Jessica Diaz ‘21 and Troy Distelrath ‘22 of Sunrise MSU

Name: Jessica Diaz

Major: Fisheries and Wildlife

Year: Senior

Hometown: Houston, TX

Position: Hub Leader and Communications Lead

 

Name: Troy Distelrath

Major: Comparative Cultures and Politics, Social Relations and Policy

Minor: Jewish Studies and Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy

Year: Junior

Hometown: Saint Clair, MI

Position: Hub Coordinator

 

What is Sunrise MSU?

Troy: We are a group of MSU students and Lansing community members who are fighting for candidates and policies that will bring an end to the climate crisis and create millions of dignified jobs through weekly meetings, where we plan direct actions, electoral campaigns and other ways to reach out to partner groups and the rest of the community at large.

Jessica: We really work across movements, so we’re always working with different partner groups. Recently, we did the dreaMSU co-training [event] and we’re always partnering with other movements to get our vision of a livable future for all a reality here at MSU, in all of Michigan and nationally.

Why did you join?

Jessica: I joined because Sunrise was really the only environmental organization that I had seen that wasn’t just fighting for wildlife or for plants. They were really taking into consideration environmental racism and all of these other aspects of the environment that affect humans. I grew up in a frontline community in Houston. [I] had been a victim of environmental racism. I didn’t really see any other activism in environmental [organizations] fighting for my community while simultaneously fighting for the environment, so that’s really why I joined.

Troy: For me, I was sitting in my dorm room all alone one summer day and was concerned about something that the current occupant in the White House had done and some climate related news that was happening. I thought about my childhood and growing up in Saint Clair, MI — a working class town with almost exclusively white residents — and seeing the examples throughout my childhood that the structures of power my parents had taught me about were right.

 I had family members and loved ones that lost their homes or their jobs in the recession. We saw a city in our own state poisoned by their water in the name of fiscal responsibility. We had a fraudulent war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. All of those were showing me that the people that bear the greatest burdens of poor leadership and corrupt leadership are those that did the least to bring about that devastation in the first place. I think the climate crisis, because it happens on a global scale and impacts every single one of us, is perhaps the greatest example of this moral problem that the world has ever seen.

What’s the most important aspect of Sunrise to you?

Troy: What’s really important about Sunrise to me is the family that it’s given me. This has been a very challenging year and a half, especially this calendar year. I’ve always cared about issues like the climate crisis, issues of oppression and the need for liberation. I’ve always been passionate about them, but I had never directly taken action in a way that made me feel empowered. I think what’s most important about Sunrise is that it puts you around a family of people that you grow close to and who help empower you to feel that you actually can make a difference on the issues of oppression that you care about.

Jessica: I love how Sunrise brings us all together on [these] shared values. For me, our core DNA, which is our principals and what really grounds our movement, is really important. For example, one of them is that we tell our stories and we honor each other’s stories, and that has to be one of my favourite principles. Stories just let us connect to each other, especially in our leadership team, along with other hubs or even with general hub members. Stories allow us to understand each other and build that community. I know that Troy and I, for example, have become very close just by hearing each other's stories, whether that be about frustrations with political leaders or just “How’s your day going? Tell me your daily story,” and I think that helps bring us all together and really know that we’re there for each other no matter what. 

This is super important especially when we’re doing escalated actions, like for example when I was arrested. I know that I would not have done that, especially as a person of colour, if I didn’t feel supported or didn’t trust my fellow Sunrisers. 

For context, last year, Senator Gary Peters signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, but ended up taking fossil fuel money a few days later. We had meetings with his staff, tried to engage in discussions with him about the climate crisis and environmental racism, and him and his office didn’t want to understand that we’re fighting for our lives and that they need to take action. We decided that we’re going to take this to his office and in December 2019, and we did a sit-in. We told stories about why the climate crisis was so important and why we needed Senator Peters to step up and take action to stop the climate crisis and to make sure we have a livable future. Some of us decided that we were just going to stay there and no matter what happens, we’re not leaving. The deal was, if they call the cops on us, then we’re arrested because to us, our future is more valuable and matters more to us than something on our record. Myself and three others stayed there, but in the end only two of us got arrested. They kept trying to make us leave [they called the cops, who tried to get us out] and finally they said “Okay, since you aren’t leaving, we’re going to arrest you.” As my hands were behind my back in the handcuffs, Nicholas was looking at me, the other person getting arrested, and he told me something like “Jessica, you’re strong, you’re doing good things for our future,” and at that moment, I knew everything was going to be okay. No matter what happens, [we] have people on the outside ready to bail us out, ready to fight for us if anything happened, and I’m just super thankful for that.

Troy: I was there to bail Jessica out that night because my job that day had been to be the action lead and lead out the team of non-arrestables. I think it might be my favorite moment in the movement. When we got back to Shelby’s house, we were just in community together in a circle recapping this really horrifying, scary, heart-racing thing we had just done, but we were together again and we had pulled it off, something that took so much planning. As we sat there in community, that was when all of these people became family to me.

How important is this election for the Sunrise Movement?

Troy: This election and really every election through this decade is crucial. It’s not the end-all be-all as we can never rely on electoralism alone to solve the problems that electoralism alone has gotten us into, but we do face a very stark choice between a party that does not believe in human-made warming and its problems, and a party that is willing to commit trillions of dollars towards meaningful solutions, although they will have to be pushed further to do things to make sure we have a livable future. 

We have a choice between the ability to live another day and a really crushing blow because every day matters as we expend more of our carbon budget. Four more years of inaction or worsening action, like propping up oil lobbyists as the head of the EPA, is gonna be disastrous. The presidential election alone has high enough stakes, but there are so many opportunities this cycle for us to add more Green New Deal champions to Congress, to add more young, progressive voices to our state Houses and Assemblies, to our local city councils and school boards. Voting is not just about the presidency, no matter how important that role is. This election is important at every level because the more voices of reason and the more voices willing to take on the fossil fuel industry we have, the better off we’re going to be.

Jessica: I second everything Troy said. I think it’s not just about voting and what the outcome is on election day —  it’s about what we do after election day because no matter who gets elected, even though one of the candidates is so much better for our future, we still have insecure air and water. I think for me it’s really what we do after this election that’s crucial and what will set the stage for the next decade.

Troy: No matter what, we are fighting for our lives — it’s that simple. It just so happens that one side happens to show the potential to at times listen when pushed, and one side is immovable. Regardless of the outcome, we are going to need to take to the streets to get the type of change we want because no politician on their own does the bidding of what’s popular. It takes movements to push them in that direction.

Jessica: I think something else to remember is that the Democratic system that we have right now was founded on racism, homophobia, all of these other -isms, and that ultimately our goal is to transition to a new society where we can all truly have a say. This election is just a means to get to the end, not the ultimate goal.

If you could tell every student one thing regarding the election and Sunrise, what would it be?

Troy: I know things are very hard right now. We are all feeling the stress and anxiety brought on by everything that’s going on in the world right now and the isolation that many of us feel, but with whatever capacity you have, use these next few weeks to protect our democracy and to plan to protect it after the election. I think that there would be nothing worse than for all of the young people out there, which together make up ~40% of voters, to look back in mid-November and realize we could’ve done more to protect people that are less privileged than us.

Jessica: If you can vote, go out and vote. Do your research on who is going to be the best for whatever goal you want to get, such as clean air or clean water. Who are you going to be able to hold more accountable in the future to reach those [goals] of a livable life? Not everyone can vote, so when you vote, even if it feels like you aren’t doing a lot, you’re voting for other people’s lives. It’s not just about you. If you ever need a community just to rant to or want to get involved in more electoral things or even take action after the election, Sunrise is here. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had any sort of experience, I know I didn’t when I joined Sunrise. Everyone is welcome to join.

Troy: Sunrise by design was made for young people and new people to organize, and we have a structure in place to teach you how to organize, to make you feel at home and in community with others, and to empower you, to make you feel you have stake in our democracy — because you do.

Sunrise MSU meets over Zoom every Tuesday night from 7-8 p.m, (EST). All are welcome, whether you’re an MSU student, new to organizing or an undergrad or grad student. For more information, go to bit.ly/SUNMSUGEN or https://linktr.ee/sunrisespartans.