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Inside "The Very Secret History" Of The Sunrise Movement

Internal memos show that activists of color within the Sunrise Movement have privately alleged mistreatment for years — as the climate group publicly fought for racial justice.

Posted on August 12, 2021, at 10:20 a.m. ET

As the youth-led Sunrise Movement helped catapult racial justice to the center of the national conversation on climate change, many of its members of color repeatedly charged over the last three years that they felt “tokenized,” “used,” “ignored,” and “dismissed.”

That's according to a series of internal memos and letters, signed by at least 100 young climate activists and obtained by BuzzFeed News. The activists said they were overworked and underpaid; warned that the group was unable to attract or retain members of color, especially Black ones; bemoaned the lack of diversity among Sunrise leaders; and demanded resources to build up support in communities of color.

“Staff and movement leaders have poured hundreds of hours into trying to convince top leadership to truly live out our slogan to ‘build a multi-racial cross-class movement,’” a group of four longtime Sunrise members wrote in a March 23 letter detailing concerns from members of color. “Top leadership's results are wholly inadequate.”

Since its founding in 2017, Sunrise set out to be different from the rest of the environmental movement, which is predominantly white. A political organization led by a new, diverse generation convinced of climate change’s existential threat, especially to communities of color with lower incomes, the group has unflinchingly called out allies standing in the way of addressing the crisis. But when the escalating calls for change came from within, Sunrise repeatedly failed to live up to its ideals, according to interviews with 18 current and former members.

Sunrise shared dozens of documents with BuzzFeed News in response to questions about the complaints, acknowledging the longstanding problems and detailing their attempts to address them. “From our very founding, Sunrise has deeply believed that we are all imperfect, and that it's incumbent on every organization to respond to feedback thoughtfully in an effort to grow,” the organization said in a statement. But they pushed back against the idea that the group was losing Black members: “While it’s true that individual leaders, both staff and volunteers, chose to leave Sunrise over the past year, the data we have show that the level of Black participation in our movement has remained steady for at least the past 18 months.”

Matthew Rodier / Sipa USA via AP

A collection of activists gather at Union Station in Washington, DC, to protest then-president Donald Trump's response to the election, climate change, police brutality, and conservative media on Nov. 4, 2020.

Sunrise’s struggle to be inclusive comes as institutions across the country — from giant corporations to other progressive movements — have undergone a turbulent reckoning fueled by protests against systemic racism. The group is now rethinking its strategy and goals for a moment where getting significant movement on climate change is actually possible, and the stakes are getting ever higher. And members of color are helping lead Sunrise’s efforts, a shift that the group’s leaders say is a response to the internal tensions that have been building over years.

But some current and former Sunrise activists are skeptical of the group’s latest plan of action because of their previous missteps. And after some of the internal complaint letters spilled out into public this summer, as one frustrated Black staffer exposed the movement’s internal tensions on Twitter after being fired, some worry the turmoil will irreparably fracture the group and could hurt progressive causes at the polls.

“If movements don't get it together, and this is including but not limited to Sunrise, 2022 is going to be a bloodbath and 2024 is going to be even worse," said a Black former Sunrise staffer who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

“The Very Secret History”

Once a novice group of teens and young adults, the Sunrise Movement has morphed into a network of savvy organizers with outsize influence over the Democratic Party’s climate strategy. It’s perhaps best known for its viral stunt in November 2018, when more than 100 young climate activists took over the Washington, DC, office of House Democratic leader and then-speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi.

The action was a breakthrough moment, said Victoria Fernandez, a Sunrise cofounder who participated in the protest. “Our wildest dreams came true: Thousands of people started walking into the movement.”

Sopa Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Sunrise Movement activists protest inside Rep. Nancy Pelosi's office at the US Capitol in Washington.

Within months, Sunrise ballooned from having about 15 hubs across the country to at least 150, with 20 paid staff members and around 13,000 volunteers. Their combined organizational budget also exploded from about $850,000 in 2018 to more than $4 million a year later. And they helped propel the Green New Deal — a strategy for tackling climate change and systemic injustices hand in hand — into a progressive rallying cry. In February 2019, Democrats in both chambers introduced a nonbinding resolution spelling out the central tenets of a Green New Deal, laying out a 10-year plan for investing in renewable energy and other infrastructure that would create millions of new jobs in the US. By summer, practically every Democrat running for president had voiced their support.

That May, Tonia Brito-Bersi participated in Sunrise’s first training exclusively for people of color, ahead of joining what would be the most diverse class of Sunrise fellows to date. “It was the first time I had ever been in an all-POC space,” said Brito-Bersi, who is nonbinary.

Brito-Bersi was so struck by the training that they decided to write their college thesis about how the organization was bringing people of color into the climate movement. “But then I slowly started realizing when I was working with them, after I moved to Philly, that they weren’t,” Brito-Bersi said.

As a fellow, they trained people on how to be climate activists with the goal of having them join the movement. But they felt like most of the trainees the group attracted were young, white, college-educated people, and that the organization was not doing enough to bring in people of color and working-class activists to the movement.

An Indigenous activist named Big Wind, who is nonbinary, was preparing to leave Sunrise around this same time. Big Wind said they repeatedly complained to movement leaders about being the “token Native” on speaking tours and at other events for about a year, adding that they didn’t want to speak for the experiences of all Native people. Big Wind quit in June 2019, after Sunrise sent them to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee as the only Native representative giving multiple presentations about their work fighting new fossil fuel projects.

“I personally do not feel comfortable working with an organization when tokenization is a thing,” Big Wind told BuzzFeed News.

Cliff Owen / AP

Sunrise Movement cofounder Varshini Prakash speaks at the final event of the Road to the Green New Deal Tour at Howard University in Washington, May 13, 2019.

Brito-Bersi came to a similar conclusion. They started meeting regularly with other fellows and volunteers that identified as BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous, and people of color, to vent and share experiences. “We started out as a support system...and just being like, ‘Do you guys feel tokenized? I kind of feel tokenized,’” Brito-Bersi said.

Eventually Brito-Bersi’s support group grew to upwards of 30 members, launching what became the Sunrise BIPOC Caucus.

On Aug. 31, 2019, Brito-Bersi and other caucus members sent a letter of demands to Sunrise leadership outlining ways the organization should be more inclusive, from urging them to “invest in BIPOC members who are asked to speak or be the face of an event” by inviting them to leadership trainings to having “representation from the BIPOC Caucus in the hiring process” to rewriting Sunrise’s guiding principles to emphasize it is “an anti-racist, anti-classist and anti-oppressive organization.” The letter alleged that Black leaders dismissed concerns about the group’s use of the Black power fist gesture and civil rights movement songs during events and protests. The caucus members also cataloged negative experiences, including one person who said that members of color from one hub were encouraged to participate in a protest at another hub “to make Sunrise appear more diverse.”

“We started out just being like, ‘Do you guys feel tokenized? I kind of feel tokenized.’”

The caucus also alleged Sunrise wasn’t doing enough to support fellows with fair pay and housing. (At the time fellows were paid on average $400 a month and did not get healthcare.) They asked Sunrise to be more timely with reimbursements for food and other supplies, establish a “fair” stipend, and give members more support, including when they exited fellowships. The letter described one instance where a fellow nearly had to live in a homeless shelter when they left the group.

Sunrise leaders met with the BIPOC Caucus members to talk through the demands and how to address them, Brito-Bersi said. They committed to making dozens of changes to the group’s trainings, programs, and hiring decisions based on the caucus’s feedback, including the creation of a team focused on implementing the demands called the Justice Equity and Anti-Oppression Change Team and adding anti-oppression trainings for existing staff and incoming members.

On the feelings of tokenization raised by people of color within the group, executive director Varshini Prakash acknowledged that “this tension will persist so long as Sunrise and other organizations work to retain, train, and develop more leaders on the margins of society to be powerful organizers.” But she said the group was focusing on “increased development and investment in anyone who is being asked to take on visible leadership, greater training and shared definitions of what tokenization is and how it might show up in [their] press and communications.”

“By 2021, the vast majority of the BIPOC demands have been met,” Sunrise said in a statement.

But, to some activists in the BIPOC Caucus, the response didn’t actually address the underlying problems they’d raised. Brito-Bersi said they felt Sunrise leaders were trying “to project manage” their ways through the demands rather than address underlying issues.

Michael Nigro / Getty Images

Sunshine Movement activists converged on Sen. Mitch McConnell's Washington office to demand that he and other senators get behind the Green New Deal Resolution in 2019.

Sunrise’s focus shifted by the end of 2019 to exerting its growing policy influence over the Democratic presidential primary, and the movement’s leaders tried to quell internal tensions and project a united front. The organization had more robust compensation and benefits for their next round of fellows, who campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, encouraging young people to vote and back a Green New Deal. This new round of fellows was paid $2,000 a month and got healthcare support. But despite these and other changes, the entire class of 18 fellows ended up voicing a similar panoply of criticisms in a Jan. 3, 2020, letter.

Couched between complaints of being overworked and underpaid, the fellows outlined a number of ways Sunrise could improve “equity and diversity” within the organization and its recruitment, including “stronger messaging around climate justice,” offering support to non-climate movements like Black Lives Matter, and further incorporating inclusive bias and anti-oppression teachings into movement trainings. “A lot of us are in Sunrise largely because it seems to do a better job at prioritizing equity and anti-racism than many other similar climate-oriented organizations,” they wrote. “[S]ome of us are wondering to what extent that is actually true, or at least are not seeing this being as dominant a part of the conversation as we want.”

Sunrise told BuzzFeed News that, in response to the letter, “Sunrise paid separation pay to all field fellows when they completed their program, and committed to discontinuing the fellowship program due to this feedback and feedback from the previous cohort of fellows.”

Similar concerns flared up as the organization shifted priorities once the pandemic overwhelmed traditional organizing and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who the movement had endorsed for president, ended his campaign. In a letter sent on April 22, 2020, yet another group of Sunrisers — this time organizers of color running Sunrise’s on-the-ground operations at hubs across the country — complained about being shortchanged.

“We are constantly burning out and reliving trauma for this movement (many of us without access to proper mental health services) and we should receive fair compensation for such emotionally intensive work,” wrote Amari Jackson of the Southern Illinois hub, on the group’s behalf. “If there is money for flying people across the country, for the salaries of white leadership, and money for retreats, then there is money for our communities and the grassroot leaders who do this work.”

Sunrise told BuzzFeed News the letter triggered another sweep of changes from leadership, including providing more money to hubs.

In early September, after a summer dominated by Black Lives Matter protests and a renewed national focus on racism, six of Sunrise's founders acknowledged the structural problems that had been building over years in a letter shared with all of the staff and some volunteers. The leaders acknowledged BIPOC Sunrisers “have experienced tokenization and felt that their voices as leaders aren’t heard at the national or hub level,” and announced that “a few” of them would step down from their leadership positions over the next year.

“Responsibility for these shortcomings falls largely on us as founders, our blind spots, and the lack of diversity on our original team,” they wrote.

Soon after, a group of around 40 Black Sunrise hub leaders and staff, calling themselves the Black Sunrise Caucus, delivered a scathing letter that included demands to leadership detailing how they could better support Black staffers and volunteers.

“If there is money for flying people across the country ... then there is money for our communities and the grassroot leaders who do this work”

“We outsource the fight for racial justice to other organizations. We exploit Black images, symbolism, songs, culture, and ideas,” the group wrote. “We have dedicated, Black full-time organizers for the Sunrise Movement, and these folks are often unpaid, unrecognized, and lack any movement decision power. Let this serve as notice that we will no longer allow the Sunrise Movement to exploit our voices, body, and labor.”

In their list of demands, the Black Sunrise Caucus called on the movement’s directors to step down, and for Sunrise to create partnerships between hubs and unaffiliated local organizations and rethink political strategies for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

A collection of top Sunrise leaders addressed the latest demands head-on in a series of meetings with Black Sunrise Caucus representatives. Then they told caucus leaders in an update sent on Oct. 9 that their ideas were “visionary” and the questions were “on point.” The leaders outlined ongoing initiatives that could address the group’s demands and acknowledged the loss of members of color, including from the caucus itself. “We see that as a failure of our organizing,” they wrote.

This March, Sunrise held a series of individual meetings with Black leaders and distributed a survey to Black staffers to gather feedback to build a “more trusting relationship” with the organization.

But Black Sunrise members weren't satisfied with the monthslong process.

Going Public

On March 23, four members of Sunrise, including two people from the Black Sunrise Caucus and one from the original BIPOC Caucus, dropped a bombshell letter titled the “Do What Must Be Done” manifesto in the organization’s main Slack channel, visible to more than 100 members, including all of the staff and some volunteers.

The manifesto’s goal was to make the whole organization — not just those in leadership — aware of what they saw as a major threat to Sunrise’s power. ​​“We are making this public in the interest of breaking out of Sunrise national's culture of hiding conflict and siloing solutions,” they wrote.

The letter outlined an alleged “crisis” facing the organization: “We are losing more active members than we gain, especially Black members.” This wasn’t an attack but a “realistic reckoning with our dwindling power,” the four members wrote, and an invitation for leadership to pass the torch.

Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Climate activists demonstrate outside of the White House, calling on President Joe Biden to pass a climate-friendly infrastructure plan, on June 4.

Alex O’Keefe, a climate activist who was one of the first Black members to work for Sunrise full-time, helped write the manifesto after growing tired of seeing the same problems repeatedly crop up and feeling guilty for perpetuating them. As a lead member of Sunrise’s communication team, O’Keefe took responsibility for helping craft a “false narrative” about it being an inclusive, multiracial organization. That, O’Keefe told BuzzFeed News, in turn brought people of color into the movement who then felt betrayed when it wasn’t what they expected.

“We need a real open history to have truth and reconciliation,” O’Keefe said, describing the pattern of Sunrise members up until that point only privately raising concerns as the group’s “very secret history.”

Because of that, the manifesto — which was shared widely across all the organization’s staff and hubs — raised alarms across the movement.

“There was an uproar,” recalled Halla Jones, a Black organizer not involved in crafting the document. After the document was released, Sunrise’s activities effectively ground to a halt for weeks.

“It became this scab that fell off and everyone started feeling this hurt,” Jones said.

Jones volunteered to serve in an internal conflict mediator role, helping the members of color and leadership find a way forward. “I saw so much truth in both sides, and I saw kind of in that moment where there was a potential to help the people I really care about,” she said.

Even high-level leaders at Sunrise emotionally shared their reaction to the manifesto on the organization’s Slack. “One thing that feels clear to me reading these documents, and that might feel clear to you too: none of this is new,” Aru Shiney-Ajay, who coordinates the so-called front-loading team rethinking Sunrise’s strategy, wrote on April 24. “People have been saying different things along these lines since early 2019, in trainings and summits, in hubs and in staff, I remember as I traveled the country hearing more and more people begin to talk about how our mostly-white, mostly-class-privileged base was struggling to organize people into the vision of the Green New Deal.”

The manifesto ultimately sparked sweeping changes in the movement. Following its publication, two women of color were elected to be the new leaders of Sunrise’s organizing team, its largest division. It also triggered the creation of yet another team focused on responding to the Black Caucus demands.

“It’s an accountability body,” said Jones, who is part of the team, which will work across every department in Sunrise. But even she acknowledges the limitations. Implementation, she said, “has been really tricky.”

Michael Nigro / Sipa USA via AP

Thousands of students walk out of class on March 15, 2019, to protest the lack of action to protect the earth from catastrophic climate change.

To make true change, she and others told BuzzFeed News, requires changing Sunrise’s core strategy and goals both to be more supportive of people of color already in the organization and to be more deliberate in attracting people of color to join.

But just as Sunrise was beginning to move forward, O’Keefe decided to make public all of the tension that had been building for years.

In a series of viral tweets on June 8, O’Keefe alleged being fired for sharing the manifesto internally, and then published it online along with the Black Caucus’s September letter. (O’Keefe has since deleted that Twitter account.)

Sunrise leaders flatly denied that was why O’Keefe had been let go. And other Black staffers said O’Keefe’s decision to post their internal documents online only made their jobs harder.

“The truth is this: the issues raised by authors of the ‘Do What Must Be Done’ letter forced the Sunrise Movement into a series of hard reflections, and Sunrise will ultimately be better for the resulting changes,” a group of Black Sunrise movement staffers responded to O’Keefe’s Twitter thread. “Since the release of the letter, the emotional burden and the work of building and rebuilding fell most heavily on black staff — namely Black women.”

“We’re trying and we’re not there yet — and we feel like we’re being discredited for not being there yet.”

For Jones, the tweets felt like an attack on the work she and other people of color in the group were putting in to try to help fix an organization whose mission they all ultimately believed in. “We’re trying and we’re not there yet — and we feel like we’re being discredited for not being there yet,” she said.

For others, the episode has raised questions over whether to continue organizing with Sunrise at all. Daisy Carter, a Black Sunrise organizer who helped lead the hub in Bowling Green, Kentucky, said her group has been at a standstill over the last several months. Its members are trying to decide whether they should shift their efforts to a mutual aid network Carter created. Since O’Keefe’s thread and Sunrise leaders’ public responses, Carter said the hub stopped organizing altogether.

“We really just all got on a call together, and we were like, ‘What do we do?’” she said about the Bowling Green hub. They decided to wait and see if and how Sunrise leaders make the meaningful changes needed to transform the movement.

“None of us want to let go of Sunrise,” Carter said. “But we need Sunrise to be held accountable.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.