It’s long been a favorite pastime of American adults to fret over the character and fortitude of the next generation, those teens and early twentysomethings who will one day assume the mantle of our nation’s leadership. Until recently, the chief gripe against our current cohort of young people was that they were self-absorbed: too dazzled by their selfies and Instagram feeds to look beyond themselves at the world’s problems.
But the events of the last month have changed the way we look at young people. In the aftermath of the Parkland school shootings, we’ve witnessed the youth-led #NeverAgain movement blossom—a movement that may well end up leading to the kinds of cultural and policy shifts many gun control advocates have been trying to achieve for decades. From the standpoint of public visibility, there probably hasn’t been a better time to be an outspoken young activist since the late 1960s.
Today’s kids have capital, and they’re spending it with increasing sophistication on a range of causes across the progressive sphere. The Sunrise Movement, for example, is a small but rapidly growing grassroots organization made up almost entirely of these energized teens and twentysomethings. If we’re lucky, it will continue to expand until it has met its stated goal of “building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.”
Since forming the group two years ago, Sunrise members have been busy blending social media–friendly climate activism with the far less visible work involved in getting climate-conscious leaders into public office. One day might find them loudly protesting an event sponsored by oil and gas lobbyists inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., or filling a time capsule with messages of hope and concern about the climate in New York City’s Washington Square Park as camera crews from MTV and other media outlets look on. The next day might find them organizing in any one of the five states (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Florida) that they’ve currently designated as their battlegrounds, toward their ultimate goal of replacing incumbents beholden to the fossil fuel industry with leaders who have promised to make climate action a priority.
Yet another important aspect of their work involves outreach to other young people, going into high schools and leading discussions on climate change that emphasize, in the words of volunteer Ben Bristol, how “climate is a justice issue, something that affects people, places, and communities.”
I meet Bristol, 23, in a Brooklyn coffee shop on his day off. By his estimation, he tells me, he’s connected with more than a thousand students in the Northeast over the past four weeks, making the case for climate action as a form of socially responsible rebellion against a corrupt elite—a message that definitely resonates with his teenage audiences. “Kids are already suspicious of the establishment,” he says. “They have strong opinions and rebellious streaks.”
By framing the fight for the planet as a battle between underdogs and moneyed special interests, Bristol and his fellow Sunrise “speakers,” as they’re known, are able to tap into reservoirs of youthful passion and energy, turning students into student activists. “When you’re a high schooler, environmentalism too often just means recycling programs and classroom lessons on sustainability,” he says. But teenagers are growing more aware of their collective power, and they desperately want to be a part of the solution. “The chance to think about that problem—and themselves—in political terms is new for them. Even for students who study politics or history or government, activism isn’t really a dimension of their curriculum.”
A typical event at a high school might begin with an overview of current science on climate change, move into a discussion of how students are seeing and experiencing climate change within their community, then segue into a lesson on how fossil fuel companies exert their influence over lawmakers through campaign contributions. “We talk about how a few people with an incredible amount of wealth are able to block action, how they profit at the expense of our health and safety,” says Bristol. “And then we get to the part about Sunrise, what we’re doing. And that’s when we get to say to these kids: ‘This is why we have to take over.’”
In acknowledgement of how social justice initiatives are continuing to intersect in the Trump era, the Sunrise Movement pitches itself to students as an entry point into activism more generally. Those about to graduate from high school are encouraged to sign up for the organization’s Sunrise Semester, which gives budding activists the opportunity to work in battleground states while “getting the skills and resources they’ll need to become an organizer and a force for change in whatever community they may end up serving down the road,” Bristol says.
“We’re empowering young people to be leaders,” he says. To which the only response can be: Thank God. If we’re going to make it through the Anthropocene alive, we’re going to need all the help we can get.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.