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Understanding Sunrise, Part 3: Structure and Governance

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Foreground, woman with drum and microphone, wearing Green New Deal t-shirt. Next to and behind her, people singing. Banner reading "Generation of Fire: California Youth Rising."

Two Sunrise Movement co-founders probe the structural crisis that hit the group after five impactful years—and envision how to deepen the practice of democracy in organizations to come.

Welcome to Part 3 of our self-reflection on Sunrise Movement, the youth organization that put the Green New Deal on the map and made climate change a top-tier issue in U.S. politics.

Part 1 looked at Sunrise’s mission and strategy, arguing that we skillfully navigated the political landscape to catapult the Green New Deal (GND) into prominence but struggled to make hard choices that would translate the aspirational GND platform into actionable policy. Part 2 reviewed Sunrise’s organizing model, concluding that our federally focused distributed campaigns proved capable of rapid growth and disruption of business as usual but suffered for lack of a more localized approach to organizing and campaigning, which is necessary to build lasting power.

By mid-2019, we were eagerly searching for solutions to these strategic and organizing dilemmas, and there was no shortage of interesting ideas circulating within the movement. But deciding on which ones to pursue was another matter. In fact, any decision-making whatsoever had become increasingly difficult. Though we didn’t fully realize it at the time, we had entered a slow-boiling crisis of organizational structure and governance, which by 2021 would put an end to the agility and daring initiative that defined Sunrise in its first years.

This essay retraces our steps through the evolution of Sunrise’s structure and governance, focusing on several key elements—our approach to (de)centralization, our movement house fellowship, and the growth of the staff and staff union. We found it especially useful to track the development of volunteers, staff, and core leadership as three distinct groups with increasingly divergent perspectives and interests. These internal oppositions set Sunrise against itself, which became increasingly debilitating over time.

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We conclude with a hypothesis, that the way for Sunrise and others to avoid these pitfalls in the future is to follow the path of member democracy with representative leadership, open strategic dialogue, and equal standing of all members.

Decentralized…to a degree

As young veterans of prior organizing efforts, we knew what kinds of governance structures we didn’t like. We disfavored both the absolute horizontalism espoused by some anarchist activists and the lumbering bureaucratism of staff-heavy nonprofits. But we lacked a holistic alternative. We were constantly evolving the structure, searching for something that would work but relying more on instinct and the “ideas lying around” than any clear theory of the case.

The first of those ideas lying around came from Momentum, the movement training institute that supported us during our formative years. The idea was decentralization. Momentum argued at the time that a small founding team could incubate a self-contained strategic plan, known as the “movement DNA,” which could then be replicated through widespread training into an ever-growing number of completely self-directing activist cells without central coordination.

This was an inspiring notion, but we didn’t totally buy it. We liked the idea of widely decentralized hubs with the power to call their own shots, but we couldn’t envision the movement succeeding without a centralized command center, which would spread the message, coordinate training and mobilizations, seed new hubs, raise money, and tweak the strategy as needed. The command center would be a nonprofit organization so it could raise money, and, naturally, it would be run by us.

The notion of a decentralized movement nonetheless remained important to our strategy. We aimed to inspire activity that was utterly beyond our authority or control — and we did a lot of that with our campaign for a Green New Deal. But decentralization took on a greater, though misleading, importance in Sunrise’s internal self-image: the story we told about ourselves, to ourselves.

Here’s how it would go early on: a volunteer member of a local hub (chapter) would ask, “How are decisions made in the movement?” The Sunrise trainer would say, “Hubs make their own decisions and are fully autonomous. Any three people acting in the name of Sunrise can be creative and independent in the service of our overall strategy.”

The member would then ask, “What does the national body do?” The trainer would say, “It puts on trainings like this one to spread the movement. It also provides opportunities for hubs to participate in coordinated national campaigns. But it’s up to each hub to decide whether to participate.”

This was all true, but it contained a lie of omission. In the full story, the national body was building a well-oiled distributed organizing machine, shaping our message in the press, running major election-year programs, fundraising from individuals and philanthropy, and maintaining a network of nonprofits and political action committees to do it all. And all of that activity was being directed by a small steering committee of about ten people, including seven founders, who were in legal terms the executives of the nonprofit organizations.

Because left activists are suspicious of hierarchy, we worried that our centralized leadership body wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. So . . . we just didn’t talk about it much. Instead, we highlighted the decentralized aspects of the movement. This approach worked for a while, but it came with an expiration date. As members became more involved with Sunrise, they better understood the power being wielded by the national body, and they wanted more transparency and input into the centralized parts of the operation. Leadership found this request hard to accommodate, leading to increasing tension between the centralized staff and the decentralized volunteers leading hubs around the country.

Committed movement leaders, or exploited workers?

Another idea lying around Momentum in those days was “movement housing,” which drew on the lineage of the Catholic Worker movement, SNCC’s “Freedom Houses” in 1964 Mississippi, and organizer housing in the Cesar Chavez-era United Farm Workers. By providing food, shelter, and only a minimal living stipend, these programs allowed their respective movements to recruit large numbers of  passionate young activists to live in movement housing and work together. Instead of spending limited resources on large salaries for a few staff members, movement housing was an exercise in spreading the resources to more people while facilitating deep community and commitment.

We both lived in movement houses for a time and, by 2018, they became the foundation of our election-year strategy through a fellowship program called “Sunrise Semester.” The pitch to potential fellows was simple: “Go all-in to make climate change matter in the midterm election.” Over 70 young adults took up the offer. They lived together, for a three- or six- month stretch, in eight movement houses located in five swing states. Fellows hounded politicians for their ties to the fossil fuel industry, registered young voters, campaigned for climate champions, and, in a culminating event, organized the November 2018 sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office that put the Green New Deal on the map.

We thought of the fellowship as an extension of the volunteer spirit that powers all successful social movements. We spoke of the importance of sacrifice for movements to succeed and considered the spartan accommodations in movement houses to be a form of “voluntary simplicity” on the part of the fellows.

The immersive social and political experience of movement housing was transformational for many. Young people who entered as inexperienced activists became rock-solid leaders who would go on to play key roles in Sunrise, many of them to this day. The program was also a big contributor to our political successes. It’s safe to say that without movement housing, we would have had neither the ranks to sit-in at Pelosi’s office nor the political credibility to forge our alliance with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This was enough to convince us to extend and replicate the model through two additional fellowship programs in 2019.

But our movement houses also came with all the problems you can imagine, as young people worked and lived together on a tight budget. The model surfaced class differences among fellows: the low pay was a persistent burden to fellows without a personal financial cushion, despite our efforts to compensate via additional financial aid such as a student debt fund. Over time, a class conflict of sorts also emerged between fellows and full-time salaried staff, whose number began to increase along with our fundraising in late 2018. As there was sometimes little distinction in responsibilities between well-paid staff and low-paid fellows, the fellows rightly asked why they were not so deserving. The spirit of volunteerism and shared sacrifice, which was very real in the beginning, couldn’t withstand the contradictions built into the model.

By the third and final generation of fellows, the vibe had changed decisively from “scrappy activists making it work” to “exploited workforce.” Recognizing this, we retired the fellowship model, and the movement houses along with it. Some Sunrise hubs have built movement houses since then, but no longer as a program of the national organization.

The rise of the nonprofit management model

Needing to replace the lost capacity from the end of the fellowship program, and now flush with funds from our newfound prominence, Sunrise doubled down on the salaried staff, which grew from a dozen in 2018, to over 50 in 2019, and over 100 in 2020. The pay was better, but sour feelings remained from the fellowship experience. Rapid growth of the staff led to management and coordination challenges, reinforcing the frustrations that staff and volunteers already felt about their lack of voice in top-level decision-making.

In grasping for solutions to these challenges, we again settled for the ideas that were lying around. Leadership turned increasingly to the Management Center, a consulting firm that promises to help social change nonprofits “manage to change the world.” The two of us and many other top Sunrise leaders hobbled over to Management Center classes for tips to structure our rapidly growing organization. The result was an increasing focus on “manager-managee” relationships to provide direct support to staff, clearer but more siloed individual roles, and organization-wide “objectives and key results.”

Meanwhile, some of the staff started to form a union. After a year or so of organizing among the staff, the union went public as part of Communications Workers of America and was recognized voluntarily by management in December 2020. Management and the union ultimately reached a contract that was praised by the union for “groundbreaking protections against discrimination and innovative time off and leave provisions.”

The increase in professionalized management techniques as instituted by leadership, and the rise of a stable staff body as demanded by the union, turned out to be compatible parts of a common shift toward a very different kind of organization: one dominated by the concerns of professional leaders and staff rather than volunteers and members. Where we had once been nimble but volatile, we were now slow and dominated by internal procedure. As the relationship between management and staff became a site of simmering tension, then negotiations, then agreements, the perspectives and interests of the volunteers who fueled the movement faded ever-further into the background.

The centralized organization driving the decentralized Sunrise Movement had come, step by step, to closely resemble most other nonprofits. We had adopted the nonprofit management model. Organizations following this model adopt most of the following traits:

  • An executive director and/or senior executive team as the ranking leadership body
  • A heavy investment in staff to fulfill tasks and direct work, with all or almost all high-ranking roles held by staff
  • Member/volunteer input but little formal authority
  • Dominant reliance on philanthropic grants
  • A 501c(3) and/or 501c(4) legal structure
  • An organizational structure reliant on “management” of staff and volunteers, often characterized by a heavy focus on individual performance and evaluation, 1-1 relationships between managers and managees, and little investment in teams

You are familiar with this model. It describes almost all of the most prominent left-progressive organizations in the U.S., with the exception of certain unions and the Democratic Socialists of America. Some organizations do better than others in terms of culture and membership participation but nevertheless adhere to this model when it comes down to it. In the 15 years since the publication of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, a famous broadside against the perils of the nonprofit industrial complex, the left has largely failed to adopt any alternative.

Neither did Sunrise. In our gestures toward decentralization and in the movement house program, Sunrise was searching for an organizational structure that departed from the dominant nonprofit management model without altogether disavowing leadership, hierarchy, or money. In the end, these experiments were too flawed and contradictory to be sustained, and we retreated to the stable ground of the dominant nonprofit management model.

Coming unglued from the people  

If we and the other Sunrise founders were clear about one thing in the beginning, it was that Sunrise’s power would come from the people. We said we were “building an army of young people,” a polarizing phrase meant to manifest a movement of scale and discipline.

With little money and few political or media connections, all we had was our relationships to other young people who woke up every day concerned about the climate crisis. In the beginning, nearly all of our effort went to organizing and connecting with them. A big part of organizing is shoe leather, and many feats of outreach were undertaken by founding members and early converts. Will scoured hundreds of Facebook groups and message boards to find recruits for our first fellowship, and Dyanna lived as an itinerant roadie meeting local groups ready to take action.

Everything we built was designed to inspire people to join and/or to reduce barriers to involvement. By calling for decentralized activism, we hoped to (and did) propel eager supporters into motion without them needing to ask permission. By setting up movement houses, we hoped to (and did) enable dozens of our most dedicated volunteers to give more time to the cause. Many of Sunrise’s early members became a cohort of true believers who were ready to go the distance, discomfort be damned.

However, as our army of young people became a force in the national political conversation, we got access to other forms of power: the media, congressional contacts, organizational alliances, and a  seemingly endless pool of philanthropic money. We didn’t want to leave power on the table or miss opportunities to advance the Green New Deal in political and cultural arenas. We made some of these opportunities pay off, but they added up to a distraction from our previous laser-focus on growing and retaining membership.

Once the fellowship experiment played itself out by mid-2019, our structure settled into three distinct groups: a circle of national leaders with wide-ranging authority and elite access; an ever-growing national staff responsible for carrying out various programs; and thousands of volunteers who led local chapters, some of which participated in national programs and some of which did their own thing. Someone’s position in this structure — core, staff, or volunteer – increasingly defined their experience as a Sunriser. Conflict began to simmer, aimed by the staff against the core and by volunteers against the whole centralized apparatus. These conflicts intensified after the pandemic scrambled all previous plans and created new organizational challenges.

The core team could see that we needed to change course. Deciding what to do was another matter. Making things complicated was the fact that internal critique sometimes came laced with attitudes that we considered unconstructive and counterproductive, including the ones that Maurice Mitchell calls maximalism, anti-institutional sentiment, and prioritizing the small war. This was frustrating to no end, but leadership couldn’t figure out how to directly counter or neutralize these attitudes through open dialogue. Nor were we very effective at sorting out the good-faith and necessary critique from needless diversions.

What we learned to do instead was bureaucratic can-kicking. We formed committees and subcommittees to accommodate internal critics and study solutions, but we couldn’t abide by any proposal for member empowerment that would take authority away from the leadership circle. We thought it would mean chaos and, therefore, a disruption in Sunrise’s fight to win federal climate policy within a narrowing window of time.

The leadership circle clung white-knuckled to the wheel through a slow-simmering crisis, aiming for a crash landing into the most ambitious national climate policy possible under the political circumstances of the Biden administration. While the Inflation Reduction Act of August 2022 turned out to be Sunrise’s biggest legislative policy victory yet, the decline of our own ranks along the way was our biggest loss.

Discovering democracy

As for the two co-authors, we each contributed intensely to these debates, for good and for ill. We both ultimately resigned from leadership at different points in 2021, each of us vexed, perplexed, and heartbroken in our own way.

The two of us had once been frustrated young radicals stifled under the weight of other groups’ urgency-killing bureaucracies; now we found we had re-invented another bureaucracy for another generation.

Only after licking our wounds could we see these dynamics for what they were. We had picked up the tools lying around, and it turned out most of them belonged to the nonprofit management toolbox. These weren’t all bad, but the sum total left a lot to be desired.

We had rejected the anti-institutional and anti-leadership horizontalism of Occupy Wall Street, and the faceless bureaucratism of myriad NGOs, but we couldn’t build what we hadn’t ourselves experienced — something both egalitarian and well-structured, both vertical and horizontal. Something, in other words, like a democracy. A genuinely democratic, powerful, mass membership organization. This was the thing we had not dreamed was possible nor dared attempt to build back in 2017. If one were to build it now, we imagine it would look something like this:

  • Selection of leadership and invention of strategy through a legitimizing and inspiring internal procedure (such as an election, a caucus, a congress) that is repeated periodically over time.  
  • Pragmatic hierarchies, paired with the spirit of comradeship and solidarity that reminds us of our fundamental relatedness and equal dignity, regardless of organizational position. In this organization, “member” is the most important structural position because it’s the one we all share. Members are the ultimate governing authority of the organization.
  • Systematic leadership development of members through practice and reflection, both practical and theoretical.
  • Regular opportunities for genuine strategic dialogue among members, crossing all levels of hierarchy. Leaders do not shy away or deflect from such open discussion but see it as an opportunity for multi-directional reflection, persuasion, and development.

At the end of the day, when decision time comes, democratic organizations place trust in the members and their elected representatives to make a decision. As Paolo Freire points out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the trust factor is vital because, without it, self-appointed leaders resort to manipulation of others, whose agency and potential for development is thereby undermined.

It is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiques, monologues, and instructions.

“Slogans, communiques, monologues, and instructions” aptly summarizes the methods that Sunrise used to inspire and direct activity from both staff and volunteers. Did we lack trust in our membership? Yes, and we also lacked faith in our own ability to design a process that could result in reasonable decisions under conditions of true dialogue, shared reflection, and two-way communication. We hadn’t seen it done, and we weren’t equipped to put it into practice.

While the nonprofit management model offered tools and clarity that Sunrise needed at times, we think the model is doomed as a means for sustaining mass participation in a revolutionary cause. As long as a self-selecting and self-perpetuating group of leaders are the ultimate authority in a member-powered movement, and opportunities for joining that circle are limited, other groups will hit the same wall that Sunrise encountered in our first generation. Everyday people will not remain dedicated to our groups over years or decades, through the ups and downs of strategic cycles and the successes and shortcomings of individual leaders. Instead, the self-selected leaders will become a staff leadership body, and the organization will wither away to little but staff. This is the structurally determined result of interest divergence between core, staff, and volunteers, with the first two groups holding all formal authority.

The most obvious alternative to this familiar approach is a model where all members, collectively, are the ultimate authority, and strategy and leadership are renewed periodically through an invigorating democratic process.  Our direction now, and our advice to the reader, is to study and engage with prior and current examples of democratic groups, and figure out how to practice democracy in the great popular organizations of the 21st century, those just getting underway and those yet to come.

Featured image courtesy of Dyanna Jaye. Photo by Rachael Warriner.

Convergence is happy to be co-publishing this article with The Forge.