Environment

How a 26-Year-Old Activist Forced the Democratic Party to Get Serious About Climate Change

Sunrise Movement leader Varshini Prakash said the group’s greatest success has been getting away from the ‘pathetic incrementalism’ that’s shaped the climate debate.

by Marie Solis; photos by Nathan Bajar
Nov 18 2019, 3:14pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Manhattan’s Collect Pond Park, where I planned to meet the Sunrise Movement’s cofounder Varshini Prakash, is that there’s no pond. I could see where one once was: In the center of the park there’s a shallow concrete pit the size of a large swimming pool. Inside it, pigeons pecked at a couple of discarded bagels. A quick Google search told me the pond was originally sixty feet deep and naturally occurring, its water supplied by an underground spring.

It was the morning of the September climate strikes, the global protests inspired by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s FridaysForFuture. More than 5,000 strikes were expected to take place in 156 countries by the end of the week, turning out millions of people calling for action on climate change. That the Sunrise Movement would have a presence at the strikes was a given: In the past year, the youth-led group has burst into the spotlight, gaining national attention for confronting high-profile members of Congress and for propelling the Green New Deal—historic legislation tackling climate change and economic inequality—to the center of mainstream political discourse.

As Sunrise’s executive director, 26-year-old Prakash was facing a day packed with media interviews, and in the afternoon, she was to give the final speech at a rally in Foley Square and dispatch tens of thousands of protesters on a march to Battery Park. When she arrived at Collect Pond Park at around 8:40 a.m. she was still working on the draft of that speech. But she was buoyant and unworried. “Have y’all seen the numbers in Australia?” she called out to me and the photographer as she approached us, her dark curls still wet. “There’s already half a million people striking!”

The idea had been to take portraits of Prakash in nature. The park’s trees, shrubs, and—I had hoped—water seemed like an appropriate backdrop for someone leading an organization at the forefront of the movement for climate justice. But the more time I spent with Prakash, the more obvious it became how incongruous our choice of an initial meeting spot had been.

Prakash first became conscious of the climate crisis when she was 11 years old. She remembers watching CNN broadcast footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 230,000 people, some of whom lived in South India, where her parents are from. Thousands of miles away, in her hometown just outside Boston, Prakash offered what help she could. She donated canned goods to the Red Cross, but the gesture seemed woefully small in comparison with the magnitude of the problem.

Prakash is certainly worried about the impact of climate change on the environment, but what keeps her up at night—quite literally at times—is thinking about its impact on people. She’s worried about water wars, food scarcity, and the climate disasters that have already displaced roughly 21.5 million people. She hated Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth when she saw it as a 14-year-old, precisely because it seemed to leave people out. (And also, as she would later tell me with a laugh, because she thought it was a bad movie.)

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Prakash launched the Sunrise Movement in 2017 with seven other co-founders, whom she met through the climate organizing she did as a college student in Amherst, Massachusetts. At the time, the eight of them made up the entirety of Sunrise’s membership. They worked remotely for basically no pay, and since many of them had just graduated, some still lived with their parents. But the organizing they did at the time didn’t look much different from what the group is now well-known for: They trained youth organizers, bird-dogged politicians, and mobilized Sunrise’s growing ranks for protests and rallies—just on a “far smaller level,” Prakash said.

The group’s pivotal moment came in November 2018, when the newly elected New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined more than 150 Sunrise protesters occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that she establish a congressional task force dedicated to climate change. In the weeks that followed, Prakash, who had been handling communications for Sunrise up until that point, became the organization’s executive director.

“All of a sudden I was a public figure,” she told me over breakfast at a Tribeca diner near Foley Square. “All of a sudden there was so much scrutiny on everything we did, and so everything I do, I’m like, Yeah, this could go a bad way,” she continued. “Everything I did felt like so much more high-stakes.”

But when I asked how she dealt with all these new pressures, Prakash barely hesitated. After two beats, she casually replied, “I think I handled it pretty well.”

After breakfast we walked to the rally, Prakash typing out the rest of her speech on her phone. At a crosswalk, Zina Precht-Rodriguez, a 22-year-old Sunrise media fellow who was accompanying Prakash for the day, held out her arms to keep Prakash from stepping into oncoming traffic. “I’m here to protect you today,” Precht-Rodriguez reassured her.

A systematic response to climate change could save “literally millions of people on this planet. And every single decimal point of warming you can avoid, you do save millions of people’s lives on this planet.”

Within minutes of approaching the media tent at Foley Square, Prakash was bombarded by the press; by noon she’d given at least half a dozen interviews. Before answering questions on camera for MTV News, Prakash complimented the reporter’s knitted sweater, which had a sun rising over a body of water on the front. “I was thinking of you when I put it on,” the reporter told her. They took a selfie together, then Prakash returned to a nearby huddle of Sunrise staff—composed of Precht-Rodriguez, Alex O’Keefe, who does video work for the group, and Sofie Karasek, Sunrise’s deputy communications director—and shot a video for the group’s Instagram in one take.

In my time with Prakash, she always had time for another conversation, another photo, another interview, and never showed any signs of flagging energy. She had the self-assurance and charisma of a veteran politician, but talking to her felt like talking to a friend—a good one, who doesn’t bullshit.

“The funny thing about her coming from communications is that in some ways she was amazing at it: She’s super smart and organized and on top of everything,” Sara Blazevic, another one of Sunrise’s co-founders, told me on the phone a few days later. “In other ways, she wasn’t the best at it. So much of comms work is figuring out how to spin something. Varshini does not like to spin things.”

Back at Foley Square, Prakash smiled as she climbed up onto the stage. But once she began delivering her speech, she turned deadly serious, speaking in a booming voice that sounded as though she had tapped into an extra reserve of power she’d been saving for this moment.

“Striking is how we can stop the worst of climate change and win a Green New Deal,” Prakash shouted, her voice trembling slightly. “But I gotta be honest with you—we gotta be honest with each other if we want to win. We gotta be honest with each other if we want to survive. There are not enough of us here yet. There are four million people out in the streets today, but there are not enough of us yet.”

Growing up, Prakash wanted to be a doctor because she thought it was the best way she could help people. But when she arrived at UMass Amherst she “tripped and fell into social movements.” During her sophomore year, a woman named Katie MacDonald, a divestment organizer whose job was to recruit college students to the national divestment movement, asked her to speak at a rally on campus. Prakash had never spoken in front of a large group of people before, but she accepted, addressing a crowd of about 100 during finals week.

“It was like witnessing a fusion reactor ramp up,” wrote MacDonald, now the senior director of strategic partnerships at a clean-tech startup called Greentown Labs, in an email to me. “When you find someone like Varshini, you empower them to lead as fast as possible.”

Prakash remembered her public speaking debut more humbly. “It was super dinky,” she said. Thinking about the millions of teens attending the day’s climate strikes, she added: “I’m kind of jealous of these kids that have like 10,000 people out at their first thing.”

Still, the modest rally proved life-changing for her. She went on to become a leader of UMass Amherst’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, and in 2016, the year after she graduated, the school became the first major public university to divest. Simultaneously, Prakash had begun working with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, an organization fighting for divestment on the national level, where she met Blazevic.

But the more she got involved in climate activism, the more disillusioned she became. She and Blazevic shared a concern that the movement couldn’t stand up to the scale of the climate crisis, and they were troubled by the fact that it didn’t seem to wield any kind of political power. In 2015, Blazevic and Prakash attended a protest in D.C., where their shouts were drowned out by an Israel lobbying group protesting the same day. After the action, they talked about how disappointed they were with the turnout.

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“We looked around at the organizing we were part of and began to ask ourselves, Is this enough?” Blazevic said. “And the answer, frankly, was no.”

Sunrise has tried to correct what its founders see as the climate movement’s historic shortcomings. It was vital that they build a culture of inclusivity, Prakash said, and give people room to grow within the movement. The young people who join Sunrise typically attend “Sunrise 101,” a three-part online orientation introducing them to the group and its principles, as well as additional in-person trainings at one of Sunrise’s more than 200 hubs. Others may go on to live in the group’s “movement houses,” where Sunrise organizers practice communal living; Precht-Rodriguez lives in a movement house in Philadelphia with nine other people. Organizing with Sunrise is a lifestyle.

It was also crucial for Sunrise to shake the “resignation to being small and marginal” that has colored climate organizing in the past, Blazevic told me, and develop a “totally new relationship to power” to achieve its goals. Prakash lamented that the movement had an opportunity to make bold propositions when President Barack Obama—someone who believes in the need to address the climate crisis—was in office, but that it didn’t have the political capital to hold him accountable. Instead, Obama focused on what climate organizers now consider smaller measures, like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. On a cultural level, Prakash often jokes that, for so long, the individual solution for helping climate change has been to “change your lightbulbs” to ones that are more energy-efficient.

Prakash and Blazevic agreed that their new movement needed to turn climate action into more than something people merely paid lip service to; politicians needed to “win or lose” elections because of their position on the issue.

Sunrise’s ethos has already led to seismic shifts in U.S. politics. In less than a year, the Green New Deal went from a fringe policy proposal to something one must support in order to be considered a viable 2020 Democratic candidate. Those who only approximate the demands of the Green New Deal can expect to be more or less stripped of any progressive credentials. “In an incredibly short order, Sunrise has completely shifted the parameters of the debate, and the majority of serious [presidential] contenders are at least paying lip service to a Green New Deal,” the longtime activist and author Naomi Klein told me over the phone. “It’s now the benchmark that everything else is measured against. And that’s just a sea change.” Outlets like Politico have observed that Sunrise has “actually changed the Democratic conversation” around climate change, and The New Yorker called the group a “dominant influence on the environmental policy of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive wing.”

Prakash argues that the Sunrise Movement’s greatest success has been shifting the conversation around climate change away from “pathetic incrementalism.” People have begun to talk about climate change as a global crisis that demands a response at the level of systems and institutions, not just the individual. And there’s an emerging recognition that addressing it means fighting for other forms of social justice, including racial and economic justice.

“We’re not arguing on the terms of the fossil fuel industry anymore, about whether the science is real or not,” she said. “We’re arguing on the terms of—what are we going to do about it? There are still people who might not understand this and who will continue that debate, but for our survival we need to move past that conversation.”

Prakash will answer any question about the Sunrise Movement with enthusiasm and poise, but there are some she hates being asked. The Tuesday before the climate strikes, Prakash turned one of them on Klein, whom she was interviewing at Cooper Union for the release of Klein’s new book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. (In her opening remarks at the event, Klein called Prakash one of her “personal heroes.”)

“I think there’s a question that a lot of people have had and that I get asked on a daily or weekly basis: Is the Green New Deal going too far?” Prakash asked Klein.

“I think you just really like that I have to answer this instead of you for once,” Klein said, laughing.

“I fucking hate when people tell us that what we’re asking for is unrealistic,” Prakash told me after her speech in Foley Square. “We’re trying to make a difference in the world that you fucked up.”

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And then there are the misconceptions about Sunrise. Prakash finds it frustrating when the media portrays the group as having come out of nowhere, and when reporters don’t seem to understand the “sophistication of the strategy.” She also bristles at people who call Sunrise “AOC’s movement,” which can make it seem as though the group is riding on the congresswoman’s coattails. “Like, that’s fine, I don’t really hate that,” Prakash said. “But this needs to be beyond icons and figures, and it needs to go to the actual grassroots.”

These are moments when Prakash becomes more vulnerable. After lunch, Prakash began rubbing her temples. “I have a smiling headache,” she explained. But it was only later, on a 4 train to Sunrise’s Brooklyn coworking space, that Prakash finally showed signs of exhaustion. Cradling a bouquet of flowers Karasek had given her, now slightly wilted from the heat, Prakash admitted she’d grown tired of “saying the same thing over and over” all day to reporters. “But like, I say the same thing 30 times and then there are people who still don’t know what Sunrise is,” she said to Precht-Rodriguez and O’Keefe.

When Prakash thinks about the movement she wants to build, she doesn’t constrain her vision. The September climate strikes turned out roughly 6 million people worldwide, but when Prakash closes her eyes, she can fill the streets with millions more. She and her fellow Sunrise organizers have already begun preparing for Earth Day 2020, when they hope to inspire as strong a showing as the one in 1970, when 20 million people in the U.S. participated in Earth Day–related events.

Thinking small is anathema to her—which is why, reflecting on it now, Prakash realizes she wasn’t cut out to be a doctor.

“You’re only going to save like, what, 100 people in a year? Maybe less?” she’d said at breakfast. A systematic response to climate change, though, could save “literally millions of people on this planet. And every single decimal point of warming you can avoid, you do save millions of people’s lives on this planet.”

In that moment, with even the outcome of the day’s climate strikes still unknown, it was easy to believe that the movement would one day be as vast as Prakash’s imagination.

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