In September 2019, an estimated 1,000 people gathered in downtown Providence and at the Rhode Island State House as part of a global climate strike. The protest was locally organized in part by the Brown/Rhode Island School of Design and Providence hubs of Sunrise — a youth-focused activist group that calls for immediate climate action, The Herald previously reported.
While organizers lamented the relative lack of University students in attendance, two Brown students spoke at the rally and a number of students came down College Hill to join the protests.
“During the strike, it was so exciting,” said Olivia McClain ’22.5, who served as liaison at the time between the Brown/RISD and Providence hubs of Sunrise and as the group’s photographer on the day of the protest. “So many people came out. Any time Brown students can be rallied to get off College Hill and actually participate, that’s a huge win.”
The strike was one event in a string of high-visibility climate change-focused protests from 2018 to 2020 organized in part by the Brown/RISD chapter of Sunrise, former organizers told The Herald.
At their peak, general body meetings filled up the Urban Environmental Lab and attracted anywhere from 20 to 50 students, according to Ilan Upfal ’22.5 and Zanagee Artis ’22, who were members of the Brown/RISD hub.
Sunrise is now a major national political player. The Green New Deal, a proposed restructuring of the American economy to favor clean energy and reduce economic and racial inequality which Sunrise helped popularize, has gone from a fringe idea to a mainstay on the platforms of progressive candidates, from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to Texas congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros. Sunrise’s founder Varshini Prakash sat on a task force that shaped President Biden’s 2020 platform, and Sunrise played a significant role in swinging the 2020 Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts towards Sen. Ed Markey.
But on College Hill, Sunrise has flamed out. According to Artis, Upfal and McClain, the group was last operational in late 2020. And no group that mirrors the aims of Sunrise — advocating explicitly for climate policy — has replaced it on campus, the former members said.
“Sunrise was attracting so many people”
In fall 2018 — Upfal, Artis, McClain and Peder Schaefer ’22.5’s first semester on campus — Sunrise opened its campus hub at the University, evolving out of the University’s chapter of the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition, according to Artis.
Artis, who had done climate organizing before college as co-founder of an organization called Zero Hour, joined Sunrise’s Brown/RISD hub immediately. Within months, he was writing letters and attending rallies at the State House. He even traveled to Pennsylvania to canvas for Jess King, a Sunrise-backed Democrat who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. The hub also sent protestors to Washington, D.C. as part of the national group’s effort to “demand (Speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi step up with a real plan to address climate change,” Upfal said.
“It was a really exciting opportunity to arrive on campus and immediately get plugged into organizing,” Upfal added.
The experience of filling the halls of congressional offices and protesting in the street during a December 2018 climate protest proved “transformative,” McClain said. The whole group had a “rag-tag” element to it, she said: Although Sunrise grew nationally, the day-to-day actions of the University group in large part came down to the students, McClain said.
All the while, the Brown/RISD hub continued to expand. In spring 2019, a University student Sunrise organizer helped local high school students organize their own climate rally, and in the fall, over 100 Sunrise protestors, including University students, protested at the offices of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and former Gov. Gina Raimondo in an attempt to get the pair to officially sign on to the Green New Deal. And following September 2019’s climate strike, new members with new enthusiasm flooded into the group’s meetings, The Herald previously reported.
“Sunrise was attracting so many people,” Artis said. “And not just people who were already involved in organizing.”
“It felt like a huge difference,” McClain noted. “I was in a class studying environmental issues, and then to be out here with my body with my voice — … it’s going to have more direct impact than me writing some one-off essay about why the climate crisis is an issue.”
“We were all doing it with a very personal sense of fear and empowerment to take action,” Upfal added, noting that frustration with the Trump administration also played a role. For the first time in his life, Upfal was “really participating in the political process.”
In January 2020, about ten student protesters affiliated with Sunrise, including McClain, interrupted a fundraising dinner for then-Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello. McClain served as the lead speaker, she said, leading a chant and asking Mattiello about his record of downplaying climate change in an effort to “sway potential donors and supporters” while picking up press coverage.
“It feels really cool to actually directly engage the people who are making policy moves or funding moves that are directly impacting our generation,” McClain said.
In the meantime, McClain said the group was aiming to move into “non-hierarchical organization” during the spring semester in an effort to “democratize responsibility.”
For Earth Day in April 2020, Sunrise Brown/RISD and Providence, among other environmental groups, planned a mass climate strike.
“We had a ton of lead time, we were still coordinating in March and really solidifying plans,” Artis said. “And that was right when we all left campus.”
When COVID-19 hit and students were sent home, “it all sort of fell apart,” he added. The groups organized a remote event, but Artis said that it felt like a disappointment.
“We all felt like this was an opportunity missed to call attention to climate justice around the world,” he said.
“Things died out”
In the first weeks and months of the pandemic, McClain said that the Brown/RISD hub met over Zoom.
But motivation, she said, was hard to come by. Connection proved difficult, and the group had no sense of when they would be able to organize in-person again, she added.
Finally, “like a lot of clubs at Brown, things died out,” she said.
Today, Sunrise’s Brown/RISD hub is inactive, and no equivalent organization exists, she said.
Schaefer, who spent summer 2020 organizing with Sunrise Providence for progressive candidates in Rhode Island, helped organize within the Brown/RISD hub for part of the fall semester, he said. In October 2020, the group’s Instagram page advertised a phone banking event for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden on the Main Green. Other students got heavily involved with phone banking and volunteering for progressive candidates through Sunrise, McClain said.
On College Hill, the hub “heaved its last breath” that fall, McClain said. Key leaders graduated, while other students — especially students of color — moved away from a group that was “primarily led by white people” and engaged in “dangerous” protests that involved interacting with law enforcement, she added.
While the group managed to preserve some elements of community through the first months of the pandemic, it “never really turned into more sustained COVID-era organizing,” Upfal added.
“Within organizing, it’s important to have good leadership … that trains the next generation of leaders,” he said. “I think it’s how clubs are sustained: Leaders bring up new leaders. I think that kind of hereditary process kind of got broken.”
Emma Bouton ’20 and Matthew Mellea ’23, two former organizers with Sunrise Providence who had leadership roles with the group from 2018 to 2020, declined to comment. Sunrise Providence did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some leaders of the Brown/RISD hub, Schaefer said, transitioned into Rhode Island-based progressive movements or moved to Washington D.C. to work for Sunrise’s national organization.
Members of the defunct group who remained on campus had conversations about what reviving the group might look like. But few of them had the “capacity to try and perform CPR on a club,” McClain said.
“It’s tough when there doesn’t feel like there’s as strong of a campus community to be doing on-campus organizing,” Schaefer said.
The group, Artis added, didn’t know “how to recollect” itself.
“There was so much momentum before from people who had been leading that kind of work for a long time,” he said. “We have less experience … and less connection to the Sunrise Movement nationally.”
“The way our generation feels has not changed”
A handful of environmentally-focused student groups still exist at the University — such as the Outdoor Leadership and Environmental Education Program, a group aimed at helping high schoolers fight for environmental justice, and The Forager, a new environmental zine — but the University still lacks a group that advocates for specific climate policies, former Sunrise organizers said.
Some former University Sunrise organizers, such as Upfal, have moved toward other groups such as Resource Generation, which is focused on wealth redistribution and class privilege, or Decolonization at Brown. And others, Artis said, have stopped organizing entirely to focus on their final semesters at the University.
Artis noted that he attempted to transition the Sunrise hub on campus into a chapter of Zero Hour. But he ran into issues along the way due to Zero Hour’s status as a separate organization nationally from Sunrise, he said. Still, he hopes to help lead an event for Earth Day next month with local organizers across the city and state.
Upfal added that his experiences with Sunrise have proven humbling. “Things can be much harder than we thought they are,” he said.
Some students, including first-years and sophomores who arrived on campus after Sunrise’s campus hub stopped functioning, have funneled their energy either into the city’s chapter, Sunrise Providence, or into organizing for progressive candidates in Rhode Island, Schaefer said. One example of such organizing came last fall, when a number of University students backed the Geena Pham campaign for state Senate District 3, which supported launching a Green New Deal, Schaefer said.
“There’s a lot of energy going into the (Rhode Island Political) Cooperative,” he said. “There’s a lot of folks who got training from that summer via Sunrise Providence who are now involved in the Co-op in different capacities.”
Schaefer noted that he planned to spend the summer organizing for progressive candidates in Rhode Island, and Artis said that he is currently working with the progressive campaign of former Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown and state Senator Cynthia Mendes for governor and lieutenant governor.
“I hope Sunrise Brown/RISD comes back to life,” McClain said. “But I don’t foresee it happening this semester. It’s going to take some new energy.”
“The way our generation feels has not changed,” Upfal added. “We live with the reality that our country, our political system, our economy is very broken right now. I don’t think the feelings have gone anywhere. Organizing is the process.”