Young South Bay activists mobilize to fight for climate justice
Activists carry messages demanding change at a Sept. 25 protest outside Mayor Sam Liccardo’s residence. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Marching down a narrow neighborhood street with signs reading “Green New Deal Now” and “We Can’t Breathe,” about 20 youth climate activists sought to surprise San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo with an early morning protest outside his home.

“No justice, no sleep,” one of the protesters chanted through a megaphone while cars squeezed between the crowd and a sea of political lawn signs, weeks before Election Day.

In the final push by Sunrise Movement’s Silicon Valley chapter to capture the attention of influential politicians and prop up the youth vote leading up to the 2020 elections, members revived the group’s signature political tool: direct actions.

Youth climate activists with Sunrise Silicon Valley march toward Mayor Sam Liccardo’s residence on Sept. 25 for the group’s first in-person action since the COVID-19 lockdowns. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Sunrise Movement registered as a political action organization in Washington shortly after the 2016 elections and has grown a network of more than 400 local “hubs.”

The local hub formed when several groups merged with a common mission of climate justice. It has a core group of about 50.

“Direct actions definitely tend to bring more people,” said Jamie Minden, 17, political coordinator with Sunrise Silicon Valley. “Electoral work and direct actions are the two biggest ways where we can make a visible, immediate difference.”

The group’s “Wide Awake” protest outside Liccardo’s house on Sept. 25 was its first in-person rally since the COVID-19 lockdowns hampered a series of demonstrations that had been planned for the summer.

Though the coronavirus forced Sunrise Silicon Valley to scale down on demonstrations that once drew hundreds of people, Minden said the implications of this year’s election were too pressing to remain silent.

Members of the chapter contacted about 36,000 voters in the South Bay via phone calls, text messages and postcards, most of them young people.

“Talking to people one-on-one is important,” Minden said. “A lot of people are disillusioned with politics and really stop participating when they feel like their voices aren’t being heard and when they feel like their votes don’t count.”

Most of the climate activists with the group were barely beginning high school while the 2016 U.S. presidential election was underway.

“I thought you had to be old enough to vote to get involved in politics,” said Ragini Srinivasan, 18, co-founder of the original San Jose Sunrise chapter. “Voting is just one extremely small part of the entire political process and honestly, doing actual grassroots work and this political organizing is so much more meaningful.”

Co-lead of Sunrise Silicon Valley’s political team Shreya Jaldu, 17, said the school system left her without a clear understanding of how to be involved in politics past just casting a ballot.

“Sunrise helped me get into politics because I didn’t really care much about it and I didn’t see how much it impacted our lives until I joined,” Jaldu said. “It wasn’t here four years ago so I think that was a big thing for me.”

Sunrise Movement hubs across the country most notably staged a series of protests beginning in 2018 to draw support for a proposed Green New Deal, a package of legislation introduced by allied Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA).

Ocasio-Cortez went on to lead a sit-in protest organized by Sunrise Movement outside of now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Washington Office, demanding Pelosi embrace and build on the Green New Deal in the House of Representatives.

Many aspects of the Green New Deal have yet to be passed through Congress.

One policy involves banning a method of extracting oil known as fracking, a divisive political issue pitting environmentalists against business groups.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris embraced certain policies within the Green New Deal, including fracking, but have since walked away from committing to end fracking.

“I was surprised they backed away from (disavowing) fracking because that’s actually something that a lot of voters in the midwest deal with the impacts of,” Minden said.

Now regularly engaging new youth who pop up on the Sunrise Silicon Valley’s Slack channel and educating them on the organization’s mission, Jaldu said she came a long way from not having a clue in 2016.

“I was really young and didn’t really understand too much of what was going on. I can openly say that,” she said. “But I’ve also felt the discomfort of not really knowing what’s going on.”

Hub coordinator Vinitha Marupeddi, 18, said as the presidential election results rolled in, Sunrise Silicon Valley recognized it needed to expand outside its “bubble” and reach youth who might not identify as progressive.

“It’s not all about green-washing things or trying to pick up litter, we’re not that kind of group,” she said. “We’re really in this for human rights, to protect each other and to protect the planet that allows us to survive.”

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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