My Weekend At the Activist Bootcamp Trying to Reshape the 2020 Race

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STONY POINT, N.Y. — “When we were taught about the civil rights movement as kids, it was told to us as if a few big marches just happened and then the laws changed,” Emily LaShelle told me last weekend as she smoked a cigarette. Behind her, a group of her peers played Frisbee in a field while the sun set behind them. “But there was so much more work and effort by activists behind the scenes,” she said. “And that’s the kind of work we’re teaching people to be involved in for this movement.”

LaShelle is 21, with short-cropped blond hair and a nose piercing. Her movement is the Sunrise Movement, an organization of mostly twenty-something climate activists who are best known for seemingly instantly and improbably injecting the idea of a “Green New Deal” into the national conversation. This past week, more than 70 Sunrise activists, including LaShelle, traveled to a rural, multifaith retreat center along the Hudson River, about 50 miles north of New York City, to take part in a weeklong boot camp that’s intended to transform them into the next generation of climate activists—who, in turn, are supposed to transform American politics.

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Sunrise has already moved shockingly swiftly on that front. Last November, Sunrise activists joined newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a splashy protest at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that catapulted the group to national relevance. The resulting publicity added thousands of people to the group’s ranks of supporters and active volunteers. Less than a year later, Sunrise’s proposal for a Green New Deal has gone from being widely mocked as an overly ambitious socialist fantasy (or the “Green Dream,” in Pelosi’s words) to being endorsed by 16 of the Democrats running for president—most recently by none other than Joe Biden. Four years after it was founded by several activists in the fossil-fuel divestment movement on college campuses and a climate policy researcher supported by the Sierra Club, Sunrise has become an influential force not just in climate activism but in Democratic politics. And its oldest staff member is only 33.

The most pressing question Sunrise now faces—and one that occupied this past week’s boot camp—is not unlike the one that faced Robert Redford at the end ofThe Candidate: What do we do now? How do a bunch of twenty-somethings, somewhatblindsided by their own success, come up with a next act?

The Sunrise Movement is part of a crop of progressive groups that have sprung up outside the mainstream Democratic Party and have helped to dramatically reshape the left’s agenda, often with minimal infrastructure. At its founding, Sunrise saw itself as solely focused on changing public opinion as an indirect means of pressuring the party’s establishment. But after the election of President Donald Trump, the group and its leaders underwent a change in philosophy: They needed to convert their idealism into power by engaging in hard politics.

In less than five years, Sunrise has grown from a small and quixotic project to a full-fledged advocacy organization that draws thousands of volunteers across the country and tens of thousands of participants to its events, including a large protest that’s being planned around the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit later this summer. Among the activists at the Sunrise boot camp, there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm but also anger and even desperation at what it calls the “climate crisis.” There was a pervasive feeling that previous generations of adults had ignored the apocalyptic threat of climate change and left it to be solved by millennials and Gen Zers. At times, Sunrise’s leaders seem like they’re winging it, or even engaging in a right-wing parody of performative wokeness. Yet it’s also undeniable that whatever this earnest and improvisational organization is doing, it’s working. The national discussion around climate change has moved more in the past eight months than it did during the previous eight years.

Last year, Sunrise held a similar boot camp for its activists, 75 like-minded young adults who were volunteering their summers to help a fledgling movement. No members of the news media showed up. “We were sending press releases out, but no one was responding,” Stephen O’Hanlon, Sunrise’s communications director and one of its eight original co-founders, told me last weekend. O’Hanlon is 23.

This year’s camp was for 60 full-time organizers who will receive food, housing and a stipend for up to six months, during which they’ll be placed in “movement houses” around the country.Politico Magazineshowed up, and so did a reporter forVogue. ANew York Timesvideo team was expected, too. “It’s fucking insane,” Victoria Fernandez, who’s 26 and another of the movement’s co-founders, said to me about the media coverage—and the organization’s rising status.

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“Initially we thought,”Sunrise co-founder Sara Blazevic, who is 26, told me of the group’s founding, “if we can build the public support and the public pressure, our political system will follow. We’d be a movement that was pretty solely focused on the outside game strategy: building public pressure, elevating the urgency of the crisis in the eyes of the American people and demonstrating it to political leaders and forcing them to reckon with it,” she said.

That was the summer of 2016.

“And then when Trump got elected, and we realized there was just no credible path to passing any type of federal legislation on climate in four years, we realized that we also had to contend with how to win political power pretty seriously.”

Over the next year, Sunrise participated mostly in demonstrations organized by others, like a People’s Climate March in D.C. and a protest at the United Nations climate talks in Germany. As the group’s plan for how to focus its efforts on hard politics began to take shape, Sunrise began to acquire, either from donations or by paying rent, a series of houses across the country. In the summer of 2018, Sunrise placed activists in these movement houses, as it calls them, to work on campaigns in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida. They focused on picking candidates in Democratic primaries who would stand for bold progressive policies—candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, who received Sunrise’s endorsement and support.

After picking a candidate, the activists would, says Aracely Jiménez, a 22-year-old Sunrise staffer who started as a volunteer canvasser in New York last summer, knock on doors for them, often in working-class communities, telling people why “just any Democrat having a D next to their name doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be fighting for immigrant rights or housing justice or climate justice.”

That fall, the election of Ocasio-Cortez, and the protest she joined at Pelosi’s office, was a “turning point” for the organization, said Claire Tacherra-Morrison, a 24-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate who participated in the protest and is now a Sunrise staffer.

“We were saying all the same shit on November 12 as we were on November 13,” Blazevic said, “but having Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez saying it with us really did change everything.”

She added, “Part of what made our protest so powerful was because we had this story: We just hustled and worked our asses off for six months to help win back the House for Dems, and they owe us better than this. They owe us a plan, and they don’t have one.”

A year ago, Sunrise had an organized presence in only about a dozen cities. By December, that grew to around 80, and now has reached more than 250. Each city is organized from a “hub,” usually led by regular, part-time volunteers; each hub is autonomous, choosing where and what to protest and whom to endorse in local elections, and volunteers write op-eds and letters to the editor for their local newspapers on behalf of the broader movement. “We don’t have a super hierarchical structure where a CEO or CFO has to sign off on every plan,” Blazevic said to a group of the activists at this past week’s boot camp.

Last year, Sunrise operated on a budget of about $850,000, its leaders say, while this year they have a budget goal of about $4.5 million. They received several large foundation grants, but they also said “a huge portion of funding comes from individual grassroots donations.”

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The boot camp itself sometimes seemedlike a cross between a summer camp for hippies and a high school pep rally. There were a lot of songs sung in circles, the facilitators shared many favorable videos and articles about Sunrise published over the past year, and people snapped incessantly to show support whenever anyone said anything remotely vulnerable or profound. Other times, it could feel like first-year orientation at a liberal college. Participants were asked to share their preferred gender pronouns along with their names during introductions. A Sunrise leader opened the very first session by thanking the spirits of the Native Americans whose land they were on.

But when they got down to work, the boot camp felt more like a corporate retreat designed to foster team-building and to inculcate new recruits on the values of the organization. The activists were trained on the history of Sunrise and its theory of change. On how to be “compelling storytellers.” On how to canvass, how to plan protests and how to strategically question presidential candidates on the trail. Others were trained to be trainers, so that Sunrise can expand exponentially.

Benjamin Finegan, a 22-year-old activist who took the last year off from Cornell to move into Sunrise’s Philadelphia movement house, says while the group is young and likes to emphasize its youth, it isn’t trying to reinvent progressive activism—just the politics of climate change. “We take a lot of guidance from slightly older to much older people in other movements,” he said. Sunrise uses a “public narrative model” developed by famed community organizer-turned-Harvard professor Marshall Ganz. Movement houses were used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. Another Sunrise activist Nikola Yager says the group has a roster of “coaches” from various other movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Streetwho volunteer as mentors for Sunrise’s organizers.

“This is unlike any other fellowship program,” Tacherra-Morrison said to the Sunrise activists at the opening of the boot camp.

The 60 activists, who are embarking on three- to six-month fellowships with the potential to stay for longer, make up the bulk of the full-time workforce of the Sunrise Movement. There are about 25 actual staff, like Tacherra-Morrison, but the distinction says less about the kinds of roles they play in the organization and more about their compensation. Staff are salaried, while fellows receive stipends.

More than 200 people applied to the program. Many of the fellows are recent college graduates or are taking a gap year to work with Sunrise. Others left jobs as congressional staffers or at other environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club. LaShelle joined last summer after her freshman year at Wellesley and has taken time off from school to continue working with Sunrise ever since. She lives in a movement house in Philadelphia with Aru Shiney-Ajay, another 21-year-old who’s taken time off college (in her case, Swarthmore), and several other Sunrise activists.

Half of the boot camp’s sessions were held in a makeshift classroom, and half were, naturally, outdoors. There were PowerPoint presentations, but they were distinctly millennial, with gifs and memes that underscored whatever point is being made. To illustrate futility, one slide featured a child trying and failing to eat a cookie while wearing armband floaties.

A key messaging guideline was “make it hopeful.” As another PowerPoint slide stated, “a winning story needs both a national crisis of historic proportions and a vision that tells us how to beat it.”

The Green New Deal is Sunrise’s policy vision, now taken up by its allies in Congress. It ties together the group’s twin goals of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a federal jobs program, one that would employ millions to expand renewable energy generation and improve infrastructure.

“The right-wing media is doing a lot to tell the story of the Green New Deal from a certain perspective that is mostly around sacrifice: That Americans will have to sacrifice their cars, airplanes and hamburgers,” Fernandez, the Sunrise co-founder, said. “Fox News watchers are hearing a lot more about the Green New Deal than the average voter, and they’re not hearing about it in relation to climate change.”

At one point, the activists were asked to turn to the person sitting next to them and role-play as if they were a Fox News host interrogating a Sunrise activist. One man turned to the woman next to him and asked her whether she really wants to “drag this country into socialism?” She laughed and said, not entirely seriously, “Yes, that actually sounds great!”

Later that day, Shiney-Ajay opened a discussion of the Green New Deal by passing out a printed one-page summary of the resolution put forward a few months ago in Congress by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Shiney-Ajay asked the room if there were any questions.

Where does the Green New Deal stand on the use of nuclear energy? one fellow asked.

“We don’t want there to be any new nuclear energy plants,” Shiney-Ajay began tentatively, before revising her answer to say, “Actually, I’m not sure if nuclear is considered carbon neutral.” She then asked the room whether they knew the answer.

How about carbon capture? another fellow asked.

“The resolution was created on a very short timeline,” Shiney-Ajay said.

These are the sorts of specifics—not legislative arcana but principles for how best to confront climate change—the movement has struggled to come to a consensus on.

“Sunrise’s role is not to be super caught up in the details,” Shiney-Ajay told the room. “We’re 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds who don’t really know policy.” It’s their job, she said, to lay out a vision while others write proposals that meet that vision.

When I asked Fernandez about this, she responded: “Everyday Americans, they want to know the impact of the policy. Most people don’t want to debate the actual policy or the years or the timelines or things like that. They want to know what the impact is, and that’s how they’ll make their decisions.”

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Sunrise wants to play a major rolein the 2020 presidential election. It wants a Democrat who can not only beat Donald Trump, but also has signed on to the group’s vision of remaking the economy on a New Deal-era scale to fight climate change. To get there, it is pushing every candidate who isn’t already on board to become so.

As part of that effort, Sunrise is planning to host debate watch parties across the country, and it’s going to open movement houses in Iowa and New Hampshire. It plans for activists to accost candidates on the trail to ask them about their commitment to fighting climate change. “The way that we got Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker and so many other candidates to commit to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and feel the heat around the Green New Deal is relentlessly confronting them at all of their campaign events across the country,” O’Hanlon said. By bird-dogging public figures in this way, Sunrise intends, as the boot camp worksheets instructed the activists in training, “to elicit a public response from a powerful person through strategic questions or actions.”

Earlier this year, the group announced grand plans for a summit and protest in Detroit, timed to coincide with the second round of primary debates at the end of July. Sunrise has sent three demands to each candidate: To commit to prioritizing the Green New Deal, to reject money from fossil fuel executives and lobbyists, and to call upon the Democratic National Committee to host a primary debate dedicated to climate change—something that, so far, the DNC is assiduously refusing to do.

According to Sunrise’s latest count, 16 of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the Green New Deal, 18 have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and 16 have called on the DNC to host a climate debate. Sunrise did not respond to a request fromPolitico Magazineto list which candidates have met which demands.

Detroit represents the perfect intersection of Sunrise’s twin theory of change, said Nicholas Jansen, Sunrise’s Michigan state director, who is 24. “Electorally and narratively,” he said, it has huge potential: the decline of industry and need for economic revitalization, Trump’s narrow margin of victory there in 2016, its racial diversity, its history of environmental disasters like the water crisis in nearby Flint.

The next iteration of the Sunrise fellowship is scheduled to begin six months from now, in January 2020 rather than June. The group hopes to recruit hundreds of new full-time organizers to work on primary campaigns across the country and then the presidential election in November.

“For our entire lives, we’ve seen politicians and the political establishment totally fail our generation,” O’Hanlon said. “I wish that the adults in the room were solving this crisis, but the reality is they aren’t. So now it’s on our generation to do it.”

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