Amalia Hochman sat in a coffee shop as a high school junior watching a livestream of her friend getting arrested at a protest.
A month an a half later, she decided to join them. 'Them' being the Sunrise Movement, a movement of young people working to stop the climate crisis and create millions of job opportunities in the process.
Amalia describes the power of that moment, saying, "All these young people in their Sunrise shirts, and they're singing, and they're chanting, and they’re demanding a Green New Deal, and it was just like bam … I need to join. And so I did.”
Now at 19 years old, Amalia works on Sunrise’s middle school and high school support team, along with the team’s organizing manager, 19–year–old Audrey Lin, here in Philadelphia.
As a larger movement, Sunrise is advocating for a Green New Deal at all levels of government. “Sunrise operates by having a lot of hubs all over the country, and any group of three people can … start a hub and, like, do something in the name of Sunrise,” Audrey says, explaining Sunrise's operations.
Sunrise plans 'actions,' like the one that originally inspired Amalia. The term 'action' at Sunrise refers to nonviolent, direct action in the form of structured protest. Sunrise protesters follow a sort of dress code when they protest so the group looks uniform: Sunrise shirts and specific signs, for example. Their protests also include many songs known within the movement and a designated set of speakers. The protests are often held as sit–ins, although they are sometimes held outside of powerful buildings as well.
Sunrise always live–streams their actions or posts in some way on social media to garner support. Just a few months ago, Sunrise held an action in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg demanding financial relief in response to the COVID–19 pandemic. Audrey says, "That image is just so powerful. And whenever we create an action, we're always trying to do something that is [going to] resonate morally with the public.”
Amalia has a history of activism. Before finding Sunrise, Amalia was involved in March For Our Lives her sophomore year of high school. She was especially motivated to do so after two students from her hometown of Somerville, Mass., died from gun violence right before the Parkland shooting and after her own house was shot at during the summer of 2017.
In the school year that followed, Amalia and six high school friends started weekly walkouts at their school where they would lobby at the Massachusetts State House for a "red flag" gun control bill. They garnered participation from more than half of Somerville High School and attracted lots of media attention. She then helped plan a March for Our Lives protest in Boston in 2018, and the bill subsequently was passed into law around two weeks later. She notes that she was probably at the Massachusetts State House three or four times a week for a few months. "I don't think I slept for two weeks," Amalia says.
Then, both Audrey and Amalia both organized the Boston Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. Amalia also organized another Boston Climate Strike later that year on Dec. 6.
Not only do Amalia and Audrey have long histories with activism, they're also familiar with making serious personal commitments to the causes they are passionate about. After the climate strike in September, Amalia dropped out of school the fall of her senior year, finished her classes online in a month, and headed to Washington, D.C. to work for Sunrise full–time. She was ready and eager to commit fully to this work.
Amalia was arrested for the first time at the December climate strike.
In our discussion about arrests, Audrey compares her experience at the State Capitol with Sunrise a year ago to this year's storming of the U.S. Capitol, saying, “I went into that building really peacefully with a 150 middle and high schoolers, and within minutes of us just standing there peacefully and singing, we started getting arrested. And...that same type of force was not displayed on the blatant white supremacists [who] were breaking windows and truly threatening violence against congresspeople.”
Audrey, Amalia, and their entire support team is focused on supporting middle and high school students. Audrey describes their team as “the wing of Sunrise that is designing support programs specifically for middle and high schoolers," saying, "This is something we have been developing for the past year or so. So, prior to us working full–time with Sunrise since January of 2020, Sunrise didn’t really have a ton of infrastructure that was specifically for middle and high schoolers.”
For Audrey, there's a personal tie to her work: “I know that, as someone who joined Sunrise my junior year of high school, that it's really hard to feel like this was a space that I belonged [in] and that I could take leadership in, and of course, I persisted through this, and now I'm super involved in Sunrise," she says.
Sunrise is still growing despite the many consequences of COVID–19. Sunrise School, or a series of short trainings explaining Sunrise and the Green New Deal, immediately transitioned online with the onset of the pandemic. Many actions have been happening with social distancing and mask–wearing, in accordance with COVID–19 guidelines. Amalia also highlighted the large–scale, successful phone banking efforts Sunrise made during the election.
Audrey says, "With the now extreme rate of unemployment and our economy’s collapse, the case for a Green New Deal has never been higher, right? We now need ... massive government investments in a green jobs program. We need people to have access to health care. We need good, paying union jobs.” But she and Sunrise also recognize the intersectionality of the issues. “We're in this fight to stop the climate crisis, but we're also in this fight to create a culture where we really care about each other,” says Audrey.
“In a world where there isn't much hope right now, hope for a Green New Deal and a better future is still alive, especially because we originally got the New Deal right after the Great Depression,” Amalia says.
Another issue these young women and the students they work with face is the judgment of older generations. Even within Sunrise, which is very much a youth movement filled with young adults (in other words, anyone under 35 years old), there are still conversations surrounding the treatment of the younger members. One aspect of the movement places importance on anti–oppression training for staff, which dives into recognizing and correcting behavior that can be harmful to young people.
As one of the youngest members on staff, Audrey notices how she may find herself doubting her decisions or “maybe [feeling] scared to talk if [she's] with people who are a lot older than [she is]," or more experienced.
The generation battle is real in our society, as Audrey says, "The ways in which older people tell us that we have no agency over our own lives ... I think that's something that is really important to be constantly fighting against, as we are empowering and working with middle and high schoolers, because in everything that they do, they're also running up against adults [saying], 'You don't have enough experience for this, just go back to school.'"
Amalia added that these young students are the future of Sunrise. She admits that, with only ten years to solve the climate crisis, Sunrise is at a pivotal point. "The middle and high schoolers who we're training now are going to be leading all of these movements—not saying that they aren't doing that already,” she says.
While Audrey and Amalia may not be in Philly for long, the work they are doing right now just blocks from Penn's campus is so important. Their support for the work of young students in Sunrise may have lasting effects on the future of the movement in the city and nation.
“It's a rush that you get whenever you're at an in–person event, or standing in [a] training room," Audrey says, as her eyes light up. "We're [chanting], 'I believe that we will win ... I believe that we will win' ... You have 50 teenagers screaming this, and it honestly does feel like we will.”