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Youth based movement connects climate, social justice

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By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – Under a sea of umbrellas, at least 1,000 people showed up in Bozeman on September 20, 2019 to march for awareness and action against climate change. Eight months later, Bozemanites returned to the streets to protest the alleged murder of George Floyd and racial inequality. According to the local nonprofit Sunrise Movement Gallatin County, these two separate demonstrations are inherently tied to one another.

Sunrise, a national movement with chapters or ‘hubs’ across the country, launched in 2017 with the mission of fighting climate change and creating good jobs for Americans in the process. The movement operates by a “theory of change” that includes combining people power and political power to upend what they believe to be oppressive and unsustainable systems to work toward a “just future.”

In the spring of 2019, Bozeman-native Sara Blessing was feeling anxious about the in-depth perspective on climate change she had acquired as an earth science student at Montana State University, and she was eager to translate her pent-up energy and frustration into action. She founded the Bozeman Sunrise Movement hub, holding the first meeting with three friends, her mother and a few interested individuals. The local chapter now has 15-20 regular members, with meeting and orientation attendance sometimes reaching 50 people.

At Sunrise Gallatin County’s first training in 2019, participants discussed anti-oppression, the organization’s mission and history and how to best advance Sunrise’s agenda.

The national movement is largely focused on advancing the Green New Deal, a resolution drafted by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in cooperation with Sunrise Movement members and other young activists in 2018. The Green New Deal, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called “a radical, top-down, socialist makeover of the entire US economy,” seeks to combine economic and environmental reform through promoting “livable wages,” social and economic equality, corporate accountability and most notably a transition from fossil fuel industries to green energy and commerce.

“It’s a really inspiring piece of writing as a resolution,” Blessing said. “I think it leaves the door open and makes it clear that we need to be tackling other social injustices at the same time and kind of look at the twin crisis of our time, which are climate change and socioeconomic inequality.”

As the nation flares up in anti-racism protests and riots, the connection between climate and social justice is being illuminated. In the New York Times’ climate newsletter, Somini Sengupta points to the overlap and where it’s popping up across the county. “Racism, in short, makes it impossible to live sustainably,” she writes. This assertion is one of the primary doctrines of the Sunrise Movement.

The just transition component of both the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement dictates that in order to move toward a sustainable future, no one can be left behind; The ideal vision for this future would create an equal place in society for everyone. “It’s not only ethically and morally the right thing to do, but it’s strategic, as well,” Blessing said. “We can get a huge force of people if we give everyone something that will benefit from.”

Sunrise uses a number of localized tactics and projects to achieve these fundamental goals. In addition to the climate rally, Sunrise Movement Gallatin County hosted a Green New Deal town hall in 2019 as well as orientation workshops in Bozeman and Missoula, where attendees had the opportunity to learn about the Green New Deal and the mission and ideals of Sunrise, all grounded in historical and political context.

In the midst of an eventful election cycle, Sunrise Movement Gallatin County has also conversed with candidates running for local and state offices to create a roster of Sunrise-endorsed candidates. Candidates that have either approached Sunrise about an endorsement or who were receptive to Sunrise’s request complete surveys and interviews, which Sunrise uses to gauge the candidate’s alignment with the values and goals of the movement.

Sunrise has only endorsed two candidates leading into the primary election: Tom Winter, a Democratic candidate running for Montana’s vacant seat in Congress and Tom Woods, a candidate for District 3’s public service commission. According to Blessing, Winter publicly endorsed the Green New Deal following conversations with the local Sunrise hub, a considerable win for the group.

Sunrise is a bipartisan movement, but all endorsements by the Gallatin County hub have been for Democratic candidates. Blessing said the group would be open and willing to endorse a Republican candidate if they expressed interest in a Sunrise endorsement and if they qualified by the same metrics that their currently endorsed candidates did.

The movement is youth-based, with members most often ranging from 12 years old to 35 years old, according to Blessing. Bozeman’s hub is mostly comprised of university students, but the neighboring Missoula hub’s youngest member is 11 years old.

While many national headlines pair the Green New Deal with the word ‘radical’, Blessing believes Bozeman has received the local Sunrise chapter well and with general appreciation for young people’s engagement with politics and issue-based work. However, she understands that there is dissonance, even among more moderate members of the Democratic party, the party where the Green New Deal originated.

A collection of signs from the Bozeman climate strike in September 2019. The Sunrise Movement mission aligns with the goals of the Green New Deal, a progressive resolution introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The climate crisis is too scary to look at because it does mean a complete societal shift from what we have been doing for decades and decades,” Blessing said. Goals outlined in the Green New Deal, such as achieving 100 percent renewable energy, contradict the success of a country that industrialized and emerged as a global leader by way of fossil fuels.

The Green New Deal and the mission of Sunrise calls into question for many what an ideal America looks like. Fox News opinion writer Justin Haskins published a piece in 2019 with the headline “Green New Deal would destroy American Dream, create American Nightmare.” At the Black lives rally on May 31, an indigenous woman shared her experience living as a marginalized and oppressed person in the United States: “This isn’t the American Dream because so many of us have only lived in its nightmare.”

Blessing thinks that for a youth currently confused and frustrated by an uncertain and daunting future, the Green New Deal and efforts made by groups like Sunrise offer promise and hope to an otherwise bleak picture.

“We have so much to gain from where we are now through transitioning off of fossil fuels and creating a just society that we’ve never had before,” Blessing said, filling an empty glass halfway. “Wouldn’t you love to feel more community, and have a community garden, and to be able to walk to the grocery store or have a community solar field. Things like that that kind of connect us and unify us in more way.”

Blessing said in line with the tenants of unity and community that Sunrise works to uphold, the biggest thing people can do right now, whether energized, motivated or frustrated, is to disrupt the narrative that “nothing you do matters unless you do it by yourself,” and join a collective effort. With a number of sustainability campaigns and rhetoric focusing on individual action, Sunrise examines the role of larger entities and hopes to change a top-down system with an approach that starts at the bottom.

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