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Understanding Sunrise, Part 2: Organizing Methods

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Sunrise melded mass protest, electoral work, and distributed organizing to great effect, but 2020 upended its plans and forced a reassessment.

Sunrise Movement grew from a labor of love by 12 young people, including the two of us, into the most prominent climate justice organization in the country. We put the Green New Deal on the map, strengthened the Left insurgency in the Democratic Party, and helped drive youth turnout to defeat Trump in 2020. Climate change became a political priority for the Democratic Party, and Sunrise directly influenced Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

In the last year, though, despite a few impactful protests demanding ambition and urgency from Congress, Sunrise members and observers alike have noted a loss of strategic clarity and organizing power compared to 2017 through 2020. And it’s not just Sunrise: the entire Left has struggled to make the jump from punching upwards in the Trump era to winning material reforms in the Biden era.

In this essay, we’ll pull back the layers of Sunrise’s organizing model: how we actually recruited young people and united them in a structure for collective action. We’ll first discuss the major influences on Sunrise’s organizing and run through how it all played out in practice, the good and the bad.

We share a diagnosis that a central shortcoming in Sunrise’s organizing model was the absence of a sustained method of mass organizing at a local level, which left us nowhere to go once we could no longer rely on the fast-but-shallow growth of distributed organizing methods. We’re proud of the movement’s accomplishments while humble about its shortcomings. We offer our reflection in the practice of learning together in public; we hope our transparency can empower the next generation of movement builders—in Sunrise and across movements—to lead transformative organizing for the next era.

Centering on the federal level

In Part 1 of this essay, Will laid out the political strategy that guided Sunrise. The two of us and our co-founders had been part of the growing anti-pipeline movement of the early 2010s and other “site fights” over energy infrastructure, which were ready to embrace the regulatory power of government, but often wary of embracing the proactive side of state governance: spending, planning, employing, and building. We wanted to break that spell. We believed that addressing climate change would require mass government action over an extended period of time and we wanted to get after it.

While we knew that the Green New Deal would ultimately require action at the federal, state, and municipal levels, we chose to focus on the federal level first. This was a matter of policy, because only the federal government has the spending and coordination power to guide an energy transition at every level of society. It was also a matter of strategy, in that we believed that building one federal campaign might actually prove to be the most direct path to building many successful local campaigns. Better to “change the political weather” nationally, thus creating conditions for a wave of state and local campaigns down the road. The dozens of local and state Green New Deal campaigns around the country today testify to the truth of our hypothesis.

Only the federal government has the spending and coordination power to guide an energy transition at every level of society.

This was the strategic foundation on which we built our organizing model: focus on the federal, popularize a positive and expansive vision of government-led activity for climate justice, and amass the power to pass as much of that agenda as possible federally. On this foundation, we designed an organizing model to rally an army of young people behind the strategy. The major influences on this model were the Momentum school, electoral organizing, and distributed organizing.

The Momentum school

Momentum is a training institute and movement incubator where the Sunrise founding team all received training. Momentum began in 2014 amidst the disappointment of Obama’s second term and a recent resurgence of street protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Momentum affirmed the importance of mass protest movements through contemporary and historical accounts of how they had shattered paradigms and opened new political horizons.

Momentum promoted a method of transcending the six-month cycle of boom and bust that commonly leaves mass protest eruptions in shambles. This was the “hybrid model”—a synthesis of mass protest organizing with the methods of “structure-based organizing.” (Structure-based organizing is traditionally defined as: labor or community organizing that builds leadership and local organization to leverage collective power to win instrumental demands for a particular constituency.)

We found allure in the theory of the hybrid model. At that time, we’d each spent years participating in mass protest eruptions that had required huge sacrifices of ourselves and others, but amassed little sustained movement strength. The hybrid model promised an evolution from months-long outbursts, to years-long cycles of uprising that could proactively sequence multiple waves of mass protest.

There was only one problem: The hybrid model wasn’t fully defined by the Momentum curriculum. The training described the characteristics of structure-based and mass protest organizing, and offered several suggestions of what a hybrid might look like—most prominently the Serbian Otpor anti-dictatorship movement—but at no point did it provide an actual step-by-step template for hybrid model organizing in the U.S. today. It would be up to the community of practice to figure out how to actually design a hybrid model.

Regrettably, the early Momentum community was thin on experience with rigorous structure-based organizing from the labor or Alinskyite tradition. Momentum co-founders Paul Engler and Carlos Saavedra had this experience, but a deep dive into structure-based methods didn’t make it into the training, and most of the people who ended up carrying out experiments in the Momentum community were more familiar with mass protest movements.

‘Act, recruit, train’

As a result, the closest this era of Momentum came to articulating a step-by-step organizing plan was the “cycle of momentum,” a simple triangle of escalation, absorption, and mass training, which some members of the community would modify to “Act, Recruit, Train.” Compelling and media-savvy action stirs up interest, from which people are recruited to join a training, where they learn to take action to stir up interest, and so on.

But here’s the problem with purporting that “Act, Recruit, Train” is emblematic of the hybrid model—if all you do is repeat this cycle, you end up with an organizing plan entirely belonging to the mass protest tradition. Jane McAlevey, probably the most prominent champion of structure-based organizing methods, identifies several key components including rigorous power analysis, organic leader identification, and structure tests, none of which are included in the cycle of momentum. This exemplifies how much the structure-based organizing tradition ended up absent from the hybrid model, in practice.

When designing Sunrise, we wanted to make use of the cycle of momentum and adopt the truth-telling, uncompromising attitude of the mass protest tradition, but we also believed in the value of direct outreach and recruitment of people who wouldn’t be the sort to come to a protest. Without a practice of direct outreach to people outside their orbit, we thought, mass protest groups have a tendency to become increasingly insular, talking exclusively to their fellow activists while losing touch with the language and concerns of ordinary people.

We wanted to incorporate a practice of intentional outreach for the purpose of public engagement and supporter identification. We ended up finding our template for such outreach not in the labor or community organizing tradition, but in the practices of electoral organizing, which was a natural fit for our strategy of waging a federal-level campaign for a Green New Deal.

A group of young people gather around Sen. Bernie Sanders with banners calling for the Green New Deal.
Sunrise Movement went all in for Senator Bernie Sanders in his 2020 Presidential run. Here, a group of Sunrisers gather with the senator in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement Cedar Rapids.

Electoral organizing

As young leaders in the movement for climate justice before Sunrise, we had watched the climate movement largely sit on the sidelines of electoral organizing, an experience that got particularly painful in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run for president. Bernie campaigned to take on the fossil fuel billionaires, while the leading climate movement organizations didn’t have the chops or political compass to play a role in backing him up.

By centering electoral organizing as a core element of our work, we hoped we could unite Bernie’s political revolution and the climate justice movement. We wanted Bernie and the hundreds of candidates inspired by him to campaign on tackling the climate crisis, creating millions of good jobs, and repairing racial inequities. On the other hand, we wanted the millions of Americans who were alarmed about the climate crisis to get involved in the fight for governing power.

We adopted several tactics from electoral organizing as our main methods of direct community outreach, and structured our campaigns around the rhythms of election season. We hoped that by systematically knocking on doors in diverse, young and working-class neighborhoods, meeting people, and building relationships, we could expand beyond our middle-class relational networks and the supermajority white active base of the existing youth climate movement.

Of course, we weren’t strangers to the familiar critiques of electoral organizing, having participated ourselves in overfunded and under-inspired “youth vote” programs, and generally experienced the young radical’s disgust with the electoral process. But Bernie changed the game in a big way, and back in 2017 it was easy to believe that a new generation could find a way to do electoral organizing better. We also took heart from historic precedents like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer of 1964, an example of a visionary youth movement making inroads into the electoral arena.

With these inspirations in our pocket, the Sunrise model ended up as more of a hybrid between mass protest and electoral organizing than between mass protest and structure-based organizing. We designed our campaigns from 2017-2020 with a rhythmic quality: we would build up our forces through small protests in 2017, lean hard into the midterm elections in 2018, pivot immediately to larger and more disruptive protests in 2019, repeat our electoral work in 2020, and hopefully cap it off with a massive demonstration of force in late 2020 and 2021 to push federal climate policy over the finish line.

Distributed organizing

We were aided by another key influence from outside the traditional protest or electoral organizing toolkit—distributed organizing—which allowed us to multiply protest tactics, scale our voter contact, and establish new chapters (which we called “hubs”) at a pace rarely before seen. Distributed organizing is organizing with a centrally coordinated plan that distributes the work to a mass number of self-identifying volunteers. Most volunteers in a distributed network begin as online activists; some move soon after into in-person activity.

The methods of distributed organizing began in the 2000s with progressive digital organizations like MoveOn.org and were improved upon in the early- and mid-2010s through issue-forward online/offline organizations like 350.org and Color of Change. It was really the Bernie 2016 campaign that elevated the field to new heights, as described and translated in Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s book Rules for Revolutionaries. Within the Momentum community, Bond and Exley’s work was eagerly received for offering key insights into the absorption and training stages of the cycle of momentum.

Distributed organizing illuminated a pathway toward scaled mass participation as called for by the Momentum playbook. It gave us many of Sunrise’s most familiar practices, including: our online support teams that coordinate through Slack, our mass online phonebanking program, our mass calls with a hard ask to take action, our myriad toolkits to support action, and our online-to-offline hub formation sequence for Sunrise Strike Circles.

From these three lineages Momentum, electoral organizing, and distributed organizing—the Sunrise organizing model was conceived. But it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the ensuing product emerged fully developed. The Sunrise organizing model as anybody would recognize it today was the product of trial, error, and choices made along the way.

Direct confrontation gets the goods

In 2017 and 2018, we experimented with a variety of different community organizing practices, ranging from door-knocking programs, orientation trainings, school-to-school presentations, and community engagement activities. We even built “Climate Legacy Time Capsules” in an effort to get people thinking more deeply about the historical weight of the climate crisis, which was a poignant project but arguably more trouble than it was worth in terms of organizing outcomes.

The tactic that took off was birddogging—young people with their smartphones recording face-to-face confrontations with elected officials and candidates. Birddogging was a perfect tactic for the cycle of momentum. It took few people, required no prior organizing experience, and only minimal training, yet it was exhilarating to participate in and would sometimes result in videos that were both damning (for the politician) and sympathetic (for the young questioner). Amplified by social media and the techniques of distributed organizing, these videos became viral moments that fueled movement growth.

One of our first birddogs was led by Will in 2017 in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan, challenging US Rep. Tim Walberg, who had suggested that God was responsible for climate change, and also happened to have taken over $200,000 from fossil fuel interests. Less than a year later, then 18-year-old Rose Strauss publicly challenged Scott Wagner, the GOP candidate for Pennsylvania governor who had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in fossil fuel money and infamously claimed that climate change was caused by human body heat. Their heated interaction landed Rose in the New York Times and propelled climate and corruption into the center of the debate in Wagner’s race.

18-year-old Rose Strauss publicly challenged Scott Wagner, the GOP candidate for Pennsylvania governor who had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in fossil fuel money…

Rose arrived at Scott Wagner’s event through her participation in “Sunrise Semester”, an election year fellowship program dedicated to “making climate change matter” in the 2018 midterm elections. Several dozen fellows in five swing states did the hard day-to-day work of knocking doors, building local volunteer networks, and backing candidates who would go forward to champion our issues in office. The dozens of fellows in this program, and the people they recruited, grew into a strong leadership cohort of ideologically aligned and committed Sunrisers.

The ethos of birddogging also influenced our larger-scale demonstrations of collective power. Sunrise has always been most comfortable—and often most effective—when we are in the position of speaking truth directly to a public official. Our big breakthrough came on November 13, 2018, when 200 Sunrise activists, most of them from the Sunrise Semester program, sat in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. We were joined by the newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who we had endorsed and lightly supported in her first primary election. AOC, Sunrise and Justice Democrats unveiled the first version of the Green New Deal resolution that same day.

Breaking through

The impact was seismic. In the days following the Pelosi sit-in and Green New Deal introduction, our phones were constantly buzzing. Thousands of articles were written and everybody wanted to get involved.

Our training in Momentum and distributed organizing kicked in, and we pulled together several escalating cycles of action in the ensuing weeks. We grew from 200 activists (which represented nearly our entire active leadership at the time) in Pelosi’s office, to over 100 local actions in dozens of states a week after that, to a second wave of DC office sit-ins with 1,500 people in December. Before November 2018, you could count Sunrise’s hubs on your fingers and toes; by spring 2019 they numbered in the hundreds.

Following the Congressional launch of the Green New Deal resolution in February 2019, we campaigned to cement support in Congress. The next big attention-grabbing moment for the movement came a couple months after that sit-in in Pelosi’s office, this time led by a handful of middle-school-aged children confronting Diane Feinstein face-to-face, which went viral and landed a parody on SNL. Soon after that, young people in Kentucky upped the ante for sustained protest in the movement by sleeping outside of Mitch McConnell’s house for a week when he tried to force a vote on the Green New Deal in a failed attempt to divide the Democratic Party.

A couple months later, young Sunrisers led a three-day sleep-out on the steps of the Democratic National Committee demanding a “Climate Debate,” which took our campaigning and demands from the halls of Congress into the arena of the Democratic presidential race, where 20 of the 25 Democratic Presidential candidates endorsed the policy pillars of the Green New Deal.

That campaign culminated in the first ever movement-wide endorsement for Bernie Sanders, who was championing the Green New Deal with a real shot at victory, alongside a slate of candidates up and down the ballot who were eager to work with us.

Being part of Sunrise felt powerful. The real-world impact of our efforts was plainly visible in presidential policy platforms, in allocated debate time on the climate crisis, in climate change polling as the top political issue for young people and eventually all Democratic voters. For the first time, climate change was a top governing priority for the Democratic Party. We had momentum, and the optimism of the moment was infectious.

Young women lean over a table, pens and markers in hand.
Training for a Sunrise art action. Photo by Josh Yoder/Sunrise Movement.

Doubling down on the federal strategy

Already, though, some of the trade-offs and shortcomings in our organizing model were making themselves felt. One of our big challenges was to actualize our vision of a multi-racial movement that was as diverse as our generation. Through the Green New Deal, we’d shifted the political discourse towards climate policy that was rooted in racial and economic justice. Now we faced the challenge of growing the multiracial, cross-class base united and powerful enough to turn it into law. We had done well with policy and narrative projections that allowed a diverse set of Millennials and Gen Zers to see themselves in the climate fight, but most of us lacked prior experience with organizing non-college-grads and communities of color.

The national organizing team worked to meet this challenge by coaching hubs in regional clusters on local organizing skills to mend the momentum-era gap in structure-based organizing. We also built a wave of constituency organizing programs. The constituency organizing was largely inspired by a similar experiment being run concurrently in the Bernie campaign; this gave Sunrise a high school and middle school organizing program, college organizing program, HBCU organizing program, and Latine organizing program. Sunrise was fundraising rapidly and we were able to quickly hire leaders from the movement to run all these programs, which joined the already existing national mobilization and distributed programs that powered our campaigns. These new steps did help diversify Sunrise’s national leadership, and some of its hubs, but many other hubs still struggled to expand beyond a small set of college-educated, mostly white activists.

Tension between national and local campaigning also became a persistent problem starting in late 2019. Some hubs had grown tired of pressuring their Congressperson for the umpteenth time, and were getting more interested in local or state-level versions of the Green New Deal. A few local GND campaigns had already popped up around the country, led by Sunrise hubs or allies. National staff and local leaders also felt the tension between acting on the obvious potential for more localized Green New Deal campaigning, and feeling responsible to see the federal campaign through.

The road not taken

In August 2019, the two of us participated in a meeting on the shores of Lake Michigan where we weighed this question and considered launching a wave of local Green New Deal and local Climate Emergency campaigns. We supposed a turn to local campaigning could do more to build rooted and resilient local hubs for the long term, and offer our members more tangible experience to develop as organizer-strategists. After some agonizing, we set these ideas aside to stay focused on the federal campaign, which had been our bread and butter from the beginning. Our ranks had started in the dozens, grown into the thousands, and now we hoped to catapult into the millions.

Out of that meeting, we started promoting what became known informally in the movement as the “Mass Youth Uprising”—a sustained protest outpouring that would take place soon after the November 2020 election and create an unstoppable mandate for change in the new administration. To get there, we would build on the momentum of the major September 2019 Greta Thunberg-inspired youth climate strikes, raise the stakes with more disruptive climate strikes on Earth Day the following April, then translate that momentum into a massive youth voter turnout operation that would elect Green New Dealers and defeat Trump. Finally, after Election Day, it would all climax in the largest student and youth strike yet, to be punctuated by several sustained direct actions led by our most militant members. We summarized this year-long escalation plan with a three word mantra: “Organize, Vote, Strike.”

We had reason to believe that our distributed organizing operation was up to the task of pulling this off. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of many, it had grown effective enough to bring hundreds or sometimes thousands of volunteers to a mass call on a day’s notice, send thousands of calls in a week to a political target, and coordinate hundreds of in-person rallies with a three-week run-up. It was a nimble and powerful operation.

Turning the corner into 2020, we had Bernie’s momentum behind us, paired with the growing tailwinds of the global climate strike movement, and were coming into formation with major labor unions and others behind a shared vision of a strike escalation trajectory, all gunning toward the possibility of winning the first pillars of the Green New Deal in federal legislation.

Then our world shifted dramatically. By the end of March, hopes for Bernie were dashed, and the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic confounded our mass mobilization plans. This one-two punch caught us unprepared. For the first time, an organization that got its edge from always having a plan really didn’t have a plan.

Turning the corner into 2020, we had Bernie’s momentum behind us, paired with the growing tailwinds of the global climate strike movement…

We were forced into an organized retreat over the course of 2020, working to salvage as much of the political leverage and ambition that had been present in the Green New Deal resolution and Bernie’s platform as we could. The electoral organizing team was able to do some remarkable work in the remaining primary elections, marshaling millions of distributed phonebanking calls to elect Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Ed Markey. Sunrisers also jumped admirably into getting out the vote and defending against the Trump coup. Our Executive Director Varshini Prakash worked closely with Bernie and AOC to squeeze more of the Green New Deal into Biden’s platform. All of that mattered. But the fact is that once Bernie was gone, and the mass youth uprising was gone, and we couldn’t ask people to gather in person, we never really found the thread of a unified federal campaign again, despite constant efforts to do so.

As often happens in organizational life, the loss of momentum gave rise to increasingly live tensions around movement governance and an inwards turn by membership, away from the federal strategy, away from trust in national movement leadership, and toward a more independent and localized approach by many hubs.

Hubs went in a multitude of directions. Some have developed local Green New Deal campaigns. Some have helped win local or state elections. A few stuck with a federal focus through the confusing Build Back Better fight. Some have ended up working with local allies on Covid relief and other efforts that are not directly climate-focused. And others have petered out and dissolved.

Conclusion

Today, in March 2022, it’s clear that the organizing model that allowed Sunrise to grow to hundreds of hubs has run its course and is due for transformation. While we each regret not being able to do more to see this through during our time as Sunrise leaders, we are heartened to see that this work is well underway within the movement.

To summarize our genealogy of the Sunrise organizing model, we argue that our “hybrid model” was never, as is sometimes claimed, a hybrid of structure-based and mass protest organizing. In practice, it was more a hybrid of mass protest and electoral organizing, each amplified by the online-savvy methods of distributed organizing.

This model proved successful at changing the political weather through mediagenic direct actions, recruiting new leaders and establishing new hubs en masse during peak moments, and organizing large unified days of action and huge numbers of voter contacts. All of it added up to a transformed public debate on climate change, plus some real but limited political leverage for Sunrise as a political actor.

Even so, the organizing plan fell short of its ultimate destination, which was to be the so-called Mass Youth Uprising that would deliver an eruption of protest energy for the Green New Deal. The two of us still wonder what would have happened without COVID—we think the “Organize, Vote, Strike” trajectory was pretty well tailored for Sunrise’s strengths, and would have resulted in something good, but we’ll never know.

Sunrise’s experience demonstrates the usefulness of federally-focused, quick-growth, distributed organizing, but also its drawbacks. Our distributed campaigns were beloved by the people who were just joining, because we made it accessible and fun to take leadership. Everything was designed for rapid growth and media impact. But the longer members stayed, the more they got frustrated with distributed action cycles, which came to feel repetitive and ill-suited for reaching new members beyond the usual suspects.

If the two of us could do it over again, we wouldn’t throw out the distributed toolkit, or the federal campaign, or the nose for momentum. We can’t lose sight of the fact that Sunrise did, for a time, wield a distributed volunteer army to expert effect, positively upending the terrain of climate politics in favor of the Left. A host of issues, from foreign policy to student debt cancellation to labor law reform, could benefit from an insurgent organization built to upend the political terrain, and fast. But we would go back to 2019 and choose to invest more in the practice of local organizing. We were growing plenty of leaves at that time, leaves that withered when the weather changed in March 2020. We would have been well-served by putting down more roots when the weather was good.

We hope Sunrise the organization, thousands of current and former Sunrise members, and other organizers across the Left can benefit from this account of our organizing methods, so you can use them better in the future. In the meantime, we extend our love and solidarity to all the Sunrisers and everybody else fighting for a free society on a stable planet. This is the story of a youth movement growing up – a tough era of transition, but none of our work is wasted if we take the lessons learned with us.

The fight for a Green New Deal has never been about passing one policy or about one political cycle. We’ll need hundreds of campaigns, tens of thousands of organizers, dozens of organizations, and millions and millions of people participating in this work with us. We’ll need to continue to fight for transformative federal policy, and also win concrete victories at the state and local level that implement the stepping-stones of transformation. This is a generational, century-defining mission. It’s the fight of our lives.

Featured image: Sunrise activists stage a sit-in at US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on November 13, 2018. Photo by Corien Dijsselbloem/Sunrise Movement

Tagged

Climate Crisis
Climate Justice
Organizing Strategy
Sunrise Movement

Referenced Organizations

Sunrise Movement

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