On the Rise: Naomi Hollard and climate advocacy at Columbia

(Elisabetta Diorio)

(Elisabetta Diorio)

“So, who wants to read the first principle?”

Every Sunrise Columbia/Barnard general body meeting starts the same way. Naomi Hollard, the club’s president, asks for a volunteer to read the first of Sunrise’s eleven guiding principles. The room is momentarily quiet but eventually someone raises a shy hand.

“You got this!” Hollard says encouragingly. “We are a movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

Hollard’s infectious energy snakes its way through Hamilton 503. By the eleventh principle, “We shine bright. Changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process, and we let that show,” everyone in the room is clapping in support.

“Hope and perseverance is the only way we can start righting this wrong.”

At a recent meeting of Sunrise, the climate advocacy group that Hollard established in January of 2019, one member seemed anxious and reticent. The club was organizing for their upcoming Youth Climate Strike, slated for March 15th. Sunrise is planning a strike and rally in support of the Green New Deal. One member kept bringing up reasons that the strike would fail. Hollard was unfazed.

After the meeting, she sent him a Facebook message: “Hope and perseverance is the only way we can start righting this wrong.”

Hollard’s friend and fellow Sunrise organizer Colleen Schmidt described her as having “exactly the kind of personality that draws people together.” A transfer student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she is used to doing a lot of work in a short period of time, having had to fit the Core’s demanding requirements into just two years. At Columbia, she studies neuroscience and behavior.

When she’s not busy organizing college students or being one herself, Hollard is a musician. She plays flute under the name Nomez and is about to release her first EP. Classically trained, Hollard currently plays jazz in an ensemble on campus as well as performing her own compositions, mixing what she calls “avant-garde jazz fusion” with more traditional melodies.

It is this same innovative spirit that led Hollard to start a climate advocacy organization on campus.

She decided to found a Sunrise hub at Columbia last November after seeing a viral video of students occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office in support of the Green New Deal, a set of proposals aimed to convert America’s economy to renewable energy. Columbia Democrats, colloquially known as Dems, had recently formed a climate action group. Hollard’s first idea was a project to get all the halal carts on Broadway to use recyclable plastic bags.

Realizing the halal project would be an uphill battle with limited results, Hollard decided to think bigger. She wanted to get involved in the national climate movement. Seeing all those students sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s office, something clicked. Sunrise is unique in that it focuses specifically on getting the corrupt influence of the fossil fuel industry out of politics by seeking electoral change. The inclusive, visionary ideology of Sunrise attracted Hollard.

“Sunrise is a movement that lifts up all people. I am a person of color and I know that in our country black people are treated really poorly,” Hollard said. “For me, Sunrise represents hope. It is so well organized and it has this insane energy.”

(Elisabetta Diorio)

(Elisabetta Diorio)

Nationally, Sunrise is a lean organization. Principle seven states, “Any group of 3 people can take action in the name of Sunrise. We ask for advice — not permission — from each other to make this happen.”

Sunrise refers to groups taking action in their name as ‘hubs.’ Hollard’s friend Colleen saw the Nancy Pelosi video as well and immediately thought of Hollard. The two friends, plus a member of Columbia Dems, made three and officially established the Sunrise Columbia/Barnard hub.

“I messaged like a hundred people and three came,” Hollard said. “It was amazing.”

Founding a new club at Columbia is an administrative hassle, so Sunrise Columbia/Barnard is technically the climate action wing of Columbia Dems. Dems recently created a number of working groups to support students pursuing various political goals and they function autonomously. Sunrise was ready to organize.

For her first event, Hollard decided to follow the model of previous Sunrise actions visit the office of New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s office, encouraging him to support the Green New Deal.

“I messaged like a hundred people and three came,” Hollard said. “It was amazing.”

The group went to Nadler’s midtown office with signs and posters, imploring him to co-sponsor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution in the House. Back in November, the GND was mainly a rallying call in progressive circles. In early February, Ocasio-Cortez introduced a codified version of the proposal in a non-binding House resolution. Many Representatives, including Nadler, have since become co-sponsors.

After that initial trip to Nadler’s office, Hollard spent her winter break planning the hub’s future actions. The first general body meeting was on January 27th and over forty people showed up to the stuffy Potluck dorm basement. The meeting lasted nearly two hours.

(Elza Bouhassira)

(Elza Bouhassira)

At the beginning of the meeting, Hollard asked everyone to turn to their neighbor, introduce themselves, and talk about how climate change has affected them. She laid out Sunrise’s national advocacy campaign and how the Columbia hub would contribute. The room buzzed.

Elizabeth Love, a Columbia College freshman from Utah who will lead the hub next year, noted that “Hollard has an incredible ability to motivate an entire room of people. She makes every single person feel valued and welcome and she doesn’t waste any time.”

Hollard cared about the environment from a young age. In 7th grade, a property developer planned to cut down the mulberry forest near her house. Hollard started a petition asking every student in her class to urge the company not to kill the forest. While unsuccessful, this early experience gave Hollard the organizing bug.

At the University of Madison, she honed her skills working with a non-profit called Learning Enterprises, which recruits English speaking volunteers. After teaching English in Panama for two months, Hollard became a program leader.

When I asked Hollard what she thinks makes her a good leader, she shrugged.

“People are generally really excited when I give them the Sunrise speech.” Laughing, she added “I guess I am fairly energetic.”

Over the course of the Spring semester, Sunrise Columbia organized trips to the offices of New York Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to encourage them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal. Through these actions and the weekly meetings, Sunrise developed a core membership and grew its social media presence.

For the past month, Sunrise has focused almost exclusively on organizing for the March 15th strike. Club members have relentlessly reached out to students across the city. They have spent hours flyering and canvassing all over Columbia and Barnard’s campuses and messaged hundreds of friends and classmates.

Hollard recruited a diverse range of speakers for the rally. One, Alex Loznak, is plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit suing the U.S. government for violating young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by taking actions that cause climate change. Isobel Plowright, an organizer with Columbia’s graduate workers strike, is another. Of course, Hollard herself will speak.

The club’s hard work seems to be paying off. At the March 7th general body meeting, Hollard made a few exciting announcements. Presidential Candidate and Governor of Washington Jay Inslee is coming to speak at the rally. MTV and NBC are both sending film crews. The National Geographic show “Years of Living Dangerously” will be filming as well.  

One club member asked Hollard what he should tell people when asked why Columbia students are striking. “We need large, systemic change,” Hollard responded. “How many years do we have?”

“Eleven!” someone replied.

“We need large, systemic change,” Hollard responded. “How many years do we have?”

“Eleven!” someone replied.

The individual was referring to the report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which claims that the planet will likely warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030. If global temperatures rise above that threshold the IPCC predicts drastic changes in day-to-day life.

Hollard emphasized that the strike had nothing to do with Columbia University. The strike utilizes Columbia’s public space but the goal is national. “Our leaders are not taking this seriously,” she said. “No more bullshit. We want our politicians to take climate action.”

(Elza Bouhassira)

(Elza Bouhassira)

At the March 7th meeting, there was a man sitting towards the back of the room who looked a little too old to be a college student. Jonathan Kirsch works with New York City’s Sunrise hub and has been involved with the organization since its inception in 2016. He was there to support Hollard and to see how the strike planning was progressing.  

“When people ask me questions about the strike, I direct them to Sunrise Columbia,” Kirsch said. “I feel like this event is going to be the biggest one of the morning. I trust you guys. I trust Naomi. I trust the Club.”

Kirsch described the relationship between Sunrise Columbia/Barnard and Sunrise NYC as supportive but deferential. Sunrise thrives off of initiative and John was merely there to offer experience and encouragement.

“Sunrise Columbia is a big hub,” he continued. “In some ways it rivals the New York City hub in terms of involvement.”

Any student would acknowledge that starting a club at Columbia is tough. Students are notoriously stressed and overloaded by a relentless combination of academic assignments and extracurricular commitments. But Friday’s climate strike is projected to draw at least 500 attendees, potentially more.

“She is charismatic with huge ideas and has this zany magnetism, while also being able to sit down, be meticulous, and work out the gritty logistical details”

Of course, students are especially concerned about the threat posed by climate change. But so much of Sunrise’s success is due to Hollard.

“She is rare in that she is charismatic with huge ideas and has this zany magnetism, while also being able to sit down, be meticulous, and work out the gritty logistical details of the organization,” said Love, who has taken on a large role in the strike organizing.

“Most people aren’t able to do and be all those things at once.”

Nora Salitan is on the Action Committee of Sunrise Columbia/Barnard.

CultureNora Salitan