On May 10, as a pounding Spring rain eased to an intermittent sun-dappled drizzle, New Orleans’s Young PinStripe Brass Band played a supercharged fanfare of “We Got the Funk” to spur the first steps of the roughly 400-mile trek from the Superdome to Houston, Texas. Five activists from the Sunrise Movement, ages 17 to 31, are marching in support of the passage of a major jobs component of the Green New Deal. At a clip of 10 miles per day along their walkable route, the group is making stops to learn from locals in impacted communities about topics such as the depletion of Louisiana’s crawfish population, and to engage with laborers at petrochemical plants in “Cancer Alley” about dignified employment that does not require forsaking one’s values, health and family life in exchange for a paycheck.
Sunrise, a national youth-led climate movement formed in 2017, is demanding a $10 trillion investment over the next 10 years to mitigate against climate catastrophe. The trek’s route mirrors the journey of trekker Chanté Davis, whose family relocated to Houston after Hurricane Katrina when she was just 2 years old. Looking forward, scientists in the U.S. anticipate the Gulf South will be the U.S. region hit hardest by sea rise, ever fiercer storms and alarmingly hotter temperatures by century’s end. The trekkers say their lives have already been blighted by climate displacement, downward mobility and the specter of a terrifying and chaotic climate future. They want Congress to pass a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) bill, an idea already floated by President Joe Biden “to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers … and address the changing climate.”
While candidate Biden received an ‘F’ from Sunrise for his retrograde positions on climate policy, comments by President Biden at the signing of his January 27 executive order suggesting a Civilian Climate Corps — “When I think of climate change … I think of jobs.” — along with similar expressions during his April climate summit indicate to the Sunrise activists that their core message is being taken seriously in the White House. Of the multiple bills introduced in Congress, they’re hoping for the passage of whichever ultimately contains the maximum monetary investment and the maximum focus on racial and economic justice.
Here are the stories of the organizers marching to Houston to demand a future in which their generation can survive and thrive.
Joshua Benitez, 31, says even before the pandemic, his existence in the Big Easy has been anything but. He has experienced life as a teenage Katrina refugee, a starving and often unhoused college student, an exploited service industry worker and an under-compensated musical performer. After racking up student debt in order to graduate from college, $12-an-hour jobs awaited him. He’s sustained serious injuries while working as a bicycle taxi driver toting tourists around the French Quarter for six years. Benitez was denied health care when former Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to allow Medicaid expansion in Louisiana. “Ultimately that led to me having a chronic disease that could have been prevented,” he says. Without the financial stability offered by his partner, he wouldn’t be able to keep living in an increasingly costly New Orleans.
“A lot of that is climate gentrification,” Benitez says. “Rich companies are buying up properties in the neighborhoods on higher ground, pushing people out. They’re literally banking on the city flooding again.”
He dreads the flood to come. On day 5, the group marched along the levee in Laplace, Louisiana, carrying the Sunrise flag through the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which they learned was opened a historic number of times in the last few years.
“They open the spillway if they’re worried about the levee being compromised,” Benitez explains. “Opening it several times in the past years is an extremely loud, glaring warning that the waters are getting higher, staying higher longer and getting high more often. We’re looking at some really dangerous circumstances.”
His generation is now demanding both a healthy planet and a decent way to make a living. Benitez says his resistance is grounded, in part, in a desire for healing.
“To continually put us in this situation that causes so much harm and trauma, that we don’t even have a moment to heal from…. I just pray for a day, a single day, that I don’t have to worry about something,” Benitez says.
Javier Enriquez, 26, panicked at age 10 when he saw Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, but was able to calm himself by saying the adults would not allow the planet to fall apart.
“But then with the 2016 election,” he says, “I was like, the adults aren’t doing much about it.” That’s when he looked inward and decided to get involved in the climate justice movement.
“We should be tackling the climate crisis with the amount of power that we put into our military,” he says, noting that, “we spend more money creating destruction than health care, nutritional programs, community resilience and getting ready for the next hurricane.”
The pandemic concept of “essential worker” is not new to Enriquez. He has always thought of his grandmother who worked as a school janitor in exactly that way.
“There were jokes made about her, but my grandma was crucial to the operations there. I want those jobs to be revered,” Enriquez says. “We need a culture shift, not just a policy shift.”
A cultural shift away from meat consumption would reduce methane emissions and deforestation to produce grain feed, he notes.
Enriquez and a friend started a vegan corn dog truck in Dallas: They saved some money and financed the bulk of the approximately $50,000 it takes to open a food truck business with commercial loans. The Corn Dog Guy has since catered events for pop stars Erykah Badu and John Legend. After the Sunrise trek concludes, the food truck will resume operations.
The business qualified for about $5,000 of funds under a Small Business Administration program, which helped, but looking back, Enriquez thinks it was a lot of debt for a couple of 22-year-olds to have to take on.
“It’s why I support the CCC,” he says. “It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.”
For 24-year-old Rogelio Meixueiro, the trek to Houston feels like a continuation of his parents’ journey from southern Mexico.
“My mother walked here to have me,” he explains about his family’s migration to the U.S. from Oaxaca. “It’s like a little kid in the sand when your parents are walking ahead of you on the beach. You walk in their steps, picking up their steps.”
Meixueiro helped co-found the Sunrise hub in Dallas (along with fellow trekkers Javier Enriquez and Hope Endrenyi) to “make sure there was someone representing the immigrant community, and that people would know the environmental movement also has immigrants, some who are themselves environmental refugees especially those from Honduras and Nicaragua who are fleeing drought.”
“If we do nothing, it’s a future I’m scared of for sure,” Meixueiro says, “people starving and dying. We’re going to see war, people killing just to survive.”
Meixueiro studies environmental science with a special interest in sustainable agriculture and waste management, and before the pandemic was also working full-time as a server.
“There’s been times when I get home and I park and I can’t even move — I stay there in the car, I’m so exhausted,” he says. “We just want an education. It’s not radical. Like Nina Turner says, ‘It’s right on time.’”
Through Latin X Dallas, Meixueiro is involved in mutual aid, distributing rescued produce and cooking meals every Saturday for 100 to 300 community members. But during February’s winter freeze that busted pipes and plunged whole swaths of Texas into darkness, members connected people whose houses needed repair with plumbers and electricians, raising donations to pay them. They designed and disseminated infographics in Spanish publicizing the locations of warming centers.
“How is it that a bunch of high school and college students can do the work that federal and local officials are not doing?” Meixueiro says. “[The officials] have the power but they are choosing not to use it.”
Meanwhile, after two years of performing in the Broadway, Chicago and California casts of Hamilton, Hope Endrenyi, 27, stepped off the theatrical boards and out of an itinerant lifestyle in search of an activist home where she could put down roots. Sunrise attracted her in part because of its storytelling strategy.
“We often talk about the story of me, why I’m here. The story of us, our community, who we are. And the story of now — what’s the situation, why is it urgent, why does it matter?” she explains.
Part of Endrenyi’s “story of me” is her Hungarian political heritage. Her paternal grandfather escaped the Soviet occupation by slipping across the border and walking to France.
She views the trek as a tactic both evocative of iconic marches in civil rights history and as the physicalization of the movement’s aspirations. “We want a mass of people marching towards a goal,” she says, and doesn’t see a fight for “transformational economic change” as likely to be won by petitions or the usual methods.
“When a system has been established for so long, and the people are used to things being a certain way for so long, I think society needs high sacrifice, high-risk actions from people who really care,” Endrenyi says. “If you aren’t faced with this thing in a new and fresh and interesting way, it’s really easy to let things carry on ‘as normal.’”
Chanté Davis, 17, says her family in Houston endured the winter freeze by grabbing all the covers and piling together for body heat — “like sardines in a can.”
Davis’s passion lies with the marine world. She was stopped cold by the sight of the beach in Galveston, Texas, covered with dead fish and remembers thinking, “This is not right. We need to clean up our mess.” Her epiphany led her to join her school’s climate strike in 2019 and then to organize with Sunrise, where she feels “loved and supported.”
Her long-term professional goal is to be a shark and ray conversationist, to confront illegal finning and help restore balance. “Sharks are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because they are an apex predator,” she explains. “If they’re not thriving, invasive species can take over.”
The active 2020 hurricane season alarmed her, as did the unpredictability of the storms that found meteorologists playing a game of “guess and tell.”
“It was a perfect example of how much control we don’t have anymore, and how climate change is affecting these hurricanes,” she says. “They were like, this one might form, then it would form, then, don’t worry, it’s gonna be a tropical depression. In Lake Charles, they still have tarps covering their houses.”
Davis hopes the trek will aid Biden in remembering his political debt to the young canvassers who helped bring him to power, and that a just Civilian Climate Corps bill will be enacted.
“Before the pandemic, right now would’ve been all about prom,” Davis says. “But now students are like ‘I don’t care about prom, we need a livable future!’”
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