Kidus Girma is an organizer with Sunrise Movement Dallas, the local hub of a national youth-led movement fighting against climate change. In recent weeks, organizers with Sunrise Dallas have taken part in a 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston, during which they highlighted petrochemical pollution in Louisiana’s infamous “Cancer Alley.” A protest outside the Houston home of Sen. Ted Cruz followed the march. Girma was among a handful of activists arrested.
The idea was to put pressure on national leaders, including President Joe Biden, and to draw public attention to an issue that affects everybody.
“Whether we’re talking about housing, or labor, or food security, it all comes back to the well-being and health of our environment. Sunrise dreams at the scale of the solution–the scale of the crisis,” Girma says. “Just look at the last week of climate disasters in the U.S. At this point it’s almost not news, whether we’re talking about the wildfires on the West Coast and Arizona and Utah, or the heat dome [in the Pacific Northwest.]”
Sunrise is also pushing for action here at home, urging elected officials in Dallas to prepare the city for a changing climate and adopt more robust environmental policies. And Girma hopes to see more North Texans get involved at every level. “The world, at least environmentally, is going to get really, really difficult,” he says. “It already is really, really difficult. And it’s only going to get better if folks organize.”
I talked to Girma this week, a couple days before the Sunrise Movement Dallas was set to protest outside the Irving headquarters of Exxon Mobil. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
A lot of people see climate change as a national or global issue, and it is, but Sunrise Dallas has also tried to push the City Council here to action. Why is that? What can city leaders and local government accomplish when it comes to climate change?
When the Texas freeze happened, we were talking to City Council members. And they were talking about the buses going around so that folks could get heat. And in that conversation, they would always say, ‘This is an issue for ERCOT, and the state, and maybe the federal government could do something. But this is not a local issue. All we can do is try to get people warm [right now].’ And it was just so fundamentally not true. When we talk about energy use and energy consumption, we have to talk about building code. Because it’s not just a matter of how much energy can be pumped into the grid system. It’s also how we use it.
So the city of Dallas could make the decision to require heat pumps [a sort of air conditioner with a relatively low carbon cost] in all new construction. It could decide to create subsidies for more efficient homes so that buildings can be upgraded. So the next time ERCOT says you need to lower your energy consumption–that’s not just an issue of why oil and gas, particularly natural gas and coal, is failing. It’s also the question of: Why do we have building codes and local policy that doesn’t actually meet the demands of our very rapidly changing world? Sunrise is building out a local coalition to focus on policies that Dallas City Council could pass, including things like heat pumps, upgraded electrical grid systems, and better subsidies.
Tell me about how you plan to advocate for some of these kinds of local solutions you’re talking about.
I think the first thing is just getting [City Council members] to understand how much flexibility and power they have to change what the city of Dallas looks like when it comes to environmental policy. Another component is connecting with other organizations in the area, making sure that folks are at the same table. The next step is getting the public engaged. For us, direct actions are always on the table. After that, it’s electoral organizing. We’d like to have our hands in everything. And we want public officials to know that our hands are in everything.
Were you part of the group that marched from New Orleans to Houston? How did that go?
That was really hot. Marching 400 miles is a lot easier to say than to do. It was six weeks of toil and blisters. And also engaging with local communities along the way. Along the way, we got to connect with communities and highlight stories that meant a lot to us. One of the places we stopped in was St. James Parish, in Louisiana, it’s in Cancer Alley. It’s a predominantly Black community that over the last couple years has been fighting a petrochemical facility that’s going to be built in their community.
President Biden had on the campaign trail talked about Cancer Alley and how he’s going to put people first. He has the ability to not give [the chemical plant] the permit. But since he came into office, he hasn’t pulled the plug on it. Politicians will tell you what they think you want to hear. You have to continuously push them to actually follow through on their word.
You’re probably not going to change the mind of somebody like Ted Cruz. [Girma was among a handful of activists arrested protesting outside Sen. Ted Cruz’s house in Houston last month.] So what’s the value of protesting at the home of a specific politician?
The point of any direct action is not to actually move whoever your target is, the point is always to move the public. We’re not necessarily trying to get [politicians] to move three steps to the left. Of course that’s always part of the goal. A few weeks ago we protested outside Sen. [Chuck] Schumer’s office in Midtown. And now he’s actively talking about creating a Civilian Climate Corps. But our goal is always long-term. We’re trying to change what is politically possible in the U.S., and that’s not a politician thing. That’s a people thing.
How old are you?
I’m actually old for Sunrise. I’m 26.
OK, but that’s still young. You’re a young person. Sunrise is a youth-led movement. You have high schoolers, you have a lot of very young people. Why has climate activism engaged so many young people?
If you look at any movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, or the farm workers or Chicano rights movement, it’s always young people. Once the books get written, we kind of forget that bit. There’s nothing really shocking about movements being built on young people’s shoulders. The world, at least environmentally, is going to get really, really difficult. It already is really, really difficult. And it’s only going to get better if folks organize.