Varshini Prakash '15 Builds the Modern Climate Movement
After a roller-coaster year and a half of debate and dealmaking, Congress finally passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law by President Biden last August. The law includes $369 billion in spending to address the climate crisis—the largest climate investment in the nation’s history. And it might not have happened if it weren’t for the Sunrise Movement, co-founded by Varshini Prakash ’15.
As a student, Prakash helped organize the successful Divest UMass campaign, which pushed UMass Amherst to become the first major public university to remove its investments in the fossil fuel industry. Since then, she has become a national leader in the modern climate movement as Sunrise’s executive director, and she has been profiled by Forbes, Vice, Rolling Stone, and other outlets. Her own writing has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Sunrise has fought hard for the Green New Deal—the congressional resolution introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey in 2019—which lays out an ambitious proposal to curb the nation’s use of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse emissions, and create high-paying jobs in clean energy industries. While the IRA only gets partway toward those goals, it is a hard-won victory and an important first step.
Prakash turns 30 this year, her youthful energy balanced by her thoughtful wisdom. She visited campus in 2022, returning to the place where her activism took off to inspire the next generation of young leaders. Like the newest members of the Sunrise Movement currently on campus, she and the organization she helped build are looking ahead to determine how to follow up on the IRA’s “down payment” on our collective climate future to ensure it’s a livable one.
‘WANTING DESPERATELY TO DO SOMETHING’
Although Prakash’s activism caught fire at UMass, her roots as an environmental advocate stretch back further. “Ever since I was a kid I was really concerned about the degradation of our environment and the fact that so many people around the world didn’t have clean air, clean water, clean soil, just basic necessities,” she says, “and so many of those people were poor, were people of color, were people from the global South.” Throughout her childhood, she witnessed things on the news like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina. In India, the country where her parents were born and the place Prakash considers a second home, she saw footage of horrific monsoon seasons and remembers “wanting desperately to do something to prevent the loss and the suffering for people who look like me all around the world.”
In high school, Prakash became active in environmental efforts, but felt like she wasn’t having the impact she wanted. “I joined my recycling club. I screamed a lot to my friends and my family,” she says, laughing. “I was very frustrated and sad, and felt really powerless in a lot of ways.” But her desire to do more drove her to UMass, attracted by its variety of sustainability programs. “I made it my mission when I arrived on campus that my college years would be given to this journey of figuring out how to use my power and potential to make the world a healthier, safer, more sustainable place for as many people as possible.”
Prakash’s first venture on campus was with the UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative, founded the year before she arrived. This program provides hands-on education and leadership training along with community engagement, and it grows fresh, organic produce in gardens on campus to feed the UMass community. From there, her efforts expanded. “I took a class called Grassroots Community Organizing and realized the power of ordinary people to come together and build power in their communities to achieve extraordinary things.”
Around this time, climate justice movements were taking off around the globe, including fossil fuel divestment, which called on universities and other organizations to sever their endowments’ and pensions’ investments in oil and gas companies. Prakash attended a protest in early 2013 where 40,000 people were calling for a stop to the Keystone XL pipeline. She returned to the university with a renewed sense of purpose and joined the fledgling UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, which staged a series of demonstrations and in-depth negotiations—resulting in UMass Amherst becoming the first major public university to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016.
‘SURPASSES ANYTHING I HAD PREVIOUSLY IMAGINED’
The successful divestment campaign provided Prakash with a number of valuable lessons. “I learned a ton of skills for how to organize, how to have thousands of conversations with people all over campus about the climate crisis and our capacity to stop it.” Perhaps most importantly, she discovered how much agency she actually had. “I learned that my capacity to create change far surpasses anything I had previously imagined.”
That lesson was no small thing to someone who had often felt small herself. “Growing up in America, and feeling small—like physically, I’m five feet tall—but also feeling small figuratively in a lot of ways, growing up brown and a woman, you don’t often get told that you can change the world,” she says.
Prakash gives a lot of credit to the older students she met on campus. “I derived a ton of inspiration from young people who were using their UMass years to fight for a student union or for labor reforms and people who were fighting for gender justice and to end rape culture on campus,” she says. “There were teaching assistants in the political science department who helped me connect the dots between my on-the-ground organizing and academic theory.” Campus organizations like the Permaculture Initiative and the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) created institutional knowledge so the hard work students put into organizing and activism could be passed down to others. “Having institutions like CEPA, where people could gather, commiserate, brainstorm, be creative together, and really build a community of practice around our organizing work was a huge, huge reason why I think the work was sustainable in any kind of way,” she says.
Prakash graduated in 2015, before the divestment campaign’s demands were implemented, and she recognized that part of what she needed to do was train the students coming up behind her. “I knew my time was short,” she says. “A lot of my junior and senior years were spent building a bench of young people, predominantly women and women of color, who went on to lead the divestment campaign into its actual victory.”
Understanding the importance of training the next generation of leaders provided the seeds for the Sunrise Movement, and the skills Prakash learned at UMass helped them grow. In running the divestment campaign, she says, “I learned leadership skills. I learned planning and project-management skills. I learned how to have conversations with people who disagree with me. I learned how to deeply fight for what I believe in without giving up at the first sign of resistance, and so I learned a ton of resilience as well.”
“There were specific skills around recruitment, facilitation, public speaking that I learned at the Permaculture Club that I brought into divestment, that I took from divestment and brought into Sunrise,” says Prakash. “So you can see this really clear trajectory of how those leadership skills have really served me as I’ve gotten older.”
‘A MOVEMENT SPECIFICALLY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE’
In the months following Prakash’s graduation, she and about 11 others from across the youth climate movement came together to talk about how to carry the movement forward. “All of us were coming up against a similar challenge—that our work had felt meaningful and powerful, and yet it still didn’t feel like enough to truly tackle the climate crisis on the scale that it required,” she says. “We wanted a movement specifically for young people that could connect the dots between politics and climate.”
The group spent time in 2016 and 2017 studying, reflecting, and planning their next steps. “We came away in the middle of 2017 with a blueprint, essentially, for a new movement organization that contained a four- to five-year strategy, a story of what it was like to be young people growing up at the precipice of climate catastrophe, and a structure for how potentially thousands and thousands of new young people who felt just like us about the climate crisis could get politically engaged and involved,” says Prakash.
Thus, the Sunrise Movement began, and it wasn’t long before it garnered national attention. The New York Times has noted that “the present-day climate left was effectively born, in the United States, with the November 2018 Sunrise Movement sit-in.” That protest—in which members of the group joined then-congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call for congressional action on climate change at Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office—launched the group into the public consciousness.
Sunrise has grown exponentially since then, with more than 400 local hubs across the country today. One of those hubs is right here at UMass, and its members had the opportunity to connect with Prakash when she visited campus last year. Jack Minella ’24, Sunrise UMass co-president, says, “I think what I took away from that discussion with her was that we all are capable of making change and having a major impact.”
Co-president Liam Zielony ’23 notes that Prakash “was able to articulate feelings and ideas in a way that pushed my beliefs deeper,” and says, “Her advice was to keep pushing and growing within UMass, fighting for the things we want.”
‘A HUGE FIRST STEP’
“When we launched in 2017, our core mission was to make climate action that was rooted in racial and economic justice a priority in American politics for the first time,” says Prakash. The Sunrise Movement has motivated tens of thousands of young people to take action, from confronting politicians directly and holding demonstrations to participating in climate youth strikes. “We actually pushed every major Democratic politician to swear off oil and gas money, as well as release some of the most ambitious climate plans that we have ever seen.”
Prakash herself participated in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force committee on climate, formed after Biden’s Democratic primary win, to bring together supporters from across the party to shape his platform. After President Biden took office, Sunrise fought hard to push climate legislation forward through Biden’s proposed Build Back Better agenda. “When it became clear that negotiations were stalling out between Biden and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, we threw everything that we had at the wall to try to push the legislation forward. For about six months it looked like it was absolutely dead in the water. And then, all of a sudden, a deal came together.”
That deal was the IRA, which marked the largest investment in climate in U.S. history. “It’s not enough, and it certainly continues to leave some communities behind,” says Prakash, “but it is a huge first step, and we plan to continue to fight to win the rest of it.”
‘I’VE DREAMT OF BEING WHERE WE ARE’
Sunrise Movement leaders recently gathered once again to set a blueprint for the next five years. They came away with plans for two new major campaigns: The Green New Deal for Schools and the Green New Deal for Communities. These campaigns aim to bring the climate fight to the local level, empowering students to push their colleges and universities to “take action on climate and be more sustainable,” says Prakash, “as well as running local and state campaigns that help fight for the Green New Deal and fight to stop the climate crisis at all levels of government.”
The UMass Sunrise hub is already working on those types of campus environmental initiatives. “We have organized initiatives to reduce carbon waste like the push toward the UMass Carbon Zero plan,” says Zielony, referencing the university’s goal to power campus entirely with renewable energy by 2032. “We also organized the Earth Day Extravaganza with a large farmers market, dozens of climate related events, and a large concert.”
The campus group has also taken to heart the idea that true power lies in community. “We’re heavily focused right now on coalition building,” says Minella. The group aims to collaborate with other campus clubs and organizations, “some of them environmental, some of them not, to put on events, make things interesting and fun for our members, because that’s also a very big part of our mission.”
At the federal level, Prakash says, “we are going to continue to put pressure on Biden to stop burning fossil fuels, to stop allowing for new oil and gas drilling leases.” She adds, “There are a ton of things that the president and his cabinet can do over the remaining two years of his presidency and beyond, and we will be campaigning and actively pushing for him to do it.”
But challenges abound. Political gridlock and stratification, particularly at the national level, can be roadblocks to moving forward on big policy initiatives. “I think the single greatest challenge that we are facing,” says Prakash, “is the amount of oil and gas money that is in our political system.”
These struggles are real and substantial—but they’re not a reason to give up hope. Prakash and the Sunrise Movement have worked extremely hard, and it’s important not to lose sight of the gains they have achieved. “I’ve dreamt of being where we are five or six years ago, and I’m not surprised because this was the vision that we had,” she says. “At the same time, it’s still hard for me to believe everything that has transpired in the last few years.”
In April 2023, Prakash announced her plan to step down as the Sunrise Movement’s executive director in the fall, after a fruitful 7 years at the helm. She will continue with the organization as a member of the board of directors, supporting her ongoing mission to build a movement of youth climate activists. “I always planned to stay in Sunrise until I could pass the torch to a future generation of youth leaders to lead the next phase of our work,” she said in her statement. “I feel confident in saying that that time has come.”
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