From Sunrise to SNEG: Youth Campaigns Lead Climate Justice

By EMILY THOMPSON

The weekend before finals, Elise Leise ’22, Leif Taranta ’20.5, Connor Wertz ’22, and I traveled to Washington D.C., and two of us got arrested. While on the surface, this may look like a series of self-destructive decisions, in actuality, traveling to D.C. was one of the best decisions we ever made.

The four of us went to Washington with the explicit purpose of lobbying Congress with about 1,000 other volunteers from the Sunrise Movement. Sunrise dedicates itself to the mission of drafting and passing the Green New Deal through Congress. Modeled off of FDR’s New Deal, the GND will make American industries more sustainable, transition our energy supply to 100 percent renewables, and create millions of green jobs.

Most importantly, the GND confronts the “justice” component of “climate justice.” By breaking up fossil fuel monopolies in addition to providing a livable wage for all workers and universal health care, the GND aims to tackle the social justice problems that facilitate the exploitation of the environment. Without this component of social justice that so many previous climate policies lacked, the GND would not confront the root of the problem: human exploitation perpetuating environmental exploitation.

Upon discovering the story of Sunrise in the news, including its successful sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office in November, Elise, Leif, Connor, and I knew we wanted to get involved. When the opportunity to go to D.C. presented itself to us, we soon found ourselves driving to Washington during one of the busiest weekends of fall term.

On Dec. 10, we congregated with other Sunrise volunteers in the appropriately-named Spirit of Justice Park outside of the three congressional office buildings we would be visiting. Elise, Leif, and Connor lobbied Vermont Congressman Welch with other volunteers and persuaded him to publicly endorse the Select Committee for a GND.

I collaborated with citizens of greater Reading and Philadelphia to lobby a representative from my home state, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA-08) has yet to publicly endorse the Select Committee for a GND, but as the legislation makes its way to the House floor, I have hope that this will soon change.

After we lobbied 50 separate congresspeople, we combined to perform demonstrations in the offices of three high-profile representatives: Nancy Pelosi, Jim McGovern, and Steny Hoyer. Pelosi was a particularly important target, as the ability to create a Select Committee rests on the Speaker’s shoulders. Since December, Pelosi has established a powerless committee unable to create or pass legislation, but we have hope that this too will change.

On the other hand, McGovern listened to the Sunrise volunteers and publicly endorsed the committee. Now, over 43 congresspeople and congresspeople-elect have publicly supported the Select Committee for a GND, and over 300 public officials have endorsed the Committee.

Many volunteers, however, wanted to do more. Risking arrest is a method of social justice demonstration that symbolically reveals how committed individuals are to specific causes. Elise and Leif were arrested, though never convicted, of incommoding (civil disobedience). Singing and chanting with other Sunrise volunteers, both Leise and Taranta sat down in Hoyer’s office and refused to leave. After receiving polite warnings from officers, they were zip-tied and paraded out of the building. 

While their arrest was probably terrifying for them, watching so many people take this risk inspired hope not just in me but across the country. That is what Sunrise is — a movement born out of hope for a more perfect world, not a movement born out of fear and darkness. In this movement, the Democratic Party is finally standing for something instead of against it. It is standing for people fighting with words and songs and true human connections instead of the violence and hatred that brought us here. The taste of those values was so addicting and inspiring that the four of us knew Dec. 10 was not the end.

Since then, we founded Sunrise Middlebury, a hub of the Sunrise Movement that can help mobilize individuals for regional, state and national actions. Now, in collaboration with Sunday Night Environmental Group (SNEG) and Middlebury townspeople, we are actively working to pass the Climate Solutions Resolution. This proposal would implement climate solutions in Middlebury like adding solar panels to schools and banning fossil fuel infrastructure in the town, but it would also petition the state government to stop construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure. If registered Middlebury voters pass this proposal on March 5, we could stop the metaphorical bleeding of climate change in this state and could work towards additional future initiatives.

Such future initiatives could include the Vermont Green New Deal, a state-level version of the national proposals of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey. Statewide legislation like the Vermont GND is imperative in our current political situation where federal environmental policies often do more harm than good.

The Middlebury Climate Solutions Resolution and the Vermont GND will work hand-in-hand to make Vermont a national leader in sustainability. Sunrise Middlebury is working to make these initiatives possible, and Middlebury students can be a part of that.

We often feel helpless in the threat of climate change, as if every mile we drive in our petrol-powered vehicles and every piece of plastic we use will be the literal plastic straw that broke the camel’s back, that will send the world over the edge. But being surrounded by so many hopeful environmentalists advocating for policy change that would shift the burden of sustainability from people like us to the people in power — that is uplifting, that is beautiful, and that is what a free, just, democratic America looks like. If you want to be a part of that America, come to SNEG on Sunday nights at 8:30 in the Orchard of Hillcrest and get out the vote in Middlebury on March 5.

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From Sunrise to SNEG: Youth Campaigns Lead Climate Justice