Dallas Climate Activists Won a Major Investment in Green Transit. We Can All Learn From Their Fight.

A free public transportation campaign in Dallas is a model for success as Sunrise builds its new Green New Deal for Schools campaign.

Matthew Miles Goodrich

After campaigning for a year, Sunrisers and allies celebrate during a Free DART for Students Victory Party hosted at the Movement House, a community gathering space in Old East Dallas. Photo by Jed Ullrich

During an oppressive heatwave that had been boiling Texas with weeks of triple-digit heat over the summer, Dallas received news that felt like a cool breeze under the haze of wildfire skies. Sunrise Dallas — a local chapter of the youth-led climate movement I helped start in 2017announced a victory in their year-long campaign: Starting January 2024, Dallas students in grades six through 12 can ride Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) for free as part of the upcoming pilot program.

Free public transit for students might seem like a retreat from the heights of trillion-dollar investments imagined by the boldest ambitions of the Green New Deal, a climate proposal that Sunrise popularized as massive public spending in clean energy from the federal government rooted in racial and economic justice. But it’s precisely because of the need for mass organizing that the climate movement is moving, in the words of civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, from protest to politics.”

After decades of aborted attempts, last summer the U.S. finally passed federal climate legislation thanks to groups like Sunrise protesting at every opportunity to put the Green New Deal in the national spotlight. Our efforts were rewarded when the Chips and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act — two bills that make massive investments to fight climate change — were passed last August. These aren’t the full check for the Green New Deal, but they represent a down payment on an economy that invests in clean air and good jobs. And more recently, on September 28, Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act, which would invest $1.6 trillion in school systems across the country if passed. This landmark legislation was created due in no small part to young organizers like the ones in Sunrise Dallas. It is the young people who are leading us. It is the Sunrise Movement who are leading us. The Sunrise Movement made it very clear five years ago that we needed a Green New Deal,” said Markey during a press conference on the proposed legislation.

 After decades of aborted attempts, last summer the U.S. finally passed federal climate legislation thanks to groups like Sunrise protesting at every opportunity to put the Green New Deal in the national spotlight.

After decades of aborted attempts, last summer the U.S. finally passed federal climate legislation thanks to groups like Sunrise protesting at every opportunity to put the Green New Deal in the national spotlight. Our efforts were rewarded when the Chips and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act — two bills that make massive investments to fight climate change — were passed last August. These aren’t the full check for the Green New Deal, but they represent a down payment on an economy that invests in clean air and good jobs. And more recently, on September 28, Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act, which would invest $1.6 trillion in school systems across the country if passed. This landmark legislation was created due in no small part to young organizers like the ones in Sunrise Dallas. It is the young people who are leading us. It is the Sunrise Movement who are leading us. The Sunrise Movement made it very clear five years ago that we needed a Green New Deal,” said Markey during a press conference on the proposed legislation. 

And the momentum continues. This fall, youth at 50 high schools across the country are launching their own campaigns as part of Sunrise’s new Green New Deal for Schools initiative, which includes a push to equip public schools with clean energy and provide students with electric buses, green union jobs, free healthy lunches, climate crisis education and much more. As Sunrisers gear up for the work ahead, there’s a lot to be learned from Dallas about the importance of mass organizing and constituency building. 

Back in May 2022, the Dallas City Council resolved 14-1 to begin preliminary discussions” on a free public transit program for students. But the vote looked like an empty gesture to organizers on the ground. There was no continuous push, no accountability to follow through” from public officials, Chris Gomez, 23, a leader in Sunrise Dallas told me. At one DART board meeting, the CEO of the public transit agency summed up the lack of urgency she felt to make the free-fare program a reality by saying, This is not my highest priority.” 

Real change would have to come from below. A few months later, Sunrise Dallas launched their campaign to make DART rides free for Dallas students. 

It wasn’t until the campaign started to employ punchier tactics—like disrupting proceedings—that they saw movement.

Despite the city council’s vote, the campaign seemed like an uphill battle. After the first four or five months, I was pretty hopeless,” Love says. 

It wasn’t until the campaign started to employ punchier tactics — like disrupting proceedings — that they saw movement. Feeling stonewalled, the young organizers made a plan to break the stalemate by disrupting a DART board meeting with a chant. After one member stood up to exclaim Free DART for students!” 20 others followed. The young people brought the proceedings to a standstill. 

Eventually, they identified allies among city councilors and school district trustees. When a key decision maker on the DART board reached out to them to offer support, Love says, That’s when I knew we got this.” The organizers made climate action a winning issue by rooting it in the material reality of life for working people in Dallas. You’d be surprised at how much money you can spend as a parent who utilizes the DART system,” says Love. That’s money we need to feed our children for the month.”

The Dallas ridership program wouldn’t have happened without a disciplined, organized bloc of young people calling on leaders to put their money where their mouth is. As organizers have discovered, it’s one thing to endorse an idea like the Green New Deal. It’s another to make it real. 

That’s a major lesson that Sunrise Dallas took away from their campaign — and why members of Sunrise across the country are engaging in campaigns modeled after the success in Dallas. 

It’s also a lesson the national punditry would do well to heed. There’s a loose faction of President Biden’s coalition impatient to unleash the productive capacity of the state to build our way to clean energy dominance. I’m all for building new green infrastructure with government intervention, but technocratic liberals too often discount the value of mass organizing to build a sustainable constituency that’s in favor of Green New Deal policies.

As campaigners in Dallas experienced, political leaders can make the right votes with the right intentions but to zero effect. It took an organized bloc of young people showing up to public transit board meetings for a year, giving impassioned speeches and eventually disrupting proceedings to get results. As Love told me, free public transit for her kids is a huge milestone for the community.” It’s a decarbonization win that is going to impact people’s lives.”

Investing in public services in this country necessarily requires change. Change requires power. And power, as Sunrise Dallas shows, is won through protest as well as politics.

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Matthew Miles Goodrich is a writer and organizer. He helped launch the Sunrise Movement in 2017 and currently serves as development director.

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