At age 24, Brian Gómez (CECD ’18) is taking action on climate change with Sunrise Movement, a national nonprofit that has positioned itself among the strongest advocates for a Green New Deal. What is exceptional—aside from the rapid pace at which the organization has grown in just a couple of years—is that the people who are steering the movement are all under the age of 35, with a majority under age 30.
On the cusp of 24, Brian Gómez (CECD ’18) is taking action on climate change with Sunrise Movement, a national nonprofit that has positioned itself among the strongest advocates for a Green New Deal. What is exceptional—aside from the rapid pace at which the organization has grown in just a couple of years—is that the people who are steering the movement are all under the age of 35, with a majority under age 30.
“It’s really exciting,” says Gómez, finance and operations manager for Sunrise Movement. “It definitely has a startup sort of energy in that [so many] of these people are in their 20s and it’s growing really, really quickly.”
Gómez was born in Mexico City and raised in the West Lawn neighborhood of Chicago. Calm and reserved, with an air of maturity beyond his years, he admits that as a child he was not connected to the environment or the climate. This changed when he was a teenager.
“In high school I got involved at Shedd Aquarium and I did a ton of their programs where we would go around the Midwest to a lot of the forest preserves,” he says. “We went up to Minnesota and did kayaking, which was really cool. I think through that I got really connected to the environment.”
He majored in social and economic development policy at Illinois Tech and after graduation, worked as an operations fellow for the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest environmental organizations. It was around that time that he first heard about Sunrise. Its mission: to activate young volunteers across the country around the issue of climate change, training them on how to make their voices heard at the local, state, and national level.
Gómez began volunteering there in 2018 and participated in his first event that December, joining 200 other young activists from across the country on Capitol Hill for a sit-in at the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. The group’s members—dressed in black and yellow T-shirts and carrying signs with Green New Deal and Sunrise messaging—demanded congressional action on a Green New Deal, an ambitious set of policy proposals they co-authored aimed at addressing climate change.
Among Sunrise’s strongest allies in the fight for a Green New Deal is U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who joined Sunrise members for their Capitol Hill sit-in. Then, on February 7, 2019, she and U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts announced a congressional resolution for a Green New Deal. The resolution went on to be rejected by the U.S. Senate that year.
“A lot of Sunrise’s tactics are very intense—things like sit-ins and calling out politicians.” Gómez says. “People get arrested at some of these things. Part of it is because we’ve seen generations in the past try to affect change and it’s really hard.
“A lot of Sunrise’s tactics are very intense—things like sit-ins and calling out politicians.”—Brian Gómez
Especially with how politics is set up, it’s hard to get things done. With this newer generation, we’re being very direct and going in.”
News coverage of the sit-in led to an abrupt surge in donations to the organization: its income grew from $850,000 in 2018 to $4.6 million in 2019, with a projection of around $15 million for 2020. In response to the rapid revenue growth, Sunrise has opened additional offices in New York City and Philadelphia, and recently secured a shared space in Chicago’s Loop. Its team has expanded from 16 to 104 employees. Gómez was also hired on full-time in his managerial role in August 2019.
“I knew [Sunrise was] growing really fast, and a lot of cool things were happening. But I also knew that there were a lot of operational things that could be done—because it was a new organization and growing so fast,” Gómez explains. “I was excited to dive into the work to help them and see how I could make Sunrise more efficient and operationally sound.”
Gómez helps Sunrise support its base of more than 300 volunteer-led activist “hubs,” or chapters, across the country. He also helps coordinate regional events. Sunrise Movement co-founder Will Lawrence calls him “a backbone” of the organization.
“The operational work that Brian does—building better systems for us to allocate resources, tracking budgets—isn't the most glamorous or visible work in the movement, but I can attest that Brian makes everything else run smoothly,” Lawrence says.
Julia Epstein, an organizing operations manager with Sunrise based in Washington, D.C., works on the same team as Gómez. She describes him as being not only dedicated but also a fun colleague, with his commitment to uncovering Starbucks coffee shops and taquerias in each new city he visits.
“Brian lives in Chicago, but it feels like every time I have a phone call or meeting with him, he’s somewhere else in the country…” she says. “He deeply cares and wants to invest in young leaders and communities. He puts in a lot of work to take care of people and build relationships around trust and equity.”
Sunrise has only continued to increase its prominence in the national debate on climate change, inspiring CNN to hold a climate-focused town hall event with several democratic presidential candidates last September and endorsing U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for president this past January.
“Climate change will affect everyone and will having lasting impacts,” Gómez says. “There’s never been a climate organization of young people that has gotten so big and changed the debate on climate. I think it really shows that young people can organize and build something and it can be successful.”