Young People Organize to Bring Environmental Justice to Michigan

There’s a new movement in Michigan posing a challenge to candidates for public office: reject campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies.

So far, 15 candidates in Michigan and more than 300 nationally have taken that pledge, according to Will Lawrence, 27, the lead organizer of Sunrise Movement in Michigan. The effort is expected to pick up substantially this year prior to the primary and general elections.

“The mission of Sunrise is to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs for our generation in the process. Our methods largely revolve around making climate change and environmental justice more pressing issues in our community and making these things matter in our politics, starting with the 2018 mid-term election,” Lawrence said.

Sunrise Movement formed from a group of young people who had been involved in organizing around climate change, he said, especially on issues like the Keystone Pipeline, Dakota Access Pipeline and university divestment campaigns from fossil fuels.

Lawrence said his organization wants to exceed 100 candidates in Michigan taking the no fossil fuels pledge by the November election.

“In 2016, we felt we as a movement that we missed a few opportunities,” he said.

This year, the organization has shifted its focus to involve more young people while also trying to merge with efforts of the “hard-nosed political organizations” to ensure environmentally focused candidates are elected up and down the ballot, from local races all the way to the White House, he said.

“We’re focused on young people aged 14-35 and we are volunteer-powered. We are designed to create volunteer opportunities at every turn. We believe that social movements succeed when they create opportunities for people to participate, whether they want to participate with half an hour over the internet or 50 hours in person,” Lawrence said. “We see ourselves as a social movement, and I think that is something which distinguishes us (from other environmental groups) as well.”

As to why the focus is so heavy on that age group, Lawrence said there are multiple reasons. Not only is the millennial and Generation Z voting bloc now the largest in America, but also, Lawrence said, “young people have been at the forefront of most of the formative change in our country’s history, and we believe we’re at the forefront of efforts to live right with our environment today.”

He also said young people have a “moral sense” that has yet to be dismantled by society.

“They believe things not only should change, but that they must change, they can change, and they will change,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said Sunrise Movement Michigan’s main focus this summer will be a “Sunrise Fellowship” in which 15-to-18 people work and live together for the election season, likely in Lansing and another location in the state. There will also be plenty of volunteer opportunities to either help get candidates to take the no-fossil-fuel pledge, register voters, and more.

The Sunrise Movement’s specific policy issues are available on their website. Those interested in joining the organization can contact Lawrence.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson