Rise Up: The Sunrise Movement Takes Root in Rhode Island

Introduction: Wen Zhuang (BFA PH 2019)
Interview: Irina Wang (MID 2020)

Students gathered at the Rhode Island State House on March 15th for the youth climate strike, demanding that lawmakers enact policies to end climate change.

From record-breaking wildfires to #FridaysForFuture and the valiant young activist Greta Thurnberg, we humans have—knowingly or not—been at war with our climate. And we are losing, a fact no amount of ignorance can appease. The silver lining behind our cloud of doom has been drawn out of late by an unexpected, audacious symphony of voices—those that had long stood on the margins of politics and “greater answers”—the young, the women, the overlooked and underestimated. This past February, newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a 14-page solution resurrecting 1988’s dreams for a Green New Deal; the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-led political movement, played a big role in this. Since 2017, many cities have developed their own chapters, our little Ocean State included. Irina Wang talked with Emma Bouton, a Co-Hub Coordinator for Sunrise RI studying Environment & Inequality at Brown University, about how this chapter began, the stakes in Rhode Island, and what the group’s next steps look like.

Irina Wang: How would you summarize the goal and spirit of Sunrise?

Emma Bouton: We are a youth movement working to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, and currently that focus is around fighting for a Green New Deal. A Green New Deal would create a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, a green jobs program that increases American economic security, and a just transition for communities of color, low-income communities, and Indigenous communities.

IW: When Sunrise started, was the plan always to escalate the agenda in the form of a Green New Deal? Or did it emerge more organically as you looked for avenues to make change on a national scale?

EB: Well, full disclosure: I’m not on the national steering committee, so I don’t know all the details behind the strategy. I don’t think that specific policy was what they were aiming for—there was more of an opening when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got elected, and there was all this momentum. And certainly the term [Green New Deal] has been around in policy circles that the Sunrise founders were in. When Sunrise began, the focus was on getting fossil fuel money out of politics and making climate change an urgent issue that people—especially young people—vote on. That was more of a focus going into the midterm elections, and once we had that moment of political opportunity, we grabbed it and ran with it.

IW: I’m assuming there’s a lot about Rhode Island politics that deviates from the nationwide issues Sunrise wants to address. How do you coordinate those two agendas, and how does one inform the other?

EB: That’s what we’re constantly trying to navigate. I think at times we do a lot better job of thinking about the national stuff and a less good job of working at the local level, but we are striving to have both be equal priorities, and will be focusing a lot more of our work this summer on the local level. We currently have students from other schools involved, but the majority of our hub is located at Brown right now, and we want Sunrise RI to be more representative of the state itself. So, one thing we are considering is having organizers at Brown form sub-hubs within a larger Sunrise RI in the future. Those are things we’re working on, but certainly our group has been involved in local fights—like fighting the LNG facility and the Burrillville plant [1, 2]—even since before we were Sunrise, as the Rhode Island Climate Coalition.

IW: When and why did the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition decide to become a hub for the Sunrise movement?

EB: Last spring, we had a convening of students from a lot of different colleges across Rhode Island who were interested in working on climate change. We had two people from the Sunrise national team come and give presentations and a keynote address at this event. It was when Sunrise was just starting to gain steam—they hadn’t done their Sunrise Semester yet, where they trained 70 fellows, so it was still very small. The speakers went through a little bit of what Sunrise’s theory of change was, and it was honestly just mind-blowing for me personally.[3] So moving into the spring and summer, we were doing some work for Sunrise’s No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, asking elected officials in Rhode Island and candidates to sign this pledge to not take money from the oil and gas and coal industries. And that got us more into the work Sunrise was doing, more exposure to their theory of change, and we began receiving coaching and support from Sunrise. At that same time, Lauren Maunus—who was also a major leader in the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition—did the summer fellowship program and really got to experience Sunrise’s trainings and strategy in-depth. Once we all came back to campus in the fall, it just seemed like a natural fit that gave us a lot more direction, focus, and resources. So we decided to switch over to be a Sunrise hub in February. It’s given us a lot of new energy.

IW: And how about yourself? What are you studying at Brown, and how does that overlap with your role at Sunrise?

EB: I grew up on a small farm in New Hampshire and came to environmental issues from an interest in conservation. As I became more involved in activism, however, I began to see the degree to which environmental issues intersect with all the social justice issues I care about. For me, fighting to stop climate change is fundamentally about fighting systems of oppression and working to build a world in which all people have clean air to breathe and water to drink, regardless of their race, class, gender, and other identities. I’m doing an environmental science degree with a focus in the environment and inequality, which is basically an environmental justice track. I stay in this fight because I see it as addressing all these systemic issues and being an urgent impetus for our country to act.

IW: Assuming most college-age student members are from Brown and RISD, that’s a very specific type of student. How does the demographic makeup of the local chapter drive interest in what you’re pushing against or pursuing? I’m curious what the action looks like when it’s running parallel to the national agenda, but carried out specifically in Providence, and particularly at Brown and RISD.

EB: That’s a super good question, and a good thing for us to continue to consider. Most active members of our hub go through an orientation training that gives an overview of Sunrise’s principles: this is the way we think about change, this is what we see as the problem, this is the narrative that we’re going to tell about what the problem is, this is what we see as the solution and how we’re going to get there . . . it’s a deep dive into Sunrise’s DNA. But certainly I think where people are coming from—that particular time in college and specifically these two colleges—probably does drive some of the decisions we make. The Fellowship program that we’re launching this summer aims to have more than half of the Fellows be non-Brown/RISD students, so hopefully this will help to push us in the direction of more inclusivity and accessibility.

IW: What excites me about the Green New Deal is its power to channel theory and rumination into on-the-ground action and policy change. Can you tell us more about the summer Fellows program like, and who’s encouraged to participate?

EB: The Fellowship program will support five to eight young Fellows in organizing full-time in Rhode Island around the Green New Deal. We’ll be working with key partners, building broad public support for the Green New Deal through events and canvassing, leading trainings, and helping organize Change the Debate—which is anticipated to be the largest demonstration at a Presidential primary debate in American history. Our goal is to eliminate the financial barriers that stop young people from doing the work our movement and our world needs. Sunrise intends to cover the full cost of living for Fellows, with the recognition that this cost is different for different people, depending on background, location, amount of student debt, et cetera. While the full-time Fellows have already been selected for the summer, anyone who is interested in volunteering for Sunrise RI should reach out to us at rhodeisland@sunrisemovement.org.

1. National Grid proposed a $180 million liquefied natural gas processing plant in Fields Point, Providence. Despite community opposition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved construction in October 2018.

2. Burrillville power plant, officially known as the Clear River Energy Center (CREC), is a proposed $1 billion natural-gas/diesel-fueled power plant that activists have been fighting to prevent for the past four years. According to ecoRI, the attorney leading the opposition to the proposed plant is “reasonably confident” that the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) will vote to deny the project.

3. On their Medium blog, Sunrise summarizes this Theory of Change as: “building people power (a large, vocal, active base of public support) and political power (a critical mass of enthusiastically supportive public officials), and uniting with other movements for change to win on climate.”

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  12. Centerfold: Urgency Lab
  13. Rise Up: The Sunrise Movement Takes Root in Rhode Island Irina V. Wang
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  16. Decoding Ghosts Molly Hastings
  17. An Annotated Bibliography Eli Backer
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