I Trust the Sunrise Movement
In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen gave the first public warning about climate change during a congressional testimony. It is also the year I was born.
For most of my life, I was raised around pollution amid the smoke from the waste trucks back to back throughout the neighborhood, the dirty aqueducts and parks; I was surrounded by poverty and inequality.
It always confused me whenever I would venture into manhattan with my mom either on an errand or for sight-seeing, it always confused me seeing more cleaner areas there than there were in the communities that I grew up in. If the city could make the effort to make downtown look clean, why not put that same effort into the uptown? Nowadays, most of Times Square is covered in garbage bags, but those earlier memories of growing up in a Metropolitan area was one of my first experiences with racism. The city didn’t care about polluting my neighborhood as long as the neighborhoods of rich white people looked nicer. I was told from a very young age that only dirty junkie people lived on my side of the Bronx. This type of social injustice can be explained through the phenomena of environmental racism. The fact that people would see the Bronx as a dirty area, and therefore don’t think twice about the sewage treatment plants being built in the surrounding neighborhoods (which are predominantly occupied by black and brown occupants), goes to show you how insidious white supremacy really is. Our relationship with the land has literally been polluted --- capitalism makes us see land as property, which allows us to manipulate the land for our own benefits, rather than learning from the land. This separation of nature and humanity creates a climate that takes advantage of marginalized communities in order for the advancement of those at the top; the factories aren’t being built there for the Bronx, they’re just using our neighborhoods.
Minorities always end up bearing the burden of pollution inequality. It’s no surprise that you’ll often find factories in low income black and brown neighborhoods. White supremacy allows for the conveniences of white people to trump the problems of black and brown people . Unfortunately, this is nothing new to the Bronx.
In 1956, the Major Deegan Expressway was created by Robert Moses in the name of innovation - for the convenience of white people to drive from the city into the suburbs. The harm that came from that was a giant expressway in the middle of black and brown neighborhoods. Houses torn down, property value lowered; then, buildings burned by the landlords for insurance money, often with people still inside.
This is why, when we talk about environmental justice, that we cannot forget social justice. Where was the social justice for that young girl in me who was raised in poverty and systemic injustices due to the color of my skin, now must use an asthma inhaler due to breathing problems? Where was the social justice for my friend, Katherine Sosa, who died at the age of 15 due to her asthma? A life lost too soon --- all due to corporate greed. Where is the social justice for the millions of Bronx kids who now must use a breathing apparatus to go to sleep?
This is why the theory of intersectionality is so crucial to social justice movements. The theory of intersectionality says that social identities such as race, gender and class can overlap. It is important for us to be aware of all the ways an issue like this climate crisis can affect people.
When I first became involved in the environmental movement, I was in a community college in Northern California. I was part of a sustainability collective that was a branch of our student government. I was one of the only people of color in there, and as someone who moved from multicultural NYC to gringolandia Butte County, I noticed it: being the only person of color in the room.
I felt that issues such as race, gender and class weren’t discussed as heavily as it needed to be, especially within the sustainability movement that often has a rep of being occupied with mostly white and upper middle-class people. It wasn’t surprising to hear racist and classist comments come up during discussions about sustainable living and food consumption. It was one of the reasons why I left the movement back then; I grew up poor, and I know that not everyone has the time nor the energy to meal prep or create healthy meals for their families. As a person of color, I understand that it’s not laziness or ignorance from my community that keeps them unhealthy. These white people were more concerned about blaming individuals for how poor people keep contributing to the “destruction” of the earth without looking in the mirror themselves.
Accountability to the destruction of this earth means examining the historical roles of how white people have historically terrorized and marginalized the Indigenous peoples in the countries they’re currently occupying. These very same lands that were stolen in the name of conquest and innovation: The New World which exploited items like gold, spices, and eventually, human labor.
Where was this discussion within that movement and how that has impacted the climate crisis we are living today?
In 2019, I joined the Sunrise Movement.
I was emboldened by the youth across the world who have banded together to demand from their politicians that they listen to them about the very real truth that is currently happening: we are under a climate emergency, there is no plan b, and that we have 10 years left before we are able to do anything about this climate emergency. One of the things that got my attention was the non violent direct action tactics that the Sunrises would employ. Most of them were willing to be arrested in order to get the attention of their politicians. The most famous example of this would be the Sunrise chapter that decided to do a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office. It was the one that then newly elected congressional appointee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found and immediately grabbed the torch. Ocasio-Cortez recognized the fire in the youth that were risking arrest by sitting-in on Pelosi’s office. She heard their pleas for policies that put issues like climate change to the forefront and center. They meant business -- and I was here for it.
However, what keeps me within the Sunrise Movement is not just the momentum from the Green New Deal and presidential candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders, but the accountability that lies within the heart of the movement: social justice. Intersectionality is one of the key theories that is thrown around in the Sunrise movement. We are constantly speaking about what this climate emergency looks like, in many multitudes, for everyone. Our particular hub is in a college town that is in a red (republican) county. One of the topics we constantly speak about is how the current environment of our world is reflective to that of climate change: fascism is on the rise across the world due to the manipulations of dictators around the world who use climate disasters as fuel for their fire of hate against minority groups. This concern also showcases why intersectionality in the environmental movement is so important, because it is marginalized communities that will feel the effects of this climate emergency first. If we as a movement aren’t able to recognize the varying ways in which people are oppressed then we will not be equipped to take care of those people who will be impacted first. Corporations in our country like PG&E, who have been found at fault for the devastating wildfire that affected our area, shutting off power for thousands of people in order to prevent more wildfires, without thinking about how power shut-offs can affect individuals who are disabled, who need oxygen tanks to survive, etc.
Intersectionality is important in this movement, and I didn’t experience that kind of solidarity within the environmental movement until Sunrise came along. Within Sunrise I saw more people that looked like me, talking about the impacts of white supremacy and colonialism on the climate; about queer justice and trans* rights, and about personhood. We aren’t asking people to just stop using straws, or to become vegetarian/vegan; we just want to hear your story.
At Sunrise, our hubs thrive through storytelling. It is our stories, our personal experiences and coming together to hear about those experiences and what we can do to help each other as a community to overcome this climate emergency that makes us mighty. I trust the Sunrise Movement to take us into 2020 towards a better future for all of us, a future that isn’t ruled by fossil fuel companies building factories in low income neighborhoods because it’s cheaper, only to result in poor health and quality of the people who live in the surrounding area (predominantly, communities of color). It’s a future where those who make the most give the most back so that we as a society can invest in the areas that need the most help: better infrastructure, better schools, sustainable green jobs, and a fair transition as we move towards that radical future.
I trust the Sunrise Movement to take us into the future that we deserve to win.
What’s your story?
// Melys Jerez, Chico Hub Member
January 4th, 2020
Photo by Ricardo Levins Morales.