Virtual Interdependence and Movement Building: Reclaiming Earth Day with Sunrise Movement Bay Area
Sara Kuo and Kalpana Narlikar are members of Sunrise Movement Bay Area involved in organizing online trainings and actions around the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day taking place on April 22-24th, 2020. Sara Kuo (age 25) is temporarily sheltering-in-place in Oakland, though typically works in Richmond and lives in El Cerrito. Kalpana Narlikar (age 14) is sheltering-in-place in San Francisco where she lives with her family. They were interviewed by Maya Carlson, the Bioneers Youth Leadership and Education Manager.
Maya, Bioneers: How did you get involved in Sunrise Movement?
Sara, Sunrise Movement Bay Area: I heard about Sunrise through my friend Abby. We did a fellowship together, and went to art builds with Sunrise. It wasn’t until Sunrise held a Leaders of Color Training that I found that Sunrise cares about frontline communities and folks of color. That was really demonstrated by the community they had built. I fell in love with Sunrise ever since.
Maya: What is your role within Sunrise Bay Area?
Sara: I run trainings, doing outwardly-focused presentations either in high schools or in our general orientation teaching Sunrise theory. I’m actually doing my fourth week of Sunrise School, which is an online community-building experience. It’s completely free for youth who are feeling uncertain about what’s happening right now. We have a crash course on what’s happening with the Green New Deal in the time of Covid-19, Movement Building 101, and Deep Organizing in the Face of Uncertainty. There are many tracks and it’s super interactive. I’ve built really fulfilling relationships there with folks all across the country.
Before Covid-19 happened, I was doing a lot of solidarity relationship building with other organizations as well.
Kalpana, Sunrise Movement Bay Area: I found out about Sunrise when my dad sent me an article about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez going to their sit-in outside of Pelosi’s office, and then I hovered on the national mailing list for a while. When I visited family in India, I was looking at all the inequality there and I got really sad. I had been angry for a long time, but that was the first time I got really sad and I wanted to do something. So when the December Climate Strike came up, I emailed Sunrise Bay Area and asked how I could help. They sent me the membership form and I signed up!
Maya: How have you been involved since joining?
Kalpana: I’ve gotten people from my school to come to actions, and recently I’ve been involved in the Earth Day planning team.
Maya: What are some of the actions Sunrise Bay Area organized around Earth Day this year?
Sara: We had a bunch of lead-up events to Earth Day. One was the last in a series with #CAYouthvsBigOil, which is the youth leg of the Last Chance Alliance. This was supposed to be a physical tour. We were going to put folks in buses, starting from Los Angeles and the Empire region, driving up into the Central Coast and Central Valley, then the Bay Area and Richmond, ending up in Sacramento. But we came together and still made it work [online]. We’ve had a really good turn out virtually, still having those regions hold workshops and panels, talking about environmental justice and how this crisis has affected folks regionally. The workshop was on the Green New Deal and a Just Transition in the time of Covid. It focused on Richmond, CA with organizers from labor movements, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Communities for a Better Environment. This was a lead-up event into Earth Day actions.
Kalpana: We also had an art build over Zoom. One of the art team leads was Bob Ross who taught everyone how to paint banners with materials they have at home. Then folks dropped them from their windows and posted pictures on social media. This is something Megan and I brainstormed a few weeks ago.
We have three events on Earth Day, one on each of the days of the [Future Coalition] national livestream, starting on Earth Day, April 22nd, 2020. The first event of ours is a panel on a Green New Deal for Public Health, which looks at how a Green New Deal would be beneficial for public health. This is important because clearly we’re in a pandemic. The second one, which Sara can speak more to, is about the Green New Deal and a Just Transition.
Sara: The Green New Deal and a Just Transition event on April 23rd will be a rerun of the conversation hosted by CAYouthvsBigOil about Richmond, CA. The culminating ask of CAYouthvsBigOil is a letter to Gavin Newsom asking him to Stop Drop and Roll.
Stop new fossil fuel projects at this time. California needs to lead the way by ending new permits for oil and gas extraction, as well as fossil fuel and petrochemical projects.
Drop existing fossil fuel production and set a national and global precedent by becoming the first oil-producing state to announce a phase-out of existing production in line with the Paris Climate Goals, and with a just and equitable transition that protects workers, communities, and economies.
Roll out a set-back limit by creating a 2500-foot health and safety buffer zone between fossil fuel infrastructure and homes, schools and other sensitive areas.
In addition to Stop Drop and Roll, this petition is asking Governor Newson what his plan is for a Just Transition. During this call, we’re going to have a couple of interactive breakout rooms to ask folks what a Green New Deal looks like in their communities, as well as what a just transition needs to look like, especially in frontline communities. Then we’re going to have them write that in a letter to Governor Newsome
Kaplana: There is one last day, which will be our action on Friday, April 24th, Calling For Change. We will be calling and emailing representatives like Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, and Gavin Newsom, as well as local state representatives asking them to support a People’s Bailout because we need to bail out people, not corporations, particularly people who are being hurt the most at the moment. We’ll be doing this in shifts all day from 9am – 5pm.
Sara: We also have a Mutual Aid Fund based on solidarity not charity, that 100% of proceeds will go to three local organizations in the Bay Area – Disability Justice Culture Club, Community Ready Corps, and UndocuFund.
Maya: These actions are so relevant all of the time, and particularly so during a pandemic when we’re collectively in a massive public health crisis and we’re seeing corporations getting billion-dollar bailouts. Are there particular overlaps that you are seeing between Covid-19, climate change, and the Green New Deal?
Sara: The failure to deal with this crisis is pretty incredible and there are a lot of parallels to how we have to mobilize for Covid-19. We have to protect the same communities. For Richmond, being a frontline community, it’s been really scary seeing the statistics of what makes someone vulnerable and who’s actually dying from Covid-19. Places and populations who are exposed to environmental contaminants from the fossil fuel industry and superfund sites are more vulnerable to the effects of Covid. We’re seeing more co-morbidities and existing conditions in these communities. In the South, mortality data of populations by race show that black folks are over-represented compared to the actual percentage of the population in those states. Covid has been uncovering a lot of overlays of injustice.
It’s also scary that the EPA has stopped enforcing environmental laws and fossil fuel industries are carrying on unabated. That’s why we have to actually invest in people and not corporations!
I do feel hopeful though. Covid-19 is forcing us to go into a recession in which millions of people will lose their jobs, and we’ve seen that the only real way to get out of a recession is through economic stimulus. The Green New Deal is what we need to get out of the depression we’re heading into. It has never been clearer for us to fight for what we’ve been fighting for. As devastating as these effects have been, my hope is that we rebuild better. What we were before was not working for so many people. We need to rebuild in a way that prioritizes frontline communities and actually creates a livable future.
Maya: Has this pandemic changed the way that Sunrise is approaching its tactics or audiences?
Kalpana: At least for Earth Day the audience that we’re targeting has been broadened because a webinar has a wider potential audience than an action where people are marching with us. We are not changing our values or our goals, we’re just trying to communicate them to more people.
Sara: We were planning a strategy retreat right before lockdown and this was a really big question of ours – how [Covid-19] changes our goals. It does shift a lot. Sunrise’s north star is mass non-cooperation and it’s been sad to see a lot of our big actions dampened by this. One of the lead organizers in CAYouthvsBioOil said that in another timeline, he would be getting arrested in Sacramento on Earth Day!
But having things online does make actions more accessible to everyone. There are plenty of folks who just can’t show up physically and there is a place for them in our movement as well.
I would agree with Kalpana that shelter-in-place doesn’t change our baseline goals, but it does change how we’re going to get things done. We do so much community building, modeling of an interdependent organism, and caring for one another. Some of those things just can’t be conveyed over the internet like cooking for people, making art with people, and singing with each other.
We’ve rethought a lot of our tactics. We can still go to actions like the drive-through actions, not just [Sunrise] but other folks showing up at Santa Rita jail and jails in San Francisco. There are absolutely still things you can do! We can’t go door knocking, but we can still phone bank. We just have to think more creatively.
Maya: Why, on a personal level, do you both feel that being a part of a mass movement for climate justice is important to you and your community?
Kalpana: As a young person thinking into my future and not being certain about whether there will be one that will be livable, is something that’s weighed on me. I’ve been thinking about this since I can remember. Something amazing about Sunrise, not just any mass movement but Sunrise, is the human connection. I’ve really found a family of people who can understand my fear, because they have the same fear. They understand my pain because they have the same pain. To be able to connect with people who feel the same way, want to do something about it – and are actually very good at doing something about it – has been an amazing and beautiful experience. I think there is an immense relief that comes out of acting when you’re really afraid or angry or sad because then you feel like you’re actually doing something. Even if we don’t get out of this, I can feel like I did my best and I know people who did their best. That’s something that’s really important to me.
Sara: That spoke so beautifully to how I feel. Before Sunrise, I didn’t really think that there was a lot of hope. I was already organizing in frontline communities, doing infrastructure equity and working with unincorporated “disadvantaged communities” there. I grew up in an unincorporated “disadvantaged community” in Southern California where we experienced fires and my brother had severe asthma. It always felt like we were doing stuff, but for what? We were an organized community, but to what end? I would still be doing it, showing up, doing community meetings, going door to door, and getting people involved in civic engagement. But I didn’t really know until I heard Sunrise Movement’s theory of change that we’ve done this before. It’s super possible! That was wild to me! I still remember the first day I was sitting in that training like “Oh my god! We could actually do this, and that’s wild!” That hope is what keeps us going and what is the underlying fabric of this community.
Maya: Thank you both for those answers, I could feel the heart-felt care in both of them! It was great to talk to you both and I look forward to seeing you online for Earth Day!