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The Sunrise Movement and TikTok: an Interview with Wiley Smith

by Alia Schreiber-Goldstein

[originally published spring 2020]


Is TikTok a valuable social media platform, you may ask? My answer is yes and no. No, because of the ridiculous number of videos of teenagers with too much time on their hands lip-synching to bad pop music. And yes, because of the limited number of videos on more, let’s say... important, interesting, and thought provoking issues such as political discourse and environmental justice.

Now, let me remind you that times are indeed changing.

There is a rising urgency to lessen the impact of global warming. Yes, I said it, global warming is indeed a phenomenon that will affect the future of our planet… you, me, and the rest of humankind. As a result, environmental organizations are emerging across the United States as a means to protect and replenish the environment.

The Sunrise Movement is among these environmental organizations. It is made up of young people fighting for the Green New Deal, a series of progressive policy proposals aimed at combating climate change. Wiley Smith, a College second-year, has been a part of the Sunrise Movement for the past year and plays an imperative role in their national social media presence.

Smith became invested in environmental activism at a young age because of the environmental issues they witnessed growing up in Rockingham County, New Hampshire. Smith recounts that “My mother would never let us drink tap water. I always thought she was being paranoid until kids in town started getting diagnosed and there were two funerals at my brother’s elementary school.” Rockingham County had the highest rate of pediatric cancer in the country. Local environmental groups suspect this is a result of water contamination from the nearby Air Force base.

Last year, Smith got involved in the Sunrise Oberlin hub, a branch of the organization at Oberlin College. They were encouraged to take part in the group by Dan Kennedy, a friend in their Environment and Society course. Kennedy started the Sunrise hub at Oberlin, and continues to hold a leadership position in the organization. Although the Sunrise Movement has only existed for two and a half years, it has around 300 hubs in the United States. The movement continues to expand as hubs arise across the country in towns and cities, universities, middle schools, and high schools.

This past summer, Smith had a fellowship with the Sunrise Movement based in Philadelphia, where they worked as the national social media manager. This position involved forty to sixty hours of work per week creating social media content for the group across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. They attended numerous protests for the organization, live-tweeting or livestreaming the events. After the summer ended, they continued working for their social media team.

Last month, Sunrise created a TikTok account. Smith says, “It started mostly as a joke between me and my boss, but then we saw that we were effectively reaching new middle and high schoolers.” Soon, a couple videos went viral, reaching over 100,000 views. In one video, Smith asks the audience, “Ladies, is your man tall, older, and wants to pay off your student loans? Then I am sorry to break it to you, but that’s not your man… that’s presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.” This clip is especially important to the organization’s TikTok page because it is their official endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. At the end of the video, a photograph of Sanders waving to a crowded auditorium appears behind Smith. In another video, they pokes fun at the Iowa caucus app. They jokingly say, “I think it’s like everyone understanding that we all have different priorities. And like working is just not my top priority.” At the end of the video they sip from their Starbucks cup as a means of commenting on the facetious behavior of those involved with the Iowa caucus app.

I would say that Smith makes TikTok a valuable social media platform. They discuss environmental justice on a predominantly political level on the Sunrise TikTok account as a means to encourage others to take action.

If you... yes, I said YOU (no pressure) would like to become involved in the Sunrise Movement, just like Smith, either through the Oberlin hub or in your home town, check out the organization online and take part. You may not be able to change the world yourself, but you can at least help a little.

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