Photo credit: Evan McEldowney
“Draw to your mind the feelings you had when you first learned about the climate crisis.”
A tear snaked its way from under my sunglasses and down my cheek. Sitting cross-legged with my hands on my knees, I wiped my chin on my shoulder. I was part of a circle of 30 other young climate activists in a two-hour workshop titled, “Working with Climate Grief and Anxiety.”
I didn’t suddenly “find out” about climate change. Like many, my discovery was gradual, climate change moving from a faraway concept to something that became more tangible with the increasingly unpredictable seasons.
So when our facilitator asked us to reflect on the first time I heard about climate change, I was immediately brought back to the first time I felt climate change. It was my 21st birthday, and my Environmental Studies professor showed us Naomi Klein’s documentary, “This Changes Everything.” I remember watching with horror as the climate reality I avoided came to sit in front of me: desertification, wildfires, unprecedented storms, water shortages, climate refugees, war. As I sat, transfixed and horrified, I could also hear my professor, a mother to an infant, sitting behind me and crying. After class I rode my bike home, crawled into my bed, and sobbed. I began organizing with the Sunrise Movement a year and a half later.
Sunrise is a youth-led climate justice movement with two big goals: get fossil fuel money out of politics and create a national green jobs guarantee through the Green New Deal. I joined the Santa Cruz Hub in February of this year, after I saw a viral video of Sunrise activists confront California Senator Dianne Feinstein on her criticism of the Green New Deal. My dreams of working at an equity-focused environmental nonprofit came true when I was offered a position at Ecotrust, and when I moved to Portland, I quickly found a home in the Sunrise PDX hub. Many of us work 40 hours a week or are full-time students or caretakers, but still we gather every weekend and countless weekday nights, strategizing, planning, and making art.
Before I joined Sunrise, I spent months in a cloud of climate-centered despair, finding loss and uncertainty everywhere. I felt abandoned by people who have known about this for decades and didn’t try to stop it. I was pained by the unfairness of the impending catastrophe, which will devastate vulnerable populations that are most innocent to its cause. The people I organize with are all connected in feeling overwhelming panic, powerlessness, and mourning over the impending climate catastrophe. Whether from fire, floods, or deadly heat waves, we have all lost, or have something to lose, from the climate disaster. Sunrise provides us a space to grieve that loss. But more importantly, it has also been a place to build hope.
Earlier this month, I traveled with ten other members of the PDX Sunrise Hub to the Sunrise Movement’s Western Regional Summit. The first days were spent with more than 200 youth activists inside Democratic National Committee meetings. We made a banner and, on the second day, deployed it from the seventh floor of a parking structure across from the meeting site, to the cheers of our Movement and flashes of news cameras. Looking down at our beautiful banner, barely holding up in the San Francisco wind, and hearing the voices of hundreds of young people far below, I yelled with joy. I had never felt so powerful.
There is a quote from Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark, that has been circulating around Sunrise. It goes: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency… To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
Sunrise is my axe. It is the tool I have wielded to work towards a beautiful future; it has enabled me to envision that future: of clean air and water and guaranteed green jobs for all. We are so far from that right now, and yet I continue to shape my life around climate by working at a non-profit that aligns with this vision and spending my free time organizing. Creating change is a lot of work, but it is essential. When I was inactive I couldn’t see a way out of this emergency; today, I have hope.