After his home and school in San Diego nearly burnt down in the Poinsettia Fire in May 2014, Medill first-year Nick Francis became passionate about climate activism. As the fire raged through California, destroying 24 structures and 600 acres of land, Francis’ family had to evacuate their home for four days.
“I’ve lived first-hand a lot of the effects of climate change,” Francis says. “That really inspired me to recognize that it’s a problem.”
About a year ago, Francis began searching for environmental movements to support and found videos and articles about the Sunrise Movement. Founded in 2017, Sunrise is a national, youth-led, grassroots movement that works to mitigate climate change through government action, according to the Sunrise website. Many local Sunrise chapters also align themselves with other movements, including defunding the police, Medicare for All and the sovereignty of Indigenous nations.
Francis joined Sunrise Northwestern, a local “hub” of the national movement. Six Northwestern students — Riva Akolawala, Eden Berke, Georgia Caras, Idan Katz, Natalie Mogul and Emmet Smith — brought Sunrise to Northwestern this quarter. Students involved in the hub join protests and other actions organized by the national organization. They also work to build an on-campus community of students passionate about climate justice.
“With something as big as climate change, it’s hard to see how you can envision yourself giving back and helping with the cause,” says Caras, a SESP fourth-year and the club’s current president. “Sunrise exists to provide that kind of place for young people to feel like they’re making a difference.”
One of the national organization's main focuses is generating support for the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy. Over 200 Sunrise protesters from across the country advocated for the Green New Deal by staging a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) office in November 2018. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) joined the demonstration and later introduced the Green New Deal to Congress in February 2019 with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). In a January 2021 press release, Sunrise activists said Democratic control of the presidency, the Senate and the House offers the best hope for making the Green New Deal a reality.
Sunrise Northwestern became an official club this quarter, but its origins on campus go back to last winter. Last January, a group of 12 Northwestern students (including Caras, Berke, Akolawala and Mogul) started to organize a Sunrise “strike circle,” a small group that plans a demonstration in an area. In preparation for the national movement’s Earth Day protests, students hoped the strike circle would express their frustration with the lack of government action to address climate change.
While COVID-19 forced Caras and her co-organizers to cancel the strike, they still wanted to bring Sunrise to campus. After working with the national organization, Caras established a Northwestern hub. While Sunrise Northwestern supports other climate activism groups on campus like Fossil Free Northwestern, Sunrise organizers say their top priority is different.
“This is the first group that is specifically attached to the Sunrise movement and focused on championing the Green New Deal,” Caras says.
Because the pandemic has limited in-person protests, Sunrise organizers have focused on education. The national movement shared educational resources with Sunrise Northwestern about the Green New Deal and environmental racism.
Locally, Sunrise Northwestern used social media to spread awareness of a hunger strike in mid-February against the opening of a metal recycling plant on the Southeast Side of Chicago in South Deering, a majority Black and Latinx neighborhood. The metal shredder in the plant produces hazardous dust particles that can cause lung and heart problems, according to an article by The Guardian.
Change is radical, but change is so possible, especially when you immerse yourself in it.
- RIVA AKOLAWALA, Communication third-year
“Climate justice and racial justice are obviously interlinked in our eyes,” says Berke, a SESP fourth-year. “There are certain people and communities who are more impacted by the climate crisis.”
Even with a six-person executive board, Berke says the club tries to avoid a “hierarchy.” Members create a collaborative environment within the club by letting every student voice their ideas. Francis says he felt welcomed and valued as a first-year, which wasn’t always the case in other clubs.
“It’s a slice of home,” Francis says. “Everyone is so inviting and we’re all so aligned in this passion. Anybody can have any amount of influence in the club that they want.”
There are around 200 names on Sunrise Northwestern’s email list, though about 25 students attend the biweekly meetings. Leaders of the new club are hoping for growth through word of mouth and encouraging younger members to bring their friends to meetings.
“Our main mission is to make sure that students walk away from our club feeling like they have actually made a tangible change that day in the fight for climate justice,” Caras says. “We want to be a huge part of the fight to get this country on the right track, to actually have a livable planet in a hundred years.”