast The Daily, and Politico sends a reporter and photographer for a major feature.
Victoria Fernandez, 26, a cofounder wearing lilac color-blocked Outdoor Voices leggings, a battered copy of 2016’s grassroots manual Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything lolling out of her backpack, leads a training session. “It was only once Cardi B got haters that you knew she was famous,” Fernandez says, noting that Fox News devoted three times as much coverage to the Green New Deal as CNN and MSNBC combined. The room of new fellows snaps enthusiastically in approval, sounding like a drove of cicadas. Fernandez then starts a round of Sunrise Jeopardy with trivia categories such as Make It Hopeful and Big Us, Narrow Them. “We need our villains to feel conquerable,” she says. For example, she says, refer to the fossil-fuel industry as fossil-fuel “elites,” so as not to alienate the industry’s workers.
Fellows are encouraged to tell their personal stories as acts of “public narrative.”
Nineteen-year-old Munira Berhe, smiling and moon-faced and wearing a black hijab, says she is here because droughts in the Horn of Africa affected her family in Ethiopia. Like most Sunrisers, Berhe does not fit the environmental-movement cliché of the white, hacky sack–toting trustafarian. A rising sophomore at Minneapolis Community College, Berhe has nails painted neon yellow and clutches her iPhone emblazoned with a Glossier sticker (her favorite product is the Boy Brow). For her and many of the fellows, 2020 will be the first election they are old enough to vote in. “There was nothing worse than seeing 2016 happen and not being able to do anything,” says Maggie Herndon, 19. “I wanted to use my power once I knew I had it.” I ask if she or any of the others would be here if Hillary had won. “I don’t think Sunrise would be here,” says Emily Thompson, 19. There’s some debate over this point, but Allie Lindstrom, 21, agrees with a sigh, “I would never say Trump winning is good, but we’ve been able to use that energy.”
Before that night’s taco dinner, Emily LaShelle, a 21-year-old with a blonde Megan Rapinoe–esque coif, leads a song workshop. One of four daughters of a former Evangelical pastor from Bozeman, Montana, LaShelle explains that the unifying power of song in the church applies to movement building. Quartets cluster in the hall with the assignment to write a Sunrise-inspired verse to a classic song. ABBA’s Dancing Queen becomes “Gee N Dee/Saves the Earth and economeee/Oh, yeah. . . .” Three different groups rewrite lyrics to Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road: “AOC’s got our back/Markey is on track/Biden’s plan is whack/Elites feelin’ attacked.”
The mood is playful and sometimes astoundingly earnest (there is a gratitude Slack channel, and most Sunrisers ask permission before hugging each other in greeting). But taped to a wall behind a group presenting their parody of “Old MacDonald”—naturally changed to “Old McConnell”—there are savvy diagrams of how to stand during a protest for maximum visual impact. When I leave the retreat center, I feel confident that this is not the last time I will see many of these young people. “My big hope for this country is that a lot of those activists ultimately end up running for office,” says Heather Zichal, a former Obama adviser and climate-policy consultant for Biden’s campaign.
A few weeks later it is the eve of the first Democratic debates, and more than two dozen Sunrisers have spent the night on the brick steps of the Democratic National Committee offices in D.C. (fed by Domino’s sent by the Sanders campaign). Their demand? A Democratic debate devoted to climate. Days later the DNC agrees to put it to a committee vote in late August. This kind of success keeps happening; the targets set are met sooner than anticipated. “I keep thinking to myself, Are we not asking for enough?” wonders Fernandez. “We keep setting goals and then reaching them like that.” She snaps.
This fall Sunrise will roll out a bigger fellowship and expand its Movement House program, including hubs in key electoral states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. It will continue growing through the presidential election, and there are plans for “mass civil disobedience” in 2021 to help usher in the Green New Deal, says Blazevic. When I ask what happens if Trump wins, Sunrise leadership all respond with varying degrees of dejection. “I don’t want to pretend that our strategy isn’t banking on a very narrow window of opportunity,” admits Will Lawrence, a cofounder who, at 28, with a tightly groomed beard, is somewhat of a village elder in the movement. “Because it’s always been that way.”
They all are startlingly optimistic on the prospect of a Democratic president’s passing some version of the Green New Deal. “It’s possible you could see quite a bit of talk about it during the campaign, but then it may not be the top issue for a new president,” cautions Harvard’s Jody Freeman, noting that moderate Democrats from fossil-fuel states will make passing sweeping climate legislation difficult. However, she is quick to point out that “there’s a difference between policy and politics. I don’t think [the Green New Deal] is ‘politically achievable,’ but I think it might be a very useful political strategy.” McKibben agrees, which is why it is important to do this work in the primaries. “Because now, if Joe Biden gets elected, he has a set of commitments that we can then hold him to.”
I’m in Boston with Prakash and her fiancé, de Carvalho, a volunteer leader at Sunrise’s hub here and a data analyst at Liberty Mutual. He is only a few inches taller than Prakash, and seeing the couple embracing over a Friendly’s ice cream cake (it’s his 25th birthday) is a reminder of how young they are. The two met at University of Massachusetts Amherst when both were engaged in political organizing, Prakash working on fossil-fuel divestment, de Carvalho on student-debt relief, but, says Prakash, they fell in love when he taught her how to powerlift. They hope to marry in 2020, but the election “will probably mess that up,” she says. In the meantime she wears an engagement ring with andalusite, a lower-conflict, lower-priced diamond alternative. “I like it because it looks like the Earth,” she says of the swirling ocher-colored gem (her own birthday is Earth Day). The couple lives in a diverse coastal neighborhood in East Boston that Prakash often points out will not exist in several years due to rising sea levels. They love to go salsa dancing at a nightclub in Cambridge, and will properly celebrate de Carvalho’s birthday this weekend go-karting in downtown Boston.
We gather to watch the first of the Democratic debates at a community center near the Boston Common, and the countdown is like New Year’s Eve. “Two minutes!” someone yells breathlessly. The energy stays high throughout the first hour with shouts of “Let’s go, Lizzie” when Warren comes out of the gates arguing for her green manufacturing plan, and “You’re Irish!” when Beto fumbles in Spanish, but wanes as hour two begins and barely 10 words have been said about climate change. (The July debates in Detroit also only touch on climate—and will be accompanied by thousands of activists, Sunrisers included, demonstrating outside.)
At the end of the debate Prakash looks up from her laptop, eyes blazing. “The folks in D.C. have just decided they are going to sleep out another night,” she announces to cheers and snaps. “Because fuck this bullshit! Nine minutes for the greatest existential threat to our existence? I’m pretty enraged! How are y’all feeling?”
Originally Appeared on Vogue