In this special two-part interview, youth climate organizer Danielle Platt shares stories of hope, courage, inspiration, and the stirring yet sobering experience of getting out the vote in recent US elections.
The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[Anna:] What have you, and the organizations that you’re a part of, been able to accomplish— despite the pandemic, or maybe even because of it?
[Danielle:] I would say that a lot of our organizing actually sped up and became more effective, in some ways, because ultimately the digital space is more accessible to more people.
What we’ve seen since March is more movements taking more of a digital action approach to recruiting and organizing; we’ve seen more pressure being applied to political representatives and being applied to movements that are supporting candidates, speaking specifically with regards to the election; and we’ve seen more people get more involved in the movement, because at the end of the day, the conditions that we’re facing are a result of decades of climate, environmental, police legal, and civil rights mismanagement.
[Anna:] What’s been a project that you’ve been a part of that has helped you become part of the solution?
[Danielle:] Since March I’ve cofounded my own organization, hope.xyz, with a group of developers and activists and organizers, from all over the world, to grow our use of crowd-sourced visual storytelling.
We basically ask people who are a part of a movement space, who are concerned with a particular issue, to record short sort-of selfie videos of themselves talking about why particular issues are important to them; why they support a particular candidate; why a movement space, to them, is really important.
With several local campaigns, we were able to use these stories, and use this digital medium, to create campaign ads for campaigns that didn’t have a ton of digital resources, didn’t have a ton of digital media content.
[Anna:] And, you got them wins.
[Danielle:] We got them wins! We are extremely excited. If you’re interested in checking that out, check out the Jovanka Beckles for AC Transit Ward One campaign and Propositions I and K in San Francisco campaigns. Housing for all! Social housing! We finally have a charter, we have a chance. It’s really exciting!
[Anna:] What made you want to work on this campaign in particular, around housing justice? I’m curious to know if and how that connects to your journey of climate or environmental activism. When did it start for you?
[Danielle:] I grew up in a pretty rural corner of the world, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, kind of a pristine pure childhood. I really loved the natural world. The first time my parents took me to San Francisco, to go to a children’s museum, that was the first time I saw what poverty looks like. The first time I saw a homeless person.
I was so young, but I remember feeling like this, this sickening feeling in my stomach of like, “Wait— the world isn’t green and lush and people have enough food to eat? And people having their resources provided for them?” Why are there homeless people? I kept on asking myself this question, over and over and over, throughout the course of my childhood. I was asking teachers, family members, and even my rabbi.
[Anna:] Sounds like you were a very curious kid. How would your parents react?
I’m grateful to have two incredible parents. My mom and my dad are still together. They’re in their late 60s and early 70s, both are children of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for having such compassion for me as a child, with all the questions that I have, and always encouraging me to ask the tough questions, and to be a little annoying sometimes, because you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to achieve, or challenge the structures that you want to challenge, without asking the right questions.
And they were always, and still to this day are, so accepting and so receptive of my more radical beliefs. They’re not even that radical to them, though, because they’re 80s hippies, which I also really respect.
[Anna:] When would you say that curiosity paid off? When did you know you wanted to become an activist?
[Danielle:] I took an environmental science course in AP Environmental Science when I was in my final year of high school. That’s when my understanding of structural inequality, really, really hit. Certain ecosystems, certain areas where resources can be found, are exploitable for profit, and that type of exploitation and disposability that we apply to the natural world also applies to human communities.
I wanted to spend my energy and my life organizing in a space that focuses on rectifying environmental injustice, because environmental injustice impacts our planet and it impacts our people.
The first movement that I’ve organized with is Sunrise Movement— ending the climate crisis, creating millions of good jobs in the process, reframing the climate crisis into something that can be solved, rather than something that’s this terrifying anathema of injustices that can never actually be taken on. Let alone be taken on by the youth.
[Anna:] What was your first exposure to Sunrise like, and what made you want to join?
[Danielle:] I saw a few contacts of mine had RSVP’d and reposted something about an open meeting with Sunrise Movement, and I was like, “This looks cool… I don’t know what it is, but I guess I’m gonna go.” It happened to be half a block from the office building where I was working at the time.
I walked into a room with maybe 40-50 super excited, super attractive young people, some of them wearing the same jacket, with the same logo of Sunrise Movement, and I’m getting some university vibes. I’m missing this, I like this.
The organizers launched into the meeting talking about what Sunrise Movement is and what they do, and how they were planning a sit-in at Dianne Feinstein’s office later that week to pressure her to sign on to and endorse the Green New Deal initiative, which had recently been proposed in the House, and a similar bill had been proposed in the Senate.
I was immediately super intellectually, super turned on, and super excited, and volunteered to come help and set up this event on Friday morning at 7am before work. It turns out that this sit-in became the video that we’d see across all of the Internet.
[Sunrise Movement and other youth climate activists, in Senator Feinstein’s office: “We’re here asking you to vote yes on the resolution for the Green New Deal.” Senator Feinstein responds: “That resolution will not pass the Senate. No way to pay for it.”]
When that video came out, I realized this was the space I wanted to be: young people speaking truth to power, challenging authority, and doing so unapologetically. That’s incredible work, and it’s really inspiring to see people in our generation— folks younger than me, too; I’m currently 25, I was 23 at the time.
Things sort of fell together from there. I started attending meetings and trainings, became familiar with the bread and butter of this movement. I started the [Sunrise] Political Team in the Bay Area for working on local, regional, and statewide electoral and policy initiatives.
Personally, I find the California Green New Deal, as a piece of legislation, and as a concept, really compelling and over the last couple years, I’ve worked in my role at Sunrise to advance the California Green New Deal goals, and will be continuing to work on these goals in this 2021 legislative session.
[Anna:] Speaking of climate policy and California, last fall we experienced some of the worst wildfires in recorded history. I remember the Sunrise Movement went up to Sacramento to protest at a Trump rally. What was that like?
[Danielle:] Wild! That was a day, that was a day. This Trump rally was happening because Trump was visiting Gavin Newsom, as a federal show of solidarity with the state of California and also to make a media show. Air Force One came in and there were huge cheers from this crowd of Trump supporters, and there we were, this small contingent of climate activists.
There were probably no more than 20 of us holding a couple banners and a couple signs and being laughed at and jeered at by these crowds of people literally wearing Trump flags, wearing Confederate flags as capes. We have some really interesting videos on Instagram of people berating us.
[Danielle, speaking on a live Instagram video:] For those who have just joined us, we, Sunrise Bay Area and Sunrise Chico, are here at the airbase in Sacramento— [interrupted by unintelligible yelling in the background]— looks like we have a Trump supporter. We’re here to protest Trump, given he’s arriving in Sac momentarily, and to protest his participation in the climate crisis and for exacerbating the climate crisis. We’ll be here all morning.
[Sunrise activists singing in the background:] Fossil fuels are paying you, does it weigh on you at all.
We made a show about what we were about, highlighting the hypocrisy of the federal government, and also by being there we were able to challenge the narrative that Gavin Newsom is actually doing anything on climate. He has primarily staked his policy response to the climate crisis on getting more electric vehicles on California’s roads, which is a wonderful endeavor, but it’s canceled out by the continuation of oil extraction, which ultimately contributes to the climate crisis.
We really took a meaningful stand against the dystopic state of affairs that we were living in and that we are living in. We gave a lot of speeches to our small crowd and the counter-protesters, which were also there, joined our contingent. We got some really incredible stories out of that day, and we got a lot of really meaningful press coverage.
[Anna:] How would you suggest new people get involved in the movement?
I think that relational organizing, which means talking to someone who’s involved in a movement space who can invite you in, is probably the best way to participate in the movement space or get involved. If you are interested in any of these organizations, which really are speaking truth to power, which are trying to challenge the status quo, and that are getting meaningful legislation passed, join us!
Check out sunrisemovement.org; check out hope.xyz; feel free to email me directly! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and I love bringing people into the movement. And at the end of the day, it takes all of us. It takes every single person who is even remotely interested, or remotely concerned about the current political and environmental state of affairs, to be involved. Come say hi!
[Anna:] Welcome back, Danielle!
[Danielle:] Thanks again for asking me to continue the conversation after Georgia. I’m excited to share some of my thoughts. I’m still processing the experience that I had, and processing some of the indications and signs I saw of systemic racism.
One of the reasons why we had a runoff election at all is racist policies which have historically disenfranchised primarily black voters, but other lower-income voters and voters of color. I worked with an organization called Seed the Vote, which works with different organizations locally on the ground to provide more hands-on personnel support to do meaningful voter outreach, that actually shifts elections. (I also had the privilege of working with the same organization, when I went to do voter outreach and get out the vote work in Arizona. We also flipped the Senate in Arizona.)
We moved around to a couple of different voting areas around the greater Atlanta area, and we were primarily working in historically lower-income communities, which were also in this case communities of color. I noticed it was far harder to reach people, compared to whiter, wealthier areas that we had been canvassing in a few days earlier, and it makes sense when I think about it.
Ultimately, a lot of whiter, wealthier members of the Georgia constituency, they’re not frontline workers. They work from home. They were really easy to talk to. They were really easy to access. They were mostly home at the time that we wanted to talk to them. They were willing to talk to us. They have the emotional energy necessary to have a meaningful conversation about politics.
A lot of folks in the lower-income communities that we were canvassing, a lot of folks weren’t home. A lot of folks clearly were working pretty long hours. Many folks were actually asleep. They had worked the night shift. And they simply didn’t want to talk to us. They were very annoyed, understandably, because these are target outreach populations that have not voted historically, because of voter suppression.
These people have just been inundated by voting information to the point of exhaustion. The entire country was concentrated on a single state— er, a single voting district. That’s how intense it was. People getting 10 calls a day, not to mention the number of texts they were getting.
Another element that comes to mind is the actual procedure of voting itself. There’s a lot of really complicated voting information that is made deliberately complicated to keep people from voting. I noticed that a lot of the folks that we talked to in historically marginalized communities, they had some of the information, but they may not have had all that information.
Whereas historically privileged communities, they had all the information. Most of them had early voted weeks in advance. They didn’t need any of the information that we were providing. What that indicates to me is that an element of voter suppression isn’t just the infrastructure that’s provided to vote safely, effectively, but it’s also the information around that voting infrastructure.
If that information around how to vote is complicated, a lot of people, especially people working 16-hour shifts, and caring for a couple kids, they’re not going to be able to take the time to process all this information. This information was changing on a week-to-week basis, I might add.
It makes me realize just how far we have to go. The future of the country, the future of climate legislation, of climate justice, came down to a single state— a couple thousand votes in that state.
We need to make meaningful huge investments to protect communities, to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, to truly invest in green energy. We finally have the first opportunity to go in that direction, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but we do have Jon Osoff and Raphael Warnock, who are huge climate leaders, who truly represent members of their community and constituents of their state, and want to create meaningful social and economic change for people across the country, and that means climate legislation too.
[Anna:] I feel like we haven’t been able to feel this excited or hopeful in a long time and it’s a beautiful thing. I want to hear about a particular experience that you had talking with a voter or someone who wouldn’t have considered themselves a voter in Georgia.
[Danielle:] Well first of all, I want to react to what you said about the sense of hope right now. In my lifetime— and I just turned 26 years old— I haven’t really felt a great sense of hope around climate. I’ve had a sense of optimism sometimes, I’ve felt a sense of camaraderie and community, but not really hope. It seems like that’s way too far out, unrealistic. I don’t want to set up my expectations too high and be let down.
There were several really meaningful conversations that we had with voters and it’s really amazing, the process of canvassing. Honestly, from the numbers perspective, from the outset, it looks really dumb. You have these people coming from all over Georgia, and all over the country (I came from California), going door to door. We’re only usually able to talk to the right person that we’re supposed to be talking to, like, one out of 30, 40, 50 doors.
There were many times that I got the right person but the person had just cut their finger, or they were in the middle of dinner, or they said “I’ve been called 5 times today by voter outreach people, get out of my face!”
It almost seems silly that we’re doing this work and that there is such a well-established network of organizations trying to get people to participate in get-out-the-vote work on the ground. Yet, that is the single most important way, the single most effective way, to help people get out of the space of voter misinformation— of doubt in the ability of a single vote to make a difference.
There are two situations that I want to talk about.
One, I talked to a guy around my age, who’s 25. He works two jobs, one a minimum wage job. The minimum wage, I believe, is around seven dollars in Georgia. The tipped wage hovers around $2.70. It’s disgusting!
I talked to John and I was like, “Hey! Are you thinking of voting?”
He said, “No, I don’t really plan on voting. I’m not really political.”
“Well, tell me what’s important to you. I came from California because climate change is really important to me.”
“I don’t know, again, I’m not really political.”
“Wages? Minimum wage? Imagine if you were— stay with me here, I know this is ridiculous— what if you didn’t have to work two jobs? What if you weren’t paid a tipped wage of $2.70? What if you were paid a wage of $15 an hour?”
His eyes just kind of popped. It was so clear that he had never had this conversation with anyone. This is sort of the conversation around voter suppression going deep; it affects the psyche.
It’s not just that voting places are far away or that someone doesn’t have a car. It also goes deep into our own view of what voting means and what voting can give us. It was clear that this young man had never actually considered the possibility of a better life, and had resigned himself to an experience of consistent hard labor with no real returns. When I suggested that a Democratic Senate would actually mean that he can make 15 bucks an hour, work 40 hours a week like a normal person, and then coming home to hang out with his family, he was shocked by that.
We also talked about immigration, and his family has experienced immigration challenges and fears around immigration and ICE detaining members of the family. When I talked about that, he was, like, “Wait, that’s something that can be changed? It’s not just status quo?”
It was amazing, and within the hour, I actually drove him myself to the polling place and guided him through the process because he had never voted before and he was really scared about the experience, he thought he would do something wrong.
Another really amazing scenario was with an older gentleman, an immigrant from the Caribbean. He’d lived in the United States for 30, 40 years. He was aware of voting, but he felt so dissatisfied and disillusioned and angry at the political system for leading us to where we are.
So I say, “Hey, wait, what’s important to you? I know you say, you’re saying that politics is dumb, politics can’t be changed. But, the two people who are running, they want to change things, and I know that because one is the child of refugee immigrants, Jon Osoff, and one is a long-standing member of the Georgia community, Reverend Raphael Warnock. And they stand for change in a lot of different ways. What is important to you?”
And he pauses. It’s clear he doesn’t know how to respond, ‘cause I don’t think anyone had really asked him that question before. We get into talking about the representatives of Congress, who do represent their people, who don’t represent corporate interests. We talk about AOC. We talk about Rashida Tlaib. We talk about Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley, about Bernie. These two people will make it so that AOC doesn’t have to lose her voice shouting on the House floor because no one will listen to her. Electing these two people enables AOC to actually do her job. We love her. Imagine if everything that AOC, and the squad, and Bernie and Ed Markey stand for actually could be accomplished, and he just started tearing up.
It’s personal! Politics is personal! And he starts talking about the things that are important to him. He’s tired of government money going to fund insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and funding billions of dollars to the military each year while his family struggles to put food on the table. He’s sick of the cost of living skyrocketing. He’s sick of not making enough money.
Finally, that was the moment. That was the moment that he recognized that voting was important and that voting could actually make an impact. He went to vote on election day and actually he’s been texting me about an organization that he’s working with and that he wants to work on financial literacy for the immigrant population of Georgia.
If there hadn’t been all of these organizations— New Georgia Project, Fair Fight, Seed the Vote, Sunrise— working together to make sure that all of these voters were spoken to, I know that we wouldn’t have the Senate majority.
This is only the beginning, because Trumpism isn’t ending anytime soon, and there are going to be a lot of continued barriers. I do have a lot of hope for the direction of the country at this point. This is a numbers game and we do have the numbers that we need in order to get some shit done. But, in some ways this also feels like a fluke.
This feels like we got very lucky in this election and that if we don’t keep this momentum, we’re going to end up in the exact same place as we did in 2016 in just a few years. Because the challenges against us aren’t going away. The challenges that brought us here to the point where we live in such a divided society that can’t agree on anything because we’ve been deliberately divided for the basis of corporate profit aren’t going away. That’s sort of a wake up call for me, and I think it is for a lot of people.
[Anna:] Complacency is not an option.
[Danielle:] Absolutely not. And it’s tempting. I know there are a lot of white liberals — especially older, white liberals— who just want to return to normalcy. I’m sorry Brenda but that’s not an option. Insert white lady name here. Sorry, Karen! Exactly, and like it sounds funny, but in reality, we [need to] find a way to sustainably organize white people, because allyship goes beyond just voting for the right people.
[Anna:] Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today Danielle, and for all your work with Sunrise and with the Get Out the Vote campaigns in Georgia, flipping the Senate blue!
[Danielle:] Woohoo! Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to see what happens next in the next coming months. It’s gonna be a wild ride! But you know what? We’re doing it in community. It could be worse.