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Varshini Prakash: Combining political power with people power

Co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement that has organized events from a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office to the Global Climate Strike, and one of 2019 Times 100 Next’s emerging global leaders, Varshini Prakash is a climate activist worth talking about.

Prakash’s interest in climate change activism bloomed early when she watched a video of the 2004 tsunami striking Chennai, India as a sixth-grader. She felt helpless and donated food cans to the Red Cross in an attempt to help. In high school, she felt further enraged by climate change-related issues such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Activism was the perfect outlet for her rage, and she would become heavily involved in it during her time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst).

Brusky, Joe. “XL Dissent Organizer Varshini Prakash Addresses Gathered Crowd.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 3 Mar. 2014,

“I realized I couldn’t wait to get involved. I had to be part of the solution. When I got to UMass, I found people like me, who were frustrated on a variety of issues, whether it's about labor or racial justice or climate and environment,” Prakash says in a video about her on UMass Amherst’s youtube channel. During her time at UMass, she ran a campaign along with others to divest from fossil fuels. During this, she spoke onstage during a rally for the first time. She’d never seen herself as a leader before and was shocked when offered the opportunity. “It tapped into something really deep inside of me,” she says in an article in Boston Magazine.

The Sunrise Movement, co-founded by Prakash and other like-minded individuals, staged a sit-in outside of Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018 to advocate for the Green New Deal, a plan that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and creates high-paying jobs. With the presence of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, this act garnered quite a bit of attention and “popularized the idea of a Green New Deal in American consciousness,” according to Prakash in Boston Magazine. The Sunrise movement also led the September 2019 Global Climate Strike, where millions of people around the world demanded action on climate change. “Sunrise was really an organization that was combining political power with people power,” says Prakash in UMass’s youtube video.

Prakash’s incredible achievements have earned her quite a few awards and accolades. She was a co-recipient of the 2019 Sierra Club John Muir Award, and the recipient of the 2021 Sam Rose ’58 and Julie Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism. She was also appointed as an advisor to Joe Biden’s Climate task force in 2020.

“There was something people used to say at the beginning of Sunrise all the time, that people come for the cause but they stay for the community. And I have found that to absolutely be true,” says Prakash with a smile in UMass’s youtube video.

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